Blog: The Educated Reporter

For Critics, the Common Core English Standards is Anything But Novel

For months, education experts critical of the Common Core have sounded the alarm over the standards’ push to feature more non-fiction reading at the expense—say detractors—of poetry and literature.

But yesterday’s article by Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post shined a new light on what the standards do and do not prescribe, putting into question just how much fiction is on the chopping block as districts gear up to have the standards fully implemented by 2014.

David Coleman, the architect of the English standards who now leads College Board, voiced concern in the Washington Post article that Common Core officials haven’t done enough to tamp down the anxieties of English teachers who worry their lesson plans will include fewer works of prose and verse:

The standards explicitly say that Shakespeare and classic American literature should be taught, said Coleman, who became president of the College Board in November. “It does really concern me that these facts are not as clear as they should be,” he said.

As the article notes, the English standards include a footnote on page five explaining the increased number of “informational” or nonfiction text is not limited to English classrooms and can be part of the curriculum of other subjects: “Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.”

Pushing back against that tack is Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor, who said in the WaPo story: “You have chemistry teachers, history teachers saying, ‘We’re not going to teach reading and writing, we have to teach our subject matter. That’s what you English teachers do.’ ”

But there are English teachers who side with Coleman and the standards’ emphasis on nonfiction. Writing in The New York Times last month, English teacher Sarah Mosle argues: “As an English teacher and writer who traffics in factual prose, I’m with Mr. Coleman. In my experience, students need more exposure to nonfiction, less to help with reading skills, but as a model for their own essays and expository writing.”

And who is Mr. Coleman, anyway? How did an Oxbridge graduate and McKinsey consultant with a love for Modernist verse and ancient exegeses on geometry sublimate his talents into the country’s most influential figure on what kids learn before they complete high school? Dana Goldstein’s September piece in The Atlantic has some of the answers:

After his Rhodes scholarship in England, Coleman was turned down for a job teaching public high school in New York. So he accepted a job at McKinsey that involved advising urban school districts. He went on to co-found the Grow Network, a company that sliced and diced standardized test scores for analysis during the rollout of No Child Left Behind (it was sold to McGraw-Hill in 2004). But Coleman felt an increasing desire to focus on what kids were actually learning. In 2007, with two partners, he launched the nonprofit consultancy Student Achievement Partners to promote national curriculum standards as a means to finally close the academic achievement gaps he had observed throughout his career, beginning in that New Haven classroom with the kids who weren’t ready for Yale.

Last year, firebrand education reform critic Suzan Ohanian attempted to pour water on Coleman’s credentials, opining whether he’s a “cuckoo bird let loose on a hapless bunch of educrats who don’t know how to voice dissent.” Her animus, shared by many wary of Coleman’s overhaul of what students should know in a globalized economy, is that he’s impressed the right people without ever working as a teacher:

Coleman insists that teachers must train students to be workers in the Global Economy. In his words, “It is rare in a working environment that someone says, “Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.” Translation to the classroom: No more primary grade essays about lost teeth or middle school essays about prepubescent angst. Instead, students must provide critical analysis of the “Allegory of the Cave” from Plato’s Republic, listed as an “exemplary informational text” in the Common Core State Standards for Language Arts.[3] If that’s judged as over the top for 12-year-olds, there’s always Ronald Reagan’s 1988 “Address to Students at Moscow State University.”

Nor are critics of the Common Core’s treatment of fiction united by politics. Jim Stergios, executive director of the right-leaning Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote in The Boston Globe in August that, “the more serious people look at it, the more Common Core is looking like an attempt to revive that merry-go-round of ed fads that have never worked in American education–and are best abandoned.”

In the same post, he borrowed heavily from another critic of the new standards, Will Fitzhugh, who founded what is likely the only quarterly journal that publishes essays on history by high school students: “The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context.”

And while Stergios runs an organization committed to small government and market solutions to public policy problems, Fitzhugh laments the pressure right-to work-states like Florida place on teachers who have 30 or more students: “I realized that if these teachers were to ask for the 20-page history research paper which is typical of the ones I publish in The Concord Review, they would have 3,600 pages to read, correct, and comment on when they were turned in, not to mention the extra hours guiding students through their research and writing efforts.”

While this is hardly news to anyone, the Common Core has made enemies on both sides of the aisle. Can reconciliation be found somewhere in the pages of Mark Twain or the Federalist Papers?