As part of a continuing discussion on the myths and truths surrounding Common, this piece seeks to shed light on the standards’ “informational text” guidelines, along with questions and concerns that have surfaced around them.

Question: Do the Common Core English standards replace literature with “informational texts”? If so, what’s the replacement ratio?

Answer: Yes. The standards discuss “informational texts” and ratio of replacement on page five of the downloadable standards. Informational texts for grades K-5 are defined as “biographies and autobiographies; books about history, social studies, science, and the arts; technical texts, including directions, forms, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps; and digital sources on a range of topics” (page 31). For grades 6-12, an informational text includes “subgenres of exposition, argument, and functional text in the form of personal essays, speeches, opinion pieces, essays about art or literature, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts (including digital sources) written for a broad audience” (page 57).

As to the ratio of fictional to nonfictional text: the standards don’t give an explicit number, but say the “follow NAEP’s (National Assessment Governing Board) lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts,” in grades K-5, thus assuming about a 50-50 ratio. In later grades, they “demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside the ELA classroom.” “Significant,” according to the 2009 NAEP Reading Framework (pictured below), would be somewhere around 55 and 70 percent for grades 8 and 12. They admit that fulfilling these standards requires “much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional.” They do note that “the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction,” and thus much of the required informational reading “must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

screen shot | commoncorestandards.org

screen shot | commoncorestandards.org

 

Note: these English standards don’t just apply to English classes. They also contain guidelines for teaching literacy in history and social studies classes, science class, and in “technical subjects.” In the above passage, the Common Core authors admit that English classrooms “must focus on literature” and literary nonfiction (often described as “creative nonfiction” or “literary journalism”).  From this wording, it would appear that informational texts are meant to be most emphasized in the other aforementioned classes. And indeed, most history classes are meant to focus on informational texts.

Thus, it seems that the precise ratio of fiction to nonfiction implemented in the English classroom is still up to the teacher. There may be a greater emphasis on nonfiction than before, but the type of nonfiction selected is also dependent on the teacher’s choice. If he or she wants to introduce students to Charles Dickens’ journalistic accounts of London, the standards would allow for that.

Question: Will this become an opportunity for leftist propaganda to infiltrate schools?

Answer: Maybe—that entirely depends on the teacher and curriculum.

The Common Core standards’ recommended (not mandatory) informational texts include speeches from Patrick Henry, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They also include Common Sense by Thomas Paine, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, “The Fallacy of Success” G.K. Chesterton, and “Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell. There are obviously some solid classics here, and an ideological range in authorship.

At the CPAC panel on Common Core last weekend, Phyllis Schlafly referenced a new curriculum from College Board, called Springboard. She said its choice of informational text “morphs into liberal propaganda,” so I decided to take a look at the curriculum in question. From the samples I could access online, the curriculum’s ideological leaning seemed slightly less clear-cut.  It encouraged students to write about Mahatma Gandhi, Elie Wiesel, Cesar Chavez, Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, and Mother Teresa. Granted, there are some liberals in this mix, but the curriculum also said it was trying to emphasize Nobel prize winners and historic leaders. One section of their Grade 8 curriculum focuses on Nelson Mandela, while another unit highlights Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Ray Bradbury’s The Drummer Boy of Shiloh, and Homer’s Odyssey. The Grade 10 sample showed selections from the writings of Susan B. Anthony, Elie Wiesel, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Amy Tan, William Butler Yeats, William Shakespeare, Victor Hugo, and two works by Sophocles (Oedipus Rex and Antigone). It’s something of a mixed bag, politically—as it should be.

For parents who fear liberal propaganda is just now infiltrating their classrooms, it’s important to note that literary texts are just as susceptible to the ideological shaping of a teacher or curriculum. And indeed, propaganda may be even more lethal and innocuous in literary texts, since story deeply moves our emotions and spirits.

Of course, this is the reason we love fiction: it plunges us into the midst of history, and awakens our eyes and minds to its reality. You can tell a student to read news articles about the Cold War—or you can tell them to read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Which, do you think, will be more compelling?

This seems to be the best rebuttal to Common Core’s emphasis on informational texts in the classroom: while no one will deny Patrick Henry and George Washington’s rhetorical prowess, speeches rarely tug at the moral imagination. It’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin that convicted the conscience of a nation, not columns or political debates. I would argue that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic belongs in a history class, alongside other nonfiction and fiction writings of the time.  While colleges and the career field may emphasize nonfiction, truly excellent fiction imparts a linguistic adeptness that transcends medium. It is true that informational texts are important, and should be an integral part of the classroom: it’s the 50/50 or 70/30 ratio that I’m not so sure about.

Stay tuned for later articles on Common Core fact and fiction, including (but not limited to):

– Will the new Math standards utilize Soviet-era math curricula?
– Does Common Core’s focus on test results hurt teachers?
– Is the Common Core initiative truly state-led?
– Could the implementation of Common Core lead to the adoption of a nationwide curriculum?

Previous posts on Common Core: Fact and Fiction—

Fact and Fiction at CPAC Common Core Panel
Common Core and Data Mining: Fact and Fiction, Part II