Literature and the Common Core Standards
The Common Core State Standards Initiative published another draft of its standards today. The new version is more detailed than the document released a few months ago, and it includes samples of students’ work and a reading list.
I’m impressed by the reading list. Based on the wishy-washy math questions that the initiative holds up as paragons of rigor, I expected the recommended texts to fall somewhere between comic books and Goodnight Moon. In fact, the selections are excellent. I attended a couple of public school districts as a kid, and I was never assigned classics like The Secret Garden or “The New Colossus.” Lots of schools could give their literature programs a boost simply by substituting these texts for whatever they currently ask students to read.
However, the trouble with any national standards, no matter how good, is that no one curriculum is right for everyone. Much as these texts appeal to me, I can imagine situations in which they might be inadequate. For example, an all-boys’ school would have a hard time interesting its students in some of the selections, such as Little Women and Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa. And a magnet school for the gifted would surely need more challenging reading material for second- and third-graders than the works on this list.
The standards’ authors insist that the list won’t cause problems, because it merely provides examples of which kinds of texts are appropriate in general — these particular titles won’t be mandatory reading. That answer is unsatisfactory. Many schools will ignore the authors’ disclaimer and adopt the reading list without modification, either because they don’t want to go to the trouble of finding comparable titles or because they don’t want to risk straying from the standards. When you include a reading list in a national standards document, you have to assume that some schools will follow it blindly — even if their students would have been better served by a different list.
But accepting the authors’ statement that these texts won’t be required for everyone, how will the standards improve education? If schools are free to deviate from the list for good reasons and choose books that would better suit them, then they’re also free to deviate from the list for the wrong reasons and keep their curricula unchanged. Standards that are forced on everyone are too rigid, but standards that schools can dumb down are worthless.
Standards supporters might argue that schools would be free to choose the content of their literature programs, but that guidance from this list would ensure that their selections are complex and challenging enough. The thing is, this list is so good exactly because of the great content of the readings. If a school finds a bunch of books that match the list in reading level, but that make no mention of the American Revolution or the Civil War, then its students don’t gain much from the standards.
It’s impossible for standards to bring schools up to a higher level of academics and allow for individuality at the same time. That’s why I still think Missouri should not adopt the Common Core Standards. But I must commend the initiative for writing up a great list of books.