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School literature standards spark war over words

WASHINGTON — As states across the country implement broad changes in curriculum from kindergarten through high school, English teachers worry that they will have to replace the dog-eared novels they love with historical documents and nonfiction texts.

The Common Core State Standards in English, which have been adopted in 46 states and the District of Columbia, call for public schools to build up nonfiction so that by 12th grade, students will be reading mostly ‘‘informational text’’ instead of fictional literature.

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But as teachers excise poetry and classic works of fiction from their classrooms, those who designed the guidelines say it appears that educators have misunderstood them.

Proponents of the new standards, including the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, say US 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 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.

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. Highfill said 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.

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.

Social studies teachers, for example, could have students read the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birmingham Jail letter, while math students could read Euclid’s ‘‘Elements’’ from 300 B.C.

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.’’

The specifics are spelled out in a footnote on page 5 of the 66-page standards.

In practice, the burden of teaching the nonfiction texts is falling to English teachers, said Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University: ‘‘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.’ ’’

Sheridan Blau, a professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, said teachers across the country have told him that their principals are insisting that English teachers make 70 percent of their readings nonfiction. ‘‘The effect of the new standards is to drive literature out of the English classroom,’’ he said.

Timothy Shanahan, who chairs the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said school administrators apparently have flunked reading comprehension when it comes to the standards.

‘‘Schools are doing some goofy things — principals or superintendents are not reading,’’ said Shanahan, who was among the experts who advised Coleman on the standards.

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