Writer of Common Core: Fiction Remains Critical

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Editor's Note: This radio segment was produced by Sean Rameswaram with editors Jenny Lawton and David Krasnow for the nationally syndicated show Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen.

Many teachers are afraid classic works of fiction are about to lose ground to nonfiction in English classes, replaced by historical documents, newspaper articles, and even instruction manuals. That fear has been sparked by the Common Core Sate Standards Initiative, a new set of recommendations for teaching math and English adopted by almost every state in the country. Proponents of the new standards say they will demand more from students and better develop their analytical skills.

Teachers, prominent educators, and journalists have questioned the English recommendations that call for increased use of nonfiction. Sara Mosle raised these issues in a piece on the New York Times website. Much of the frustration has been directed at David Coleman, who helped write the standards and is now president of the College Board, which oversees standardized testing.

In an interview on Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen, Coleman maintained that the backlash is a misunderstanding of the numbers – particularly the standard that 70 percent of reading by high school seniors, across all classes, should be nonfiction. “The standards are absolutely clear on the central role that fiction plays and continues to play in the English language arts classroom,” he told Andersen.

According to Coleman, the majority of time in English classes will still be spent on fiction – drama, literature, narrative fiction, and poems. “The only thing that changes is that there’s some portion of time spent on high-quality literary nonfiction,” he said. The standards cite Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham” as an example. Coleman emphasized that the reading should be of “high quality,” not abridgements of classics, or sixth-grade novels used in high school.

American students are often reading four grade levels behind where they need to be in order to be ready for colleges or careers, Coleman said, and the standards aim to reverse the trend.

“Delivering a generation of kids who can really read at that level is the hope and promise of this work,” he said.

In New York City, the Department of Education has started implementing the Common Core standards throughout the schools' curricula, and statewide testing will be linked to Common Core standards as well. Top D.O.E. officials have embraced the Common Core for its emphasis on critical thinking and preparing students for college. Read Schoolbook's previous coverage of the Common Core standards here.