Saturday, January 28, 2012


No Books, Please
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
28 January 2012

In the most recent Quality Counts report from Education Week, Catherine Gewertz was kind enough to describe not only the high school student reading requirements from the U.S. Common Core