The Common Core and 70 Percent Nonfiction

Common Core is getting a lot of buzz of late, but one element that has received scant attention is starting to draw notice: by grade 12, fully 70% of all reading should be nonfiction.

Moreover, the guiding force behind this increased emphasis on nonfiction has a simple origin - the need to prepare students for the NAEP:

The 2009 reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) requires a high and increasing proportion of informational text on its assessment as students advance through the grades. The (Common Core) Standards aim to align instruction with this framework so that many more students than at present can meet the requirements of college and career readiness.

For those of you playing along, the switch there was impressively fast. The first sentence clearly states, "The 2009 reading framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) requires a high and increasing proportion of informational text on its assessment as students advance through the grades."

Rotten to the Core

The transformation occurs in the second sentence. An accurate sentence would read: "The (Common Core) Standards aim to align instruction with this framework so that many more students than at present can earn higher scores on the NAEP." That sentence, however, would be too honest. The actual phrasing used on the Common Core web site attempts to create an equivalency between success on the NAEP and college and career readiness. However, that claim is not supported by the NAEP, who state clearly:

The achievement levels should continue to be interpreted and used with caution.

In other words, the Common Core Standards require that fiction be de-emphasized in an effort to align with a standardized test whose results should be interpreted and used with caution. Or: we are cutting fiction from the curriculum as part of an unproven thought experiment.

David Coleman, a key player in the development of the Common Core standards (and now the head of the College Board), is more blunt about it. At a presentation titled Bringing the Common Core to Life he weighs in on the personal narrative, fiction's ugly cousin:

(A)s you grow up in this world you realize people really don't give a shit 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."

Watch the video here, and read a transcription with some commentary. Comments quoted above start at around 7:45.

Taking things through to their logical conclusion, we need to de-emphasize literature because the bosses supervising the jobs of the future probably won't ask students to write about how they feel.

There is a lot to be said about the shaky foundation used to launch a de-emphasis on literature in our schools, but it's also worth taking a step back and looking at what is happening around the country. In Montana, it looks like we'll be seeing a bill that requires public schools to teach intelligent design alongside evolution. In Tennessee, teachers can now address intelligent design in their classrooms. In Louisiana, schools that get public money study creationism alongside evolution.

Given the developments that are transpiring on local level, it looks like the line between fiction and nonfiction is becoming increasingly blurred. Fortunately, I'm pretty confident that some of the large companies invited to help create the the Common Core Standards have some products that will help.

But all kidding aside, people who make the incorrect assumption that the requisite critical thinking skills can't be taught or acquired through literature are missing the point. Education isn't linear. The pace of education isn't even, not for a class, and certainly not for individual people. Literature, taught well, lays the foundation for people asking hard questions, and for people uncovering difficult truths. And for those who have the hubris to declare that they have the knowledge and the foresight to identify the knowledge needed for the careers of the future, when many of those careers don't exist yet, I ask you: what were the must-read nonfiction texts of Shakespeare's time? How have they held up? Around the same time that Fitzgerald was writing Gatsby, Hesse was writing Siddhartha, and Joyce was writing Ulysses, what nonfiction works were being written that have even close to a comparable impact in the present day? I say this not to belittle nonfiction, as nonfiction is an essential piece of our literary world. However, the reason that some fiction and poetry stands up over time more than nonfiction is because literature exposes truths that have proven useful over time and across cultures. The idea that college and career readiness requires us to abandon this foundation shows a lack of understanding of both the lessons available through literature and the skills required to excel as a professional.

Image Credit: "Rotten to the Core" taken by Don Shall, published under an Attribution NonCommercial No Derivatives license.

NOTE on January 26, 2013: someone left a great comment about the comparison of fiction and non-fiction. While doing spam cleanup, I accidentally deleted it. Ugh. My apologies to the person who took the time to comment. END NOTE


Bill: I am an English teacher, and your analysis is absolutely brilliant? May I have your last name so that I can properly credit you when I quote you in my own reaction to the new CCS?

Hello, Joanne,

Sure thing - my last name is Fitzgerald.

I look forward to reading your piece.

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