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Will the Common Standards Downsize Literature?

What will the Common Core State Standards do to the time-honored place of literature in the English/language arts classroom? That's a question that is pushing its way higher and higher on the national radar.

It's been coming on for a while now; in education circles, the muttering began not long after the standards were issued in 2010, and persisted, at kind of a low hum, at conferences of literacy groups and in conservative think-tank offices. As part of a special report on literacy in the common-core era, we reported to you about the fears among English/language arts folks that literature will have to occupy a smaller role in their teaching.

But the issue has crossed over from one pretty much confined to the education world to one that's getting broader attention. A flock of recent stories and essays about it in publications like the The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time magazine showcase this transition. And once an education issue seeps into the mainstream press, more attention is bound to follow.

The controversy around this piece of the standards springs from their expectation that students will spend more of their time reading nonfiction, or "informational text," than they used to. If you've been listening to inside-the-education-world talk about this, you already know that elementary school students are expected to spend half their time on such readings, and by the time they get to high school, the balance shifts to 70 percent.

It's that Notorious 70 Percent that's stirring up trouble. As far as I can tell, within opposition to this shift are several distinct strains of thought. One comes from folks who have interpreted it to mean that 70 percent of what English teachers assign should be nonfiction. They're worried that this would gut the discipline.

Others correctly point out that this is a misinterpretation of the standards, which say that the 70 percent tilt should be drawn from all subjects, not just English. That means that what students read in social studies, science and other topics would contribute a good deal to the distribution of fiction and nonfiction. This is spelled out in a brief footnote on page 5 of the English/language arts standards.

But the other strain of upset about the Notorious 70 Percent comes from the clash between the standards' vision and the day-to-day reality of how schools work. Some teachers of those other subjects aren't too wild about the idea of becoming literacy teachers. As EdWeek and others have reported, they feel overburdened enough as it is just covering their content. How, they ask, can I be asked now to become a reading teacher as well? In that view you have resistance, and resistance may well lead to the 70 percent being shouldered by the English teacher alone. That could put the squeeze on literature.

The third strain of objection to the 70 percent idea comes from folks who believe that the math on these English/language arts standards just doesn't add up. That is to say, the 70-percent expectation is so steep that even if teachers of other subjects pick up a good bit of it, far more of it is bound to fall on English teachers than anyone is admitting.

There are also objections to the very premise of the 70/30 split (or even the 50/50 split at the elementary level): the presumption that nonfiction needs to be stepped up in order to build the analytical/critical thinking skills that are so prized, according to common-core proponents, by employers and college professors. A recent white paper issued by the Pioneer Institute is an example of this argument. In it, co-authors Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky argue that quality literature offers the best kind of college preparation there is. (Bauerlein argues in a separate essay online that the common standards actually facilitate the teaching of literature; check it out to follow his argument.)

The response of common-core authors has boiled down to this: anxiety about a diminished role for literature is based on a misunderstanding of the standards. The standards, they say, show a reverence for literature, and do not necessitate any reduction in its presence in classrooms.

But the fact that this piece of the standards has catapulted into the spotlight in front of a wide audience tells you something: For two years, this stuff has been fodder for a relatively small circle of educators, educrats, and inside-the-Beltway policymakers. Now that it's getting closer to the classroom, with attendant curricula and tests, a wider circle of people are picking up on it. Certain pieces are resonating. And the ripples are going beyond the people who wrote and adopted the standards. Think: state lawmakers, who hold purse strings power over things like instructional materials and test administration. Think: Teachers, who have heard about the standards but will increasingly see what they mean for day-to-day instruction. Think: parent groups, who will see new kinds of homework on the kitchen table.

To see how this is rolling out into the broader mainstream news media, read Lyndsey Layton's front-page story in The Washington Post, as well as education columnist Jay Mathews' recent essay on what he calls the fiction versus nonfiction "smackdown". A New York Times commentary explored the topic (and prompted a response from lead ELA standards author David Coleman).

Joel Stein offers a humorous version of criticism in Time magazine. A laugh while you can get one isn't a bad idea; this stuff will only get more serious as it moves closer to classrooms.

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