Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

I have a brief comedy routine I use with my students, typically early in each course I teach—in part to introduce them to me, and in part to make a point about literacy.* The joke goes like this:

“When I graduated high school,” I say, ” I had 7,000 comic books,” slight pause, “and no girl friend.”

The students typically laugh, and then I deadpan, “That’s not funny. That’s sad.”

When they suddenly stop laughing, I smile widely, and we all laugh together.**

I began collecting comic books—primarily to draw from them—in the summer before my ninth grade, the summer I learned I had scoliosis and would have to wear a huge back brace throughout my high school years (23 hours a day at first and throughout school hours into my junior year of high school). That situation provided me with yet another joke for my students; when I tell that part of my life story, I say that I called my back brace “the chick magnet.” More laughter.

By my sophomore year of high school, I was collecting, drawing from, and reading dozens of comics each month. I also had begun reading science fiction (SF) voraciously. I can still recall Lucifer’s HammerRendezvous with Rama and Childhood’s End vividly—not the contents of the books so much as the reading was hard and that I felt accomplished by making my way through each one.

Lynn Harrill was my driver’s education teacher the summer before my tenth grade, and then my English teacher in both my sophomore and junior years. Lynn would prove to be the most important man and mentor in my life after my father, but during tenth grade, he told me that I needed to stop reading SF and start reading “real literature.”

And I did (well, I starting reading real literature, but didn’t stop reading SF). In the next several years, I had read everything by D.H. Lawrence (to whom Lynn introduced me), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, and many other literary authors.

I owe a great deal to Lynn, despite his being wrong about his proclamation marginalizing SF (and indirectly my comics) and honoring literary fiction. But another moment in my sophomore year of English deserves mentioning.

A required book in my tenth grade was A Tale of Two Cities. The summative assessment on the novel was a multiple-choice test—on which I scored a 96, the highest grade in the class. Most of the students in the class—which was the highest track—made much lower, and they all were mad at me from ruining any chance at the grades being curved.

But that isn’t the important aspect of this story—what is?

I never read the novel.

I scored a 96 by reading the Cliff’s Notes and taking careful notes in class.

Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)

An essay in the Educational Research Bulletin addressing reading requirements in high school opens with the following:

Within the last few years heated discussion has centered around the question of free reading for high-school students in English classes. Critics have insisted that interest as a basis for book selection merely tends to establish poor taste; they have stressed the importance of organization in reading as in any program; they have assumed that free reading, with its emphasis upon pupil-direction, lacks content. Indeed, the arguments in slightly more abstract form are those frequently advanced against any program in whose construction pupils participate, and have been offered as criticism of the whole progressive-school movement. (p. 29)

While this could easily be a description of the debates surrounding Common Core, this is by Lou LaBrant, written in 1937.

LaBrant presents a careful study of the positive consequences of free reading in the context of the traditional view that students must be assigned reading and that students must also read primarily (if not only) from the Great Books. She concludes from the study:

The theory that in a free or extensive reading program designed to utilize interest and to serve individual needs there will be fruitless reading of light fiction gains no evidence from this study. The report does, however, point to the possibility that the adolescent has much greater power to read and to think intelligently about reading than the results of our conventional program have led us to believe. (p. 34)

In the seventy-plus years since LaBrant’s piece, as literacy scholars such as Stephen Krashen have argued and detailed in their research, student literacy has been shown to spring from choice reading and access to books (in the home and libraries)—not from prescribed reading lists, not from revised standards, and certainly not from testing reading.

Advocates for Common Core insist that CC is not prescriptive and that CC is not the tests to come from these new standards.

Those advocates are simply ignoring the real world and the history of standards-bases education in the U.S.; they are, in fact, confusing the use of “to be” verbs with “should.” It may very well be that CC should not be prescriptive and should not be reduced to the tests. But should does not dictate what most surely is and will be.

Last week, for example, a former student of mine who is now a high school English teacher texted me distraught. Her English department is aggressively pursuing a new policy to end the use of young adult (YA) literature in the high school courses at her school. Why?

The department leaders have argued that CC requires literature that is “rigorous.”

Despite having abundant evidence on her side (including research and that students do read voraciously YA literature), she has been told to stop her resistance.

