December 4, 2012

Fiction being scrapped from schools?


Incomprehensible Common Core infographic

The Washington Post reports that fiction teaching is being cut drastically in many schools, thanks to instructions — or rather, lack of clear instruction — from the Common Core State Standards board.

The Common Core guidelines, which have been adopted in 45 states and three territories, call for schools and teachers to boost reading of nonfiction, so that by twelfth grade most students are reading more ‘informational text’ than fictional literature. By 2014, the required ratio will be 50% nonfiction to fiction in elementary school, and that should grow to 70% by grade 12. Among the suggested nonfiction texts are Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, FedViews, by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009), Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management, published by the General Services Administration, and Politics and the English Language, by George Orwell. So: a mixed bag.

David Coleman, one of the architects of the guidelines, has been accused of undervaluing literature and creative writing. In a speech at the New York State Education Building last year, while discussing the sort of personal essays all students write in American high school, he said the following:

Forgive me for saying this so bluntly, the only problem with … [that] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a [expletive] about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is, can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me? 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.’

Clearly this is a pretty utilitarian approach to education, but on closer analysis, the guidelines don’t look so much like a vendetta as a poorly conceived and written document. In fact, teachers are not required to reduce fiction teaching in English classes, but rather to increase nonfiction teaching elsewhere. And that nugget of essential information is given in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards. Moreover, even were it placed more prominently, most high-school math teachers would probably protest their ability to teach Euclid’s Elements alongside their usual teaching load.

No matter what the report’s suggestions, it seems likely that the burden for teaching these materials will fall to English teachers, and so in practice more and more of them will lose time for teaching fiction and poetry.




Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.