On Common Standards, Reading ‘Quantity,’ and Nonfiction

By Sean Cavanagh — September 28, 2009 3 min read
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I recently wrote about the latest draft of common standards, which were released for public consumption last week. OK—technically, they’re the first official draft of the “college and career-readiness” document, since an earlier version was leaked on the Web unexpectedly over the summer. As you would guess, the new draft is picking up a pretty wide range of reactions. If I had to make an unscientific analysis of the tide of opinion I’ve seen so far, I would say that is has broken in a positive direction. Of course, it’s a long road: This version’s open for comment until Oct. 21. The K-12 standards will come next. After that, state officials will be asked to review and approve the whole thing.

Here are a couple of additional reactions that I wasn’t able to get into my original story.

Carol Jago, the president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English, tells me she thinks the draft has improved in two ways. First, it emphasizes “quantity in reading.” Jago, an author and former high school teacher, served as one of several outside reviewers of the English-language arts version of the document.

“More is more when it comes to students and reading,” Jago told me in an e-mail. “I was delighted to see this important point addressed so directly...The dramatic difference between the number of books students read in high school and the number they are assigned in college I believe contributes enormously to student failure in the first semester at university.” A lot of first-year college students would no doubt agree with Jago on this point. (Language about quantity in reading can be found on page 1-A of the document.)

Jago also credits the draft for giving more attention to “independent reading,” which she describes as a critical skill needed for success in college, or on the job. “Students need to be able to pick up a challenging, fat book and know how to approach it, read it, and learn from it,” she argued. “Students should be reading whole biographies like David McCullough’s John Adams and historical books like Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror as well as novels and plays.”

Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, who often comments on this and other EdWeek blogs, said the draft should have placed greater stress on nonfiction documents and research papers. Students are routinely asked to read scholarly articles in college, yet they’re often befuddled by the structure, and the unfamiliar, jargon-filled language. (The standards do include several nonfiction works, I should note, such as Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as well as excerpts from business and science documents.)

Standards “that don’t include a research paper or a single nonfiction book are not preparing them for college,” Fitzhugh told me. As written, the document “is not going to raise any standards.”

Fitzhugh has a big interest in that sort of scholarship, albeit from a different angle. His journal, based in Massachusetts, describes itself as the “only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic research papers of secondary students.”

And for those of you who can’t get enough of standards talk, EdWeek is hosting a live, online chat tomorrow, Tuesday, at 2 p.m. Eastern time, moderated by my colleague Michele McNeil. Readers are invited to submit questions a half hour before the chat begins, and our two guests are certainly equipped to answer them: Dane Linn, of the National Governors Association, which is helping lead the common standards project; and Alan Farstrup, the former executive director of the International Reading Association.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.