The far-left Center for American Progress (CAP) has issued a report noting that as little as five percent of the English curriculum for 12th grade consists of university-level texts. Seniors are much more likely to read young-adult novels such as Divergent than they are Shakespeare. The report’s author bemoans the “stark gap” between the complexity of what they’re reading and that of what they’ll confront in college, or even “in the military or the workplace.”
Dr. Sandra Stotsky could be forgiven a touch of Schadenfreude if she were inclined to that. For years now Stotsky, the nation’s preeminent English language arts (ELA) standards expert, has warned that this downward trend in reading level would not be reversed — and probably would accelerate — under the Common Core national standards. In dozens of speeches, papers, and articles (particularly a Pioneer Institute report co-authored by Dr. Mark Bauerlein), Dr. Stotsky explained a century’s worth of research establishing that the more students read classic literature, the better their reading and comprehension skills. But the Common Core ELA standards move in exactly the opposite direction — mandating that 50 percent of the ELA curriculum be devoted to non-fiction “informational text,” which is almost by definition less complex and less challenging than the classics.
The Common Core structure not only diminishes the amount of literary study in ELA classrooms, its recommendations for what types of fiction should be read are weighted against the classics. The Common Core list of recommended texts for ELA classrooms eliminates (except for minimal Shakespeare) British literature. No Austen, no Dickens, no Stevenson. In place of great British novels it suggests soft-core pornography such as The Bluest Eye.
Stotsky has pointed out that the ELA curriculum in American public schools has been deteriorating for at least half a century (a phenomenon roughly coinciding with the federal government’s plunge into education policy, not that there could possibly be any connection). What was needed to reverse the problem was a return to a rigorous, liberal-arts curriculum such as that spawned by the excellent pre-Common Core standards in Massachusetts. But what happened instead was the adoption of Common Core — which shifted the problem into overdrive.
In the National Association of Scholars’ Academic Questions, Stotsky recently made her own observations about American students’ deficient reading levels after reviewing an annual report issued by a company called Renaissance Learning. The level of difficulty in most texts read by high-school seniors, according to this report, is about grade 5.2. Stotsky’s recommendations for correcting the problem included a lessening of emphasis on short non-fiction texts and a return to a classic-literature focus.
But the author of the CAP report didn’t ask Stotsky what she thinks. That may be because CAP isn’t interested in suggestions that conflict with its settled ideology (or with the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which showers millions on CAP). Not surprisingly, like Bill and Melinda, CAP proposes not that Common Core be replaced by something proven to work, but rather that states “push ahead” with Common Core implementation. The report devotes pages to explaining how the ELA standards will transform ELA education, repeating uncritically the propaganda that is so deftly dismantled in the Stotsky/Bauerlein report. Stalin’s faith in his five-year plans was nothing compared to that of education ideologues in Common Core.
More evidence of this mindset is the reaction to the CAP report by Robert Pondiscio of the Fordham Institute. Fordham also enjoys millions of dollars in Gates Foundation largesse and has quite coincidentally determined that the Gates-financed national standards are just the thing to fix public education. Pondiscio criticizes the CAP report but not, of course, for recommending a continuing slog with Common Core. Rather, he delicately suggests that some teachers simply aren’t capable of mastering these lofty standards:
[The report’s author] seems not to have considered another, more sobering possibility: that Common Core simply exposes the limits of some number of teachers expected to teach to the higher standards, for which no amount of “professional development” can compensate.
Apparently the standards are so self-evidently magnificent that only incompetent teachers could be to blame for bad outcomes. “Common Core implementation,” he notes sadly, “is still a long way from fulfilling the standards’ promise.”
The unwillingness of Team Gates to admit the obvious and consider a new approach is almost comical. But the stakes are too high, and the collateral damage to our schools and our children too severe, to enjoy the joke. As Stotsky says, “These folks can’t bear the idea of throwing egg on their own faces — it’s better to let public education completely disintegrate.”