"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Common Core Literature Standards Provide Less Common Understanding

You would think that with the word "common" in its title, Common Core standards would be concerned with providing students across the country education on common (meaning -shared) resources.  But a look at the Common Core Standards for language arts reveals that they actually move students away from classic literature that has been studied for generations and provides commonality to our experience, if not our lexicon, and towards informational texts in things like science and politics. I suppose you could make a case that "Of Mice And Men" is antiquated, but if you drop reading this, what will this mean to our shared understanding as a culture?

American Principles in Action South Carolina Director Joe Mack and South Carolina State Education Board Member Michael Brenan wrote an op/ed in The State this month that said,
The Pioneer Institute finds that by grade 8, the math standards will put students “a year or two behind” students in leading states and our international competitors and facing “large holes” in the Common Core high school program. The English language arts standards are even worse.
After serving on the Common Core Validation Committee, researcher and scholar Sandra Stotsky concluded that the reading standards weaken the base of literary and cultural knowledge needed for authentic college coursework. (South Carolina’s own literature standards are much better, as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has found.) Common Core also locks high school English teachers into a rigid instructional scheme different from anything they’ve been trained for, and created by people who have no academic training in English literature, composition or rhetoric.
As Dr. Stotsky explains, Common Core expects English teachers to spend more than 50 percent of their reading instructional time on nonfiction and informational texts, such as science and technology texts, political documents and Supreme Court decisions. This is not what English teachers are trained to do. They engage in the study of literature (and composition and rhetoric) and teach students how to read literary works (including speeches, biographies and literary essays), not computer manuals or science textbooks.
The standards not only provide no intellectual base or structure for a curriculum, they actually prevent one from emerging. The academic content of the typical secondary literature curriculum consists of concepts and works that guide literary study through the grades (e.g., genres, subgenres, rhetorical and literary techniques and elements, literary periods and traditions).
 A writing professor at Hiram college,  had this to say about the classics:
The entire video consisted of interviews of high school students confessing to the camera how they have never read a book assigned in English class, and instead relied on class discussions and SparkNotes to get the basic idea of the book in order to write the required essay at the end.  Sad, but not completely unknown.  I’ve known this happens for years, however, here is my philosophy regarding this phenomenon:  Not all kids do not read the books and I can tell who has not, so I will not stop assigning classic literature which does not “appeal” to high school students.  I will not change my philosophy just because some do not read.  The students on the video seemed, in my eyes, a bit bashful about admitting such a travesty.  However, the part that irritated me was the underlying message (from assumingly well-meaning educators) that the kids are not reading because the teacher is “making” them read books they do not like.  If we would just let them read books they want to read, this whole problem would be solved.  
No, problem not solved.  Cultural literacy is necessary as a basis of understanding for all subjects; without it, there is a notable hole in a student’s knowledge.  To quote E.D. Hirsch, proponent for cultural literacy in education, “We have ignored cultural literacy in thinking about education. We ignore the air we breathe until it is thin or foul. Cultural literacy is the oxygen of social intercourse.”  It’s what binds us together as a society and is the reason why I “make” my kids read “The Great Gatsby” and “Of Mice and Men“.  I feel I need to expose the kids to literature they would never have read otherwise; it is my job as their teacher.
She went on to tell about a student in her class that got a visual joke on a tv show because they had read The Great Gatsby in class.  Without this shared cultural heritage and a focus on reading what you want and only what's new, you get knee jerk reactions like ESPN firing a writer for using the phrase "A chink in the Nick's armor" to describe a weakness found in the performance of Asian American player Jeremey Lin. Their apparent limited exposure to only postmodern slang caused them to interpret this as a racial slur. (Or maybe they're just confirming the dumb jock stereotype.)

South Carolina looks to be taking a stand against Common Core Standards with the introduction of a bill (S604) by Senator Mike Fair which would prohibit the state from implementing CCSS.  Governor Haley supports this stance, Haley Letter to S.C. State Senator Mike Fair Let's hope more states can recognize they are being shuttled into a box of mediocrity and limitations and begin standing up against Common Core.

Without the classics in our language arts classes, how will future generations being able to understand the comic genius of Looney Tunes when the Abominable Snowman, in an homage to Of Mice and Men's Lennie, cradles Daffy Duck and says,

"Just what I always wanted.  My own little bunny rabbit. I will name him George, and I will hug him, and pet him, and squeeze him."

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