The NYTimes has published a piece focusing on 100 New York schools experimenting with different approaches towards achieving the “Common Core” standards that attempt to shore up problems with the “No Child Left Behind” standards.
In general, I agree with clearer standardization of minimum standards (though it must be clear that these are minimums and not norms) than what the NCLB legislation provides for, but a couple things in the article stuck out to me in a negative fashion. Firstly, the stepped progression away from “literary” reading towards more nonfiction:
While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.
All I could hear in my head at this point in the article is C.S. Lewis’ critique in the The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, where Eustace’s problem is that “[he] had read all the wrong books. They had a lot to say about exports and imports and governments and drains, but they were weak on dragons.” Instead, his preferred books were “books of information and had pictures of grain elevators or of fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools.” That is not to say that “informational” reading should be avoided, but I think it’s especially important that students raised in this information-drenched civilization be even more immersed in classic literature, lest they become miles wide but only an inch deep.
I remain convinced that exposure to truly great literature—narrative that sucks a student into a different world, into a different way of thinking, forcing students to engage with deeper questions (but in an allusive manner)—is critical to developing better minds. Additionally, students who read (and learn to enjoy) classic, immersive literature are more likely to grow into regular readers than those who simply learn to read and digest information for classes. At these early levels, I’m convinced that should be the primary aim, not moving towards “informational” reading, which will come soon enough. I also think that students who learn to critically engage with classic literature are better able to analyze data and digest informational material once they have to deal with it—but it doesn’t work the same way in reverse.
The second point is less related to the standards themselves than a statement made by one of the common core’s framers:
Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped write the common core standards for how to incorporate reading into science instruction, said that as a whole, the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books.
“If I’m teaching fifth grade and I have a youngster in my class who reads as a first grader, throwing him a grade-level text is not going to do him any good, no matter what the standards say,” he said.
Yikes. My thinking runs the opposite way: if you’re giving a fifth-grader who reads below grade-level material written for first-graders, that’s going to be even more detrimental than giving him fifth-grade material and helping him work through it. The last thing we should be doing is trying to assign “grade-level” material to students. Rather, we should be encouraging students to find good, classic literature that they find engaging and interesting and then help them through it where it’s above them—teach them how to look up the words they don’t know (easier today than ever), how to boost their reading level to match these classic books.
This is partly a reaction not only to Shanahan’s statement but to those who I have encountered who try to limit children from reading books “above their level” because it would be “too much for them,” despite the fact that the children are interested in those books. That kind of limitation is infuriating and illustrates an important point in the discussion of standards: grade level standards for children should be understood as minimums, not as “norms.”
Back to the example of the fifth-grader reading way below grade level, the biggest effort needs to help that kid find literature that connects with him, something that he can become immersed in, something that she is interested in. Once the curiosity and interest levels are there, kids are capable of learning quickly—the trick is to find ways to get them motivated to learn (as I’ve said before, in our soft and prosperous culture, motivation is the real problem). They’re capable of a lot more than we think they are.