Debating the Common-Core Nonfiction Requirements

By Anthony Rebora — December 28, 2012 1 min read
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An op-ed in the Los Angeles Times defends—kinda, sorta—the language in the Common Core State Standards requiring teachers to assign more nonfiction texts. But it disputes the notion that the nonfiction requirements can be handled across subject areas and thus not necessarily interfere with the traditional emphasis on fiction in English classes:

Yet despite what the core curriculum's fans say, it's clear that fiction will take a significant hit. The standards written for high school English courses—and not for science, history or math—include a set of 10 weighty skills that students must learn concerning nonfiction, as many as there are for fiction. Students aren't going to learn those by adding a few essays or one good biography to the academic year. A major portion of English classes will have to be devoted to nonfiction—at least a third, and perhaps as much as 40%. Some wonderful fiction is going to have to come out of the school year.

Meanwhile, Diane Ravitch questions how and why the common standards writers even came up with the specific percentages required for informational-text vs. literary reading:

Whose wisdom decided on 50-50 [for elementary and middle grades] and 70-30 [for high school]? Who will police the classrooms? Where is the evidence that these ratios are better than some other ratio or none at all?

Yet one of her readers, an English teacher and self-professed former common-standards skeptic, defends the nonfiction requirements, saying they force teachers to re-engage with the curriculum and challenge both their students and themselves:

While the ratios, as you pointed out, are hard to enforce, they play an important role in pushing teachers out of the same old content. No one who has worked with the Core literacy standards sees them as anti-intellectual. In fact, we see them as rigorous and designed to foster critical thinking. What I have come to realize over the years is that I teach discreet genre-related skills for poetry, drama, the novel and memoir. Why was I sending kids off to college and work without teaching them how to engage in complex, informational and non-fiction text? Now I have partners in that effort in other content classes down the hall. It makes sense.

Along somewhat similar lines, Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio says that, for the sake of building student proficiency in vocabulary and comprehension, teachers should be worrying less about possibly dropping a few short stories from English class and more about giving students opportunities to read widely.

All I want for Christmas is for Common Core critics, rather that retailing scare stories that CCSS will replace literature with readings of government reports on agriculture and insulation regulations in English class, to temper their criticism even a little bit with an acknowledgement that maybe a coherent, content-rich curriculum (which CCSS does not, cannot mandate but strongly recommends) might not be the worst thing to happen to our schools.

Update, 2:30 p.m.: Catherine Gewertz, apparently on the same wavelength as us this afternoon, has more on the context of the common-core nonfiction vs. literature debate.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.