Report: 46 States to Limit Classic Literature in Schools

Published October 4, 2012

Common Core language arts standards reduce the amount of classic literature students in 46 states will read for school, with potentially destructive consequences for students’ future college study and careers, concludes a new report from the Pioneer Institute.

In “How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk,” authors Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky encourage policymakers “to emphasize Common Core’s existing literary-historical standards” and augment the standards with “state-specific guidelines.” 

The Common Core details what K-12 students should know in English/language arts and mathematics. They are set to be fully implemented in 46 states by 2014.

The vague English requirements give states and districts little guidance on what texts to assign students, the authors write. They conclude college readiness and analytical thinking will suffer if English classes cut out complex, classic literature.

“Common Core says wonderful things in its sidebars and introductions, but they’re not in the standards themselves,” Stotsky said.

The Core specifies that fourth grade students read half “informational texts” and half literary fiction, gradually shifting the ratio to 30 percent information and 70 percent literature by 12th grade.

No More Huckleberry Finn
The Core states, “certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare,” should be included in curricula, but state and local officials will determine the remaining texts.

Previous state standards required literature such as Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest American masterpieces, Stotsky noted. The Core requires no specific texts, only placing examples of grade-level complexity in an appendix, she said.

The standards do not imply a set percentage of informational texts for English classrooms only, but throughout the various subjects, said Brenda Overturf, chair of the International Reading Association’s Common Core committee.

Lite Lit
In recent decades,  schools have abandoned more rigorous works, Stotsky said. She called the standards “literature-light.”

“Literature is extremely important to a student’s education,” Overturf said. “Literature teaches us about the human condition and lessons from the past and the experience of others so we know how to solve problems.”

Studying complex literature expands students’ vocabulary and knowledge, said Jamie Gass, director of Pioneer’s Center of School Reform. He noted Massachusetts’ No.1 standing on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2005 to 2011. Before adopting the Core, Massachusetts based 90 percent of its English standards on literature.

“Unfortunately, public education for decades in this country has had an infatuation with faddishness, such as ’21st century skills’ and ‘hands-on learning,'” he said. “Given the success in Massachusetts, you think they’d try to replicate what we know quantitatively works.”

Determining Curriculum
English teachers have been trained to teach literature, not informational texts, Stotsky said.

“One of the big selling points for Common Core was we’re now going to have the same expectations for all children. If all English teachers are interpreting these standards in different ways,… we still haven’t got the same standards,” she said.

But a set list of required texts does not benefit all students, Overturf said.

“We have a diverse culture in the United States,” Overturf said. “We need a variety of different, but equally challenging, literature.”

But the Core’s minimal guidelines force teachers to plan in the dark, Overturf said.

Different Route
Texas chose to maintain its own standards, said Debbie Ratcliffe, communications director for the Texas Education Agency.

“It would have cost us millions of dollars to toss out [textbooks and tests] and develop ones based on the national standards,” Ratcliffe said. “Our state law also requires us to involve very specific groups of people, such as educators and business leaders, when we develop standards, and the Common Core development didn’t.”

Although informational texts remain in Texas standards, students are expected to comprehend various poetry, drama, fiction, and literary nonfiction, she said.

Gass says he doubts the Core will be revised soon.

“They’re really in the implementation process,” he said. “The standards were devised in such a quick, closed-door, and hasty manner it really avoided having a substantive policy discussion.”


Learn more:
“How Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at Risk,” Pioneer Institute, September 2012:

Image by Writers Centre Norwich.