(Guest Post by Sandra Stotsky)
In June 2010, the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) offered the nation two sets of English language arts standards: one set called “college and career readiness anchor standards,” and the other, grade-level standards that build towards these anchor standards. With few exceptions, both sets of standards consist of content-empty and culture-free generic skills. Why are they so bereft of substantive content? In large part because they reflect a faulty diagnosis of why many American students are unprepared for authentic college-level work. The misdiagnosis comes from CCSSI’s reliance on the results of ACT surveys to guide the development of its standards.
Several years ago, ACT surveyed thousands of post-secondary instructors to find out what they saw as the chief problems in their freshman students. Not surprisingly, the chief complaint was that high school graduates cannot understand the college texts they are assigned to read. Without an explanation for its reasoning, ACT leaped to two conclusions: (1) college students are not expected to read enough complex texts when they are in high school; and (2) they are not given enough instruction in strategies or skills for reading complex texts in high school.
However, ACT’s survey did not (nor could it) show that most college students had not been assigned complex texts to read when they were in high school. Nor did it (or could it) show that more instruction in comprehension strategies or skills when in high school would have helped them to read complex texts then or later, in college. With much greater justification, ACT might have conjectured that inappropriate teaching methods, an incoherent and undemanding high school literature and reading curriculum, poor study habits, and/or perhaps an unwillingness to put in much time reading or studying on a regular basis were contributing to high school graduates’ inability to read their college texts. But ACT did not consider any of these quite reasonable hypotheses.
Nor did CCSSI question the validity or logic of ACT’s two unwarranted conclusions. Instead, it went one step further: it concluded that English teachers should be chiefly responsible for assigning nonfiction or informational texts, regardless of subject area, and for teaching students how to read them. Yes, it admitted that teachers of other subjects had a responsibility to assign and teach students how to read texts in their disciplines. But it still placed the major burden on English teachers: over 50% of what they assign should be nonfiction or informational texts.
The national sales pitch seems to be that the use of Common Core’s ELA standards will increase the number of high school graduates who can read the texts their college instructors assign. It is more likely that college instructors will find themselves compelled, for the sake of survival, to adopt texts at the middle and high school level of difficulty in order to ensure that the “college-ready” students our high schools will now be required to graduate (according to proposed US Department of Education regulations) can read what is assigned in college. So long as “college-ready” high school students must be placed in post-secondary credit-bearing freshman courses (another USDE requirement), their instructors (at least those who want to keep their jobs) will want to do whatever is necessary to enable these students to pass their college freshman courses.
Is it really the case that English teachers over-emphasize literary texts to the exclusion (or near-exclusion) of nonfiction? In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English’s own widely criticized “standards,” issued in the mid-1990s, revealed a strong de-emphasis on literary study even then. Many English teachers, often urged on by their own professional journals, began to downgrade literary study on their own several decades ago, assigning their students more non-literary reading, such as diaries, family chronicles, newspaper articles, biographies, and autobiographies, on the grounds that students needed more exposure to a greater diversity of nonfiction genres. Diversity in nonfiction genres is quite visible in major literature anthologies.
This trend—increasingly less time on imaginative literature in the high school English class—was confirmed by the surveys used in two reports completed in 2010: Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey and its Arkansas counterpart, Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11 in Arkansas. These two research projects found that high school English teachers spend much less time on literary study in 2010 than they did 40 years ago, according to the last national study published by the National Council of Teachers of English on this question. By requiring English teachers to spend over 50% of their reading instructional time on informational reading, not literary reading, CCSSI’s ELA standards will drastically accelerate a decline that has been taking place for almost half a century.
Nor is it the case that English teachers do not give students instruction in reading nonfiction. In both Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey and its Arkansas counterpart, teachers report giving students instruction in reading nonfiction or informational texts and indicate that they draw on a range of approaches. The problem is that they mostly prefer the wrong kind of instruction. Teachers surveyed in both studies prefer non-analytical approaches (such as reader response or contextual approaches) to the study of literature and nonfiction. Students may well be asked to think “critically” about the texts they are assigned, but their critical thinking is unlikely to be based on a careful analysis of what is in them.
What changes are parents apt to see in English language arts classrooms as states implement Common Core’s ELA standards?
- Teachers assigning more informational reading—over 50% required by ELA standards alone—and less imaginative literature for children or secondary students.
- Teachers using lower quality texts because there are fewer high quality informational texts available at each grade level—and very few that are relevant to what is being taught in other subjects.
- Teachers giving more reading comprehension exercises to practice skills-based standards.
- Teachers giving shorter reading selections to accommodate the enormous amount of required summary writing in Common Core’s standards.
- Teachers doing less vocabulary study because Common Core’s 6-12 vocabulary standards are weak, misleading, or uninterpretable.
- Teachers giving inappropriate grammar lessons; they may be useful to English Language Learners but many make no sense for native English-speaking children.
Common Core’s ELA standards assume that if English teachers are compelled to assign a lot of informational texts, students will learn how to read them. They won’t if these teachers don’t teach close, analytical reading. Moreover, students may not find them as enjoyable to read as a good story, novel, or play and may want to read even less than they now do. Nor is it at all clear that if English teachers assign high school students a variety of informational texts with no necessary substantive connection to what is being taught in other subject areas, students will acquire the vocabulary and content knowledge they need for authentic college work.