Proponents of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, say U.S. students have suffered from a diet of easy reading and lack the ability to digest complex nonfiction, including studies, reports and primary documents. That has left too many students unprepared for the rigors of college and demands of the workplace, experts say.
The new standards, which are slowly rolling out now and will be in place by 2014, require that nonfiction texts represent 50 percent of reading assignments in elementary schools, and the requirement grows to 70 percent by grade 12.
Among the suggested nonfiction pieces for high school juniors and seniors are Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration.
English teachers across the country are trying to figure out which poetry, short stories and novels might have to be sacrificed to make room for nonfiction.
Off the reading list
Jamie Highfill is mourning the six weeks’ worth of poetry she removed from her eighth-grade English class at Woodland Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark. She also dropped some short stories and a favorite unit on the legends of King Arthur to make room for essays by Malcolm Gladwell and a chapter from “The Tipping Point,” Gladwell’s book about social behavior.
“I’m struggling with this, and my students are struggling,” said Highfill, who was named 2011 middle school teacher of the year in her state. “With informational text, there isn’t that human connection that you get with literature. And the kids are shutting down. They’re getting bored. I’m seeing more behavior problems in my classroom than I’ve ever seen.”
But the chief architect of the Common Core Standards said educators are overreacting as the standards move from concept to classroom.
“There’s a disproportionate amount of anxiety,” said David Coleman, who led the effort to write the standards with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Coleman said educators are misinterpreting the directives.
Yes, the standards do require increasing amounts of nonfiction from kindergarten through grade 12, Coleman said. But that refers to reading across all subjects, not just in English class, he said. Teachers in social studies, science and math should require more reading, which would allow English teachers to continue to assign literature, he said.