Today, as part of my series of blogs regarding the Common Core (“CC”) educational standards, I will address the impact for literature and reading. My focus will be on literature at the secondary school level. It is not easy to navigate the CC standards available here. Moreover, the information provided in the standards is often clouded in “educationeze.”
However, the intent of the new CC standards is for the readings to be approximately 50 percent literature, with another 50 percent in literary non-fiction. For most parents, “literary non-fiction” is an ambiguous term as there is no such section in any library. However, suggested readings are divided into “Literature: Stories, Drama, Poetry,” and (not just Literary Nonfiction but) “Informational Texts: Literary Nonfiction and Historical, Scientific, and Technical Texts,” available here.
The suggested literature includes Macbeth (the only suggested Shakespeare play or poem), The Great Gatsby, and The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (yes, really!). Of course, there is no excerpt from the Bible (the Bible is mentioned in passing in other sections on reading skills, as in students being able to recognize biblical and other allusions to ancient texts). And there is no suggested excerpt from Moby Dick, no Charles Dickens, no Stephen Crane, no Thomas Hardy, no James Joyce, no Edith Wharton, no Pearl Buck, no Victor Hugo, and none of other countless works of literature that have added to world culture, the knowledge of which has traditionally been an important part of the formation of an educated person.
With regard to “Informational Texts,” here are some (in my view) positive examples: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass, “Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat: Address to Parliament on May 13th, 1940” by Winston Churchill, “Gettysburg Address” by Abraham Lincoln, and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr.
However, the following are also a sample of suggested readings within the CC: Petroski, Henry, “The Evolution of the Grocery Bag”; California Invasive Plant Council, Invasive Plant Inventory; Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency/U.S. Department of Energy, Recommended Levels of Insulation (yes, really this is on the list!); FedViews by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (“yawn!”), and Fischetti, Mark, “Working Knowledge: Electronic Stability Control.” You will especially love reading these two favorites of mine: U.S. General Services Administration, Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management; and Gawande, Atul, “The Cost Conundrum: Health Care Costs in McAllen, Texas.”
Tellingly, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, Professor of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and a member of the CC Validation Committee, not only refused to sign off on the CC literature standards, but she has gone on to testify to state legislatures and school boards about the inadequacy of the CC literature standards. (You can read her comments and testimony here and here and as a download here. In her testimony before the South Carolina House Committee on Education, Professor Stotsky observed that the CC choice of novels for grades 9/10 are on average at a 5th grade readability level, and the novels used in grades 11/12 are at a readability level of 8th grade, with the exception of The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice. (Emphasis added.)
Of course, the suggested texts are merely “exemplars” for reading, and there is nothing to pique a child’s interest in reading and learning quite like GSA executive orders and inventories of invasive plant species. Who knows but these readings could foster the mind of a future Ernest Hemingway, or even a Deputy Assistant Undersecretary of Region V of the Environmental Protection Agency. But, in fact, such reading lists might also do the opposite. So, if you are homeschooling your children, and you haven’t been reading these texts, be forewarned: it might be difficult to grade successfully on an SAT if CC is fully implemented. So please continue to watch and pray, as our Lord taught us.