Are modern standards breeding a decline in cultural literacy?
“The humanities are over…things that make us human as opposed to just animals is a part of education that is largely dead. Now, education is about achievement, readiness and career. Education is instrumental.”
So says Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Emory University and award-winning author, who believes that many of his incoming students are unprepared for higher education, particularly when it comes to cultural literacy. Among college instructors, he’s not alone in this opinion.
A new survey from ACT points to an increase in readiness gaps from high school graduates at the college and career level. Significantly, the study also shows that there are general discrepancies between state academic standards, namely the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the types of qualities and skills colleges and employers say they seek.
One area of contention among educators is the Common Core’s English language arts section. Bauerlein, who actually helped construct the standards, says the intentions of the CCSS, as they are outlined in the appendices, are good because they emphasize an increase in the complexity of reading.
“One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school,” reads Appendix A. “By the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers.”
Current research and statistics on the state of reading at all levels in the United States demonstrate that Americans are still far behind the learning curve.
The nation’s reading snapshot
The Pew Research Center reported last year that 23% of Americans surveyed said they hadn’t read a single book in 2013. In 2006, that statistic was 16%. The decline in overall reading coincides with statistics from last year’s National Association of Educational Progress report, which found that just 37% of high school seniors were at a proficient or higher level of reading.
The NAEP test is divided into three levels: Basic, proficient and advanced, with proficiency meaning a student is performing at grade level. The most recent percentage on the test, while not demonstrating a major decrease in proficiency levels, still shows a stagnation in the country’s progress on the matter, as the majority of Americans maintain a basic reading level.
Renaissance Learning’s 2016 report, “What Kids Are Reading,” shows high school seniors are reading at a 6th grade level, and only 9% of students in high school read texts above a middle school complexity level of 8, leaving students ill-prepared for college level reading at about 13. Both Renaissance Learning and Common Core standards support nonfiction texts in the classroom, because they tend to have a higher reading level of around 9 to 11 — though Renaissance Learning says there shouldn’t be a trade-off with comprehension, even if the complexity is increasing.
Appendix A of Common Core makes it clear that informational text is important for providing a level of complexity in reading that can prepare a student for college and beyond. This ethos is what has guided the standards.
Though the standards are specific as to their goal of increasing reading proficiency, the statistics point to a different, real-world outcome.
What’s actually going on?
Common Core’s emphasis on moving toward 70% nonfiction informational texts by senior year of high school has been met with mixed responses, strategies and interpretations.
While the writers make it clear in the quote below that the types of nonfiction texts the standards advocate are not everyday articles, the definition of "informational" has gotten muddled.
“In particular, if students cannot read complex expository text to gain information, they will likely turn to text-free or text-light sources, such as video, podcasts, and tweets. These sources, while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text.”
Bauerlein says that despite an exemplary list of fiction and nonfiction works to choose from, however, high school instructors appear to be moving away from the types of texts that actually provide the necessary depth of complexity for students.
“If you understand informational as including memoirs, essays, autobiographies, historical works, and philosophical works, then it’s wonderful,” said Bauerlein. “If 'informational' means Wikipedia, op-eds and blog posts, then we are in big trouble. And sadly, all too often it’s the latter. I see more and more students coming into college having not read very much and not knowing very much.”
The trend is causing alarm among many educators and even comedian, Joel Stein, who confirmed Bauerlein’s sentiments on informational texts years ago in a 2012 Time Magazine piece, aptly titled, “How I replaced Shakespeare.”
“I was not worried about the American education system until after I started writing a column, because that's when I found out there are English teachers who assign my column as reading material,” wrote Stein.
“I regularly get e-mails from students asking about my use of anastrophe, metonymy, thesis statements and other things I've never heard of. To which I respond, ‘Transfer high schools immediately, to one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit!’”
All Stein’s jokes aside, ACT’s survey points to several noteworthy discrepancies in college and career expectations at high school, and higher education levels that serve to question Common Core’s emphasis on nonfiction informational texts and the strategies by which teachers can adopt those standards.
What employers and college really want
Common Core was developed with college and career readiness in mind. However, ACT’s 2016 National Curriculum Survey shows that there are some gaps in preparation at the higher education level and in the workforce.
Though, Wayne Camara, Senior Vice President of Research at AP, says that these discrepancies are not unexpected.
“One would expect some discrepancies...I don't know that there’s a mandate or much effort to ensure that college faculty are teaching in a consistent way,” he said. “College faculty have a lot of freedom and discretion in terms of what they can teach...I wouldn’t have expected much more alignment for those reasons.”
But he also offers a caveat on Common Core outcomes so far: "I think it’s much too early to see a difference in the preparation level of students. The standards were issued a few years ago, but I think in terms of implementation and familiarity, teachers are probably in year two or maybe three of really having been trained and aware of the standards."
The survey found that high school educators tend to value a greater diversity of writing approaches than college instructors do. Across secondary and postsecondary, college instructors appear to be most in agreement that students ought to be proficient in generating sound ideas for writing, while high school educators, much like the Common Core standards, tend to emphasize the ability to critically analyze source text.
When it comes to writing in general, college instructors tend to care less about the ability to summarize and analyze informational, source texts. And, college instructors reported that they find their students to be lacking in five essential skills: determining central ideas, identifying important details, drawing conclusions, evaluating evidence, and reasoned judgment.
At the same time, however, employers and high school educators agree that students ought to be exposed to a variety of writing approaches. Understanding how to write concisely and adapt to an audience is key to the employers and supervisors surveyed.