Another former student of mine who teachers high school English also faced harsh evaluations during her first year of teaching because she designed and implemented a wonderful unit around The Hunger Games. Despite the huge popularity of the unit among her students (and among student not in her class who were drawn into the books because of word of mouth), the leaders of her department also reprimanded her for depending on lesser literature—arguing that her students needed higher quality reading (required Great Books, again).

In the real world, CC and the tests that are to follow have and will once again reinforce the exact practices that have harmed literacy among students for a century; teachers will be emboldened to assign Great Books (and marginalize further everything else) and teachers will be compelled to teach to the test.

In the real world, as Gerald Bracey has explained, what is tested is what is taught—especially when standards and testing are part of high-stakes accountability. CC may in fact raise (eventually) some reading test scores, but I guarantee it will only harm the teaching of literacy and the literacy of students.

I have slipped past the age of 50. I have read thousands of books and written several myself.

My greatest literacy joys remain authors I was never assigned, but discovered for myself—Milan Kundera, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Neil Gaiman.

My literary life can be traced back to my mother and the wealth of children’s books that populated my childhood home and then my deeply self-conscious nerd self as a teen sitting in my comic book room surrounded by comic books and stacks of Arthur C. Clarke novels.

I graduated high school with mostly As in math and science, intending to be physics major, because school had profoundly misled me about the joy and wonder of words.

In college, on my own, I learned otherwise.

There is no justification for CC and the tests that have and will follow if we genuinely seek to offer children the rich and valuable literacy that every child deserves. Denying students choice is ignoring what we know about literacy development as well as the essence of basic human agency.

Common Core in the real world is once again destroying literacy through standardization.

* This blog was inspired by Christopher Lehman @iChrisLehman.

** My newer joke springs from The Big Bang Theory; at some point I tell students I watch and enjoy the show, and then pause before saying quite seriously I don’t understand, however, why people think it’s funny. Then I smile widely.


11 thoughts on “Common Core in the Real World: Destroying Literacy through Standardization (Again)”

  1. Superficial Unrealistic Rigor is Atrocious
    Besides being developmentally inappropriate , the CC mislabels the reading problem as complexity and rigor, when it should be vigor and passion for text. Teacher knowledge of how kids become readers is not counted and only lexile levels and what I call “rigged rigor,” or test prep is the gold standard. Here is a song to describe it.

  2. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Reading for its own sake is always valuable. My classroom contained plenty of literary giants and plenty of Y.A. fiction. Through i plenty of non-fiction too. Rigor is such a misnomer and used flippantly and with judgment. Some folks forget that rigor is related to rigor mortis.

  3. You state, “There is no justification for CC and the tests that have and will follow if we genuinely seek to offer children the rich and valuable literacy that every child deserves.” There is a reason for it, although not a justification: There are no immediate profits for Corporate America in offering children a rich and valuable literacy that each deserves.

  4. I stumble upon your blog via a Neil Gaiman retweet, and I am very glad I did. I am a middle school English teacher, avid reader and part-time book reviewer- in short I very much have skin in the game when it comes to children and literacy. In regards to this particular post I am somewhat torn. By education I am a classicist and an intellectual fan of both Mortimer Adler and Flannery O’Connor, both of whom were strong supporters of the Great Books program. In my own limited way I have tried to use classic works of fiction (often short fiction) in order to teach my students. However, I was also, like you apparently, a huge sci-fi junkie as a youth and read through Arthur C Clarke’s entire catalog before I finished high school. I truly see the value of students being able to explore on their own.

    What is needed is balance between the two. On the one hand I sympathize with O’Connor when she stated:
    The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

    And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.
    On the other hand I agree with Gaiman when he says:
    The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.
    I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.

    I try to incorporate both seemingly opposite views by placing a strong emphasis on free choice reading in my students when it comes to novels, including carving out a significant portion of class for just that- free reading. When we come together as a class to discuss however I focus on classic short fiction.

  5. In middle school my son was inspired to read books recommended by a much loved teacher. In high school he, too, used Spark Notes to complete assignments. I would tell him that the assignment wasn’t to read the Spark Notes and he would say, “MOM – NOBODY reads the books!” Too bad he wasn’t ever asked to read something he wanted to read.

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