Literature and Nonfiction: Common-Core Advocates Strike Back

By Catherine Gewertz — December 28, 2012 3 min read
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As we’ve told you, a particular slice of the common standards in English/language arts has become pretty flammable lately: the rise of nonfiction reading. The standards’ expectation that students read more informational text has sparked fear—some would say misinterpretation—that great works of literature will be displaced from classroom instruction.

Even though mainstream news media have by and large ignored the common standards, this issue got enough traction to break through that quietude, garnering a Page One story in The Washington Post, and even becoming the butt of jokes on National Public Radio’s popular “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” show. And the literature-being-squeezed-out people have been just about the only voices in the general-interest media on the issue. The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial saying that regardless of the standards writers’ intent to preserve a hefty place for literature, it is sure to take a major hit under the common core.

With all this stuff flying around, education historian and blogger Diane Ravitch opined, it’s going to take something big—a major speech, or a partial retraction of the standards, to make the issue go away.

Until recently, the closest we’d come to a major speech on the nonfiction-versus-fiction question was a piece in the Huffington Post by the English/language arts standards’ co-authors, David Coleman and Sue Pimentel, insisting that literature “is not being left by the wayside.”

The message to rally the troops must have gone out, however. Because since the Coleman/Pimentel piece appeared, the common core’s defenders have stepped up to counterbalance the literature-pushout crowd. The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation’s Kathleen Porter-Magee, for instance, posted a piece arguing that it’s a misinterpretation of the standards to say that teachers will have to teach less literature.

In a recent email blast, the Foundation for Excellence in Education—led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of the common core’s biggest backers—declaimed the “misinformation flying around” about what will happen to literature under the common standards. “Contrary to reports,” it said, “classic literature will not be lost with the implementation of the new standards.” A glance at the standards’ own suggested text lists, it noted, “reveals that the common core recognizes the importance of balancing great literature and historical nonfiction pieces.”

The email directed readers to other recently written articles that “show how this latest attack on common core doesn’t withstand fact-checking,” including Porter-Magee’s piece, an op-ed in The Boston Globe headlined “Required Reading, or Just Misread?,”and a piece by nationally recognized literacy scholar Tim Shanahan titled, “Willful Ignorance and the Informational Text Controversy.”

Cultural-literacy guru E.D. Hirsch weighed in on the issue with an essay in The Wall Street Journal. Cari Miller, a policy adviser for the Foundation for Excellence in Education, wrote a post for the group’s blog, Ed Fly, arguing that “Don Quixote and To Kill a Mockingbird aren’t going anywhere.”

The email blast also included an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by former longtime education reporter Alan J. Borsuk, an intriguing inclusion, since that story said that the nonfiction expectations of the standards “almost certainly will mean fewer classics. ...” It also explored, however, the ways that fiction and nonfiction study can weave together to bolster students’ engagement in reading, and their skill with it.

Whether this issue lives or dies—and what form it takes if it survives—will be very much worth watching in the coming year.

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