Still, workforce respondents were shown to highly value nonacademic skills, such as acting honestly, sustaining effort, getting along with others, and maintaining composure, skillsets that are related to demeanor, rather than analytical capability.
On whether those sorts of skills can be gained at the primary education level, ACT VP of Research Wayne Camara says that it’s difficult to assess and that it’s too premature to associate the findings of the report with a general failure on the part of Common Core, but that of course, there is always room for improvement.
“Employers value a lot of factors that are non-academic: critical thinking skills, communication skills, team work... I don’t know to what extent they are being instructed in school, but I do think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” he said.
“The fact is that we as a nation, I think, have overly focused on math and English, and that’s not only creating a deficit in other subjects... but it’s also creating a deficit in some of these non-cognitive [skills], which are more predictive for graduation, persistence and promotions in jobs.”
A decline in literary culture
David E. Kirkland, an English professor at New York University, says that the nonacademic skills employers seek, as well as proper cultivation of the whole student, can come through traditional, literary texts that offer insight into historical and societal concerns in a relatable and accessible format. For him, the movement toward nonfiction seems dangerous.
“There’s a greater goal in education,” said Kirkland. “When we flush literature down the toilet, we also flush opportunities to enhance our humanity, to prepare people to participate in a multicultural global democracy in ways that might heighten our level of human participation in the larger project of humanity.
“School is beyond career and college training. We are preparing people to interact in a multicultural democracy.”
Kirkland affirms that while academia is pointing toward informational texts for college and career readiness, there is a very clear link between reading and developing within the student the types of characteristics employers and colleges seek, such as the ability to recognize central ideas, think critically, and work with others from diverse backgrounds — particularly as more minorities enter colleges and the workplace.
He says that when a student reads, they are better able mediate conflict, take risk and resolve risk. Literature can encourage empathy and help the individual ask better questions while fostering a general curiosity.
“There’s a failure of pragmatism that’s related toward the current movement away from literature and toward informational texts,” said Kirkland. “The greatest benefit of reading literature is the moment of transformation where those dark places in us are given an option to change. Literature in some ways is a revolutionary tool.”
According to Bauerlein, the movement away from classical, canonical works of literature is part of a larger decline in literary culture that has been occurring since the 1950s.
“People don’t read as much literature now as they did back then. If you asked a political critic back then about the American literary tradition of Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald, that political thinker would say that their American literary tradition is crucially important to our society,” Bauerlein said.
“If you ask political thinkers today, they don’t read that stuff. Whitman doesn’t provide a vision for America anymore.”
Bauerlein, like Kirkland, suggests that the decline in literary culture is part of the increasing instrumentalization of education — a trend that emphasizes success in college and career at the expense of cultivating a sense of taste and ‘humanitos,’ a key function of holistic learning.
“The english classroom is going to drift more and more to instrumental purposes. Sure I can get you ready for tests and for college,” he said. “But, if I say that you ought to listen to a prelude from one of Wagner’s operas for sake of experiencing a specimen of great beauty, you’ll say, 'Where is that going to get me?' That’s the 21st century question.”
A path forward: the classroom
Camara says that the decline in reading rates cannot necessarily be associated with the Common Core, but that certainly implementation of the types of reading students are exposed to can have an impact on their development. In his opinion, true progress begins at the curriculum level with teachers.
“Some of the disappointments we have seen with the common core is really attributed to implementation more than it is to the quality of the standards themselves. I think we as a nation, we just expected the standards to be released, teachers to teach them, and for them to not need the support,” said Camara.
“We need to realize that the standards are more rigorous...in terms of skills and when they are taught. In order to be successful we need to provide more support to teachers.”
At the same time, Sandra Stotsky, Professor Emerita at the University of Arkansas and former Senior Associate Commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education, says that there is also no research to confirm whether a shift toward non-fiction informational texts in the classroom would have a positive impact on learning outcomes, particularly when it comes to vocabulary acquisition.
“It’s not clear to me as a reading trained expert that [short non-fiction articles] is going to make kids that don’t like reading want to learn how to read better. We aren’t seeing the benefits yet,” she said.
She explains that vocabulary growth is a function of actually wanting to read, and that it is critical to career and college success. She says that there is a way to improve this development through continuous prose reading in the classroom.
“With a gripping story, even at a higher level, like Frankenstein — it was challenging, but kids love the story. It has staggering vocabulary, but they get the plot, and they learn more words,” she said. “Steady reading is a part of the habits that are cultivated by literary reading. You would have to have a lot of good non-fiction reading to sustain that interest.”
Similarly, Bauerlein advises that teachers find a middle ground between high level literature and nonfiction informational texts that sustain interest without sacrificing critical thinking capabilities on mature themes.
“For college and career, it’s really important to invoke evidence, compile arguments, and make inferences valid--sounds good...Why pick some idiotic contemporary topic like cell-phones in school,” he said.
“Pick a topic that will make students recall their knowledge of history. Make them read a bit of the Dred Scott supreme court case. Make it simple for them, but give them some significant materials to work with. Don't make it an exercise in argumentation, make the topic significant.
Stotsky recommends to administrators and teachers that the best way to achieve this goal is by developing a smart, interesting, and engaging curriculum with reading levels in mind. This goal can be achieved by incorporating the types of nonfiction texts and literary texts that can provide a depth of complexity.
Simultaneously, Kirkland reminds instructors that the larger part of education the development of the whole student.
“We don’t quantify what happens to use when you read Richard Wright and begin to transform. While you benefit in career and college you become a more enlightened human being,” he said. “There are no aptitude tests that will help us understand the importance of that."
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