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joanna weiss

Required reading, or just misread?

You may have heard the rumblings of panic recently over the new K-12 curriculum standards known as the Common Core. You may have read laments about how great literature will soon be dropped by American schools in favor of informational texts, intended to prepare students for the workforce — such as “Invasive Plant Inventory” by the California Invasive Plant Council.

It’s an irresistable story: a tale of mindless bureaucrats, shortsighted goals, and absurd educational fads. But it isn’t true.

California invasive plant council

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Let’s take it apart, piece by piece. Yes, the Common Core has been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, and will be implemented by 2014. Yes, it alters expectations, raising standards for the complexity of what students need to read and comprehend.

Yes, in the overview of the new English standards is a chart that says that by 12th grade, students should be reading 70 percent nonfiction and 30 percent fiction. And yes, a list of sample texts — recommended, not required — includes a federal document called “Recommended Levels of Insulation” and that list of invasive plants.

But those are probably the two driest titles on the 10-page list, which also includes works by Ezra Pound, Frederick Douglass, Homer, Voltaire, Dee Brown, Charlotte Bronte, W.H. Auden, Billy Collins, Martin Luther King, Herman Melville, Jhumpa Lahiri, Oscar Wilde, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare.

I spoke the other day to David Coleman, the chief architect of the Common Core (he now heads the College Board, which oversees the SAT and AP tests). The enemy of fiction in America, it turns out, has a degree in English literature from Oxford, writes poetry for his friends, and wanted to talk about Harry Potter.

Coleman seemed a little flummoxed by this national misunderstanding. The idea behind a 70-30 split, he said, is that nonfiction will mostly be read in science, history, and social studies classes, where students ought to be using primary sources and learning to decipher scientific research. Teachers, who helped to develop the standards, wanted it this way, he said.

The text “says English classrooms retain their focus on literature,” he said. “In black and white. And then, just in case anyone didn’t understand what is a fairly blunt statement, then it has a footnote that says, ‘Do not misunderstand.’ ”

Still, recent news reports are full of teachers lamenting the practical effects of a 70-30 directive, saying they’ve been ordered to excise poetry from their lesson plans and make room for dry nonfiction. If you wanted to be extra-cynical, you’d say the crisis in American education must be worse than we’d thought. What hope do kids have if their principals lack basic reading comprehension?

If you wanted to be kinder — which I’m inclined to do— you’d say this is a symptom of a nationwide panic over assessment tests. The stakes are so high that pressure trickles down, from superintendents to principals to teachers. Inertia has power; a notion prevails that history and science teachers can’t possibly divert from their textbooks and bring in a Neil DeGrasse Tyson essay, or a David McCullough book, or “Democracy in America.”

So maybe this is really a problem of politics — a messaging flaw that Common Core creators should have foreseen as they imposed new standards on a nation of embattled educators. Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, says the Core should drop its 70-30 concept altogether, since it has been such a huge distraction. She also wishes the Core were tested in a few states first, instead of imposed so swiftly nationwide.

The new, tougher demands are scary, it’s true: The first-ever Common Core-based test results, released by Kentucky this month, found that proficiency in reading and math dropped 30 to 40 percent when the new standards were applied. Scores this low nationwide, Ravitch said, could spark disgust with public schools; fuel a rush toward vouchers; embolden a for-profit industry that expects to reap bonanzas in tutoring and training; and divert attention from the real social problems that keep kids from learning.

“Where’s the evidence that making tests harder makes everybody achieve more?” Ravitch told me. “That’s like saying if you can’t jump over a four-foot bar, the answer is to raise it to six feet.”

On the other hand, we’re talking about brains here, not limbs. And there’s something compelling about Coleman’s argument — that students will be better off if we expect more of them, not less.

“It’s not like the standards made kids perform worse,” Coleman said. “They’re revealing kids are not on track to succeed and allowing us to help them earlier.”

The other option, after all, is to pass them along to college and the workforce anyway — unable to analyze and make cogent arguments, whether about weeds, insulation, Hamlet, or K-12 curriculum manuals.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.

Correction: An earlier version of this column said the College Board oversees the SAT and ACT. It oversees the SAT and AP tests.

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