Paper Decries ‘Literature Deficit’ in Common Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — September 21, 2012 2 min read
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A new paper takes aim at the emphasis on informational text in the Common Core State Standards, arguing that it will lessen the role of literature in students’ studies, harming their readiness for college.

The paper, released yesterday by the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a longtime common-core critic, urges state policymakers to require secondary-level English/language arts teachers to emphasize the literary-historical standards in the core when designing their curricula, to ensure an adequate focus on major works of literature. Co-authors Sandra Stotsky and Mark Bauerlein also suggest that states consider adding an academic standard of their own that would require students to demonstrate knowledge of such works.

The standards, adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia, name only a handful of required texts, such as foundational American documents and a Shakespeare play. They say that half of what students read in elementary school—and 70 percent in high school—should be informational, arguing that mastery of such texts mirrors the demands likely to be made on them in college and job training. They note in the standards documents that the frameworks for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, reflect that emphasis.

The shift in emphasis is significant, and has alarmed some English/language arts educators, who fear that literature will lose its important place in students’ studies. The standards’ architects have argued that the opposite is true: Teachers of social studies, science and other subjects will inherit new responsibilities for teaching writing and reading in their areas, freeing English/language arts teachers to dive deeply into literary works with their students.

But Mark Bauerlein, a professor of English at Emory University, and Sandra Stotsky, a professor at the University of Arkansas and a chief architect of Massachusetts’ highly regarded academic standards, disagree. Their paper reports that there is no research to support the argument that a greater emphasis on informational text will boost college readiness. In fact, they contend, a heavy emphasis on the analytical and critical-thinking skills developed by a deep study of literature is exactly what students need to be equipped for college. And they contend that English/language arts teachers will have to make many of their assigned readings “complementary” to the informational texts in other subjects in order to meet the standards’ expectations.

They take the standards to task for, among other things, substituting nonfiction for literature, overlooking British literature other than Shakespeare, and omitting study of the history of the English language.

Bauerlein and Stotsky also argue that following the common standards will aggravate the achievement gap between most public school students and students who are wealthy, attending private schools and high-flying suburban public schools with literature-rich curricula.

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