What students read

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There’s a lot of fiction being spread about the new requirements to expand the reading of nonfiction in public schools. Some teachers say they have already been forced to cut important poetry and literature from their classes to make way for government reports and lists of invasive plants.

To some extent, the complaints appear overblown. Contrary to what some news outlets have reported, no one is proposing to dump “Macbeth” for pamphlets about insulation. Nor is the proposal as ridiculous as some suggest; the planned changes could valuably broaden students’ reading, writing and thinking skills. But there’s no getting around it: The curriculum plan also looks almost certain to diminish exposure to works of literature, from Seuss to Salinger. That goes too far.

The ruckus is over the new common core standards — public school math and English curricula adopted by more than 45 states, including California — that are supposed to raise the level of what students are being taught. In addition, the core standards are intended to make it easier and less expensive for states to devise better lesson plans, develop more meaningful standardized tests and compare notes on how much students are learning.


Scheduled to take effect in the 2014-15 school year, the standards emphasize, as they should, plenty of diverse reading material. But they have become controversial over the requirement that the reading assigned to younger students should be half fiction and half nonfiction, and that by high school the ratio should be 30% fiction and 70% nonfiction. This has led to allegations that T.S. Eliot will make way for Environmental Protection Agency reports and that “Great Expectations” will be dumped in favor of, well, lower expectations

A close reading of the common core standards shows that this isn’t the intent. Yes, there are government reports on the suggested reading list, but not for English class. A report on California’s invasive plants is recommended for science classes — which makes sense — while government policy tomes are listed as possible material for history classes.

The idea, according to the creators and supporters of the new curriculum standards, is to better prepare students for college and jobs, where most of the texts they will be reading and asked to analyze and write about will be nonfiction. In addition, they found, college reading material is more complex and demanding than the books and other readings that have been required for high school students.

Most of the new nonfiction reading requirement is supposed to be carried by classes other than English — history, of course, but also science and math. Instead of reading almost solely textbooks, students are supposed to read more primary sources — thus the government documents and scientific papers — with an eye toward critical analysis. The list of nonfiction reading includes an impressive array of literary works such as Thoreau’s “Walden” and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

So far, so good. Textbooks are seldom written well enough to serve as a model of composition. Nor do they usually delve deeply enough into a topic to be used as a source for a meaningful research paper. Rather than assuming that all nonfiction is a turnoff, let’s remember that even in the earliest grades, children love to read about the world — animals, space and so forth.

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.


In addition, no matter how the designers of the new curriculum intended it to be carried out, as a practical matter, English teachers will probably end up taking on a disproportionate responsibility for this new emphasis on nonfiction. Science teachers, for example, have their own demanding curriculum to teach; it’s not as though the school year is laden with spare time to parse EPA documents. In the end, it all boils down to the tests: The only subjects tested under the common core are English and math; teachers in other subjects have little incentive to add new material. English teachers, not science or history instructors, will take the brunt of criticism if students don’t do well on the reading tests, even if in theory other teachers were supposed to teach broader reading skills.

Most high school English courses should, of course, explore quality literature broadly, not just fiction — and many of those courses already do. But the 70% rule seems arbitrary, especially in the absence of a well-designed curriculum for all courses that ensures most of the nonfiction reading and writing occurs in other classes. The bigger problem is not that students are unfamiliar with nonfiction but rather that schools do a poor job teaching those students to do research and write about it well, backing up their conclusions with facts.

High-achieving students who learn to read, analyze and write about great and challenging literature, whether fiction or nonfiction, are generally able to translate those skills to college courses. The authors of the core curriculum were right to require more demanding texts, at least for college-bound students, and to call for the teaching of higher-level critical thinking skills. But it would be a shame to impose arbitrary fiction limits in high school literature classes.

In March, a panel of California education experts will begin the task of translating the core standards into an English curriculum for the state’s public schools. It should keep these lessons in mind when it does so, resisting the temptation to translate the standards into a rigid mandate that reduces students’ exposure to the richly engaging, imaginative and thought-provoking world of fiction and poetry.