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The new curriculum mandates 70 per cent of texts as non-fiction. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
The new curriculum mandates 70 per cent of texts as non-fiction. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

Higher Learning

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When students graduate from high school, they assume their diploma means they are ready and fit for studies at the next level. But when they go to college, too many of them are unprepared for first-year work and they end up in remedial classes learning what they should have in Grade 11 or 12: In the United States, fully 50 per cent of two-year college students and 20 to 30 per cent of four-year college students.

There you have the rationale for Common Core , the K-12 education standards developed by researchers, officials, and teachers for math and English Language Arts that have been adopted by 45 U.S. states with support from the Obama Administration. To get young Americans college-ready, it charts for every grade from kindergarten to Grade 12 what knowledge and skills students should acquire. It sets thresholds of “text difficulty” so that readings challenge students and are not “dumbed down,” and multistate consortia are developing assessments to monitor students’ progress from grade to grade.

Such efforts inevitably spark controversy and threaten interests, but the hottest debate about Common Core isn’t about money, tests, or teachers. It’s about genres in high-school English. Common Core stipulates that 70 per cent of readings in all subjects be non-fiction, which may include history, science, memoirs, essays, op-eds, blogs, and other “informational” texts. That leaves 30 per cent for novels and short stories (and verse and drama). Common Core assigns that percentage for a simple reason. Most of the readings in college won’t be literary, so why not set the same proportion in high school?

Critics charge that the 70/30 breakdown will destroy the traditional English course. Yes, Common Core asks science, history, and civics teachers to handle most of the nonfiction reading, but literary educators worry that the burden will still hit English hard, forcing teachers to reduce the number and length of their literary offerings. After all, they have to teach grammar, writing, research skills, and speaking & listening, too. To them, it looks like the love that drove them into the field – they read Jane Eyre and The Great Gatsby with a great teacher and realized, “That’s what I want to do!” – has an ever smaller place in their practice.

The debate has found its way into the New York Times, the Washington Post , NPR, and other national venues, but at this point, it’s hard to say how much the fears are warranted. Diane Ravitch has summarized the uncertainty at her blog (dianeravitch.net), an important forum for teachers to discuss the impact of Common Core. Ravitch notes that “nothing in Common Core says there should be less literature,” and yet, as Common Core advances, “Several teachers said that in their school or district there was a strong mandate to cut back on the teaching of literature.”

How much is Common Core to blame, then, especially given that so many other forces have conspired against literary culture among the young, and consequently against the literary classroom, most obviously a multimedia diet that sets books ever farther down the ladder of youth preferences. Even at the higher education level, the English department has declined from its status 30 years ago as a flagship unit of any major institution to its current condition as a minor program, one that, nationally, collects only 3 to 4 per cent of bachelor’s degrees.

We should remember, too, that Common Core isn’t a curriculum, only a set of standards identifying what students must know and do. How instructors reach those goals – the works they assign, the tests they create, the paper topics, in sum, the curriculum – is up to local schools and teachers. In other words, the fate of the English class under Common Core all depends on the implementation, on how curriculum designers interpret the standards. We should understand the current debate as a continuation of a long-standing one between traditionalists who honour the literary canon from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Woolf and Ellison and people who want the English class to be more multicultural, multimedia, and contemporary.

Common Core’s expansion of informational text bolsters the latter group, but it contains enough classic literary content to fit the former, too. In fact, the standards supply traditionalists an ace in the hole, at least in American settings. This is the standard from Grades 11-12: “Demonstrate knowledge of eighteenth-, nineteenth– and early-twentieth-century foundational works of American literature.” Educators who don’t like that requirement, perhaps because it entails too many dead-white-male authors, will try to ignore it, but if traditionalists wish to defeat them, the wisest course isn’t to attack Common Core, but to use Common Core as a bulwark against the loss of great literature.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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