The Great Books Marginalized Under Common Core

There’s no disputing the fact that Common Core dramatically reduces the emphasis on classical literature in English language arts classrooms. The issue isn’t that Common Core precludes the teaching of great books. Of course it doesn’t. To be fair, text exemplars (“sample texts to guide educators”) posted on the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s website feature plenty of rich literary works (by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Steinbeck). But make no mistake: great literary works  have lost their once-preeminent status in English classrooms.

As DPI notes in a  press release detailing Common Core’s impact on English language arts in North Carolina:

Information texts will be very important. Informational texts can include everything from newspapers to computer manuals – all the types of reading material that adults use in their day-to-day lives and in workplaces. Novels and other types of literature will continue to be important, but other kinds of texts will make up about half of the texts that students read and use.

What might that look like? Judging from text exemplars, it might mean that students in grades 6 through 8 will spend as much time reading about “the evolution of the grocery bag” as they do reading poetry by William Butler Yeats.

Some may maintain that Common Core merely provides guidelines. But criteria for publishers and curriculum developers, written by Common Core architects David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, are clear. In grades 3-5, they write, “Achieving the appropriate balance between literary and informational text in the next generation of materials requires a significant shift in early literacy materials and instructional time so that scientific and historical text are given the same time and weight as literary text.” Grades 6-12 also include “substantially more literary nonfiction” and “historical, scientific, or other documents written for a broad audience.”

Many experts bemoan this approach — as unsupported by research, and as a perfect way to turn kids off reading. Sandra Stotsky, featured elsewhere on this blog, has enumerated her many concerns. Joanne Yatvin, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, wrote in Education Week of Mr. Coleman and Ms. Pimentel’s criteria: “I saw…the intent to redefine the purpose of K-12 education and to control its curriculum and methods.”

In a recent New York Daily News editorial, Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University (and a member of the English Language Arts “Feedback Committee” for the Council of Chief State School Officers, which helped lead the Common Core effort) laments the way New York City is implementing Common Core standards in English Language Arts:

…There is now very good reason to worry that the coming of the Common Core may produce a widespread deemphasis and devaluation of some of the greatest books ever written in the English language.

Of New York City’s high school units of study in ELA, Bauerlein notes:

…In all these materials, only three literary works appear — “Romeo and Juliet,” T.S. Eliot’s haunting poem “The Hollow Men” and a short poem about Gandhi by Langston Hughes. Meanwhile, the site offers units on DNA and crime detection, “vertical farming,” digital media, European imperialism, great speeches and two on the civil rights movement…Even when a topic is disposed to abundant and superb literary works, the Education Department has failed to include them…This is not what the architects and contributors had in mind when they crafted the ELA standards. The push for informational texts was not supposed to displace outstanding literary texts.

…Curriculum designers at the agency are interpreting the new English standards in exactly the direction critics warned of last year. With the exception of the “Romeo and Juliet” unit, they apparently envision English as a social studies class, not a language and literature class. And the Common Core itself does not contain enough machinery to restrain them.

I’ll leave you with Professor Bauerlein’s ending salvo: “Literature is not a second-class subject. It ought to be at the very center of a high-quality public education.”

This article was posted in Blog by Kristen Blair on July 23, 2013 at 12:38 pm.

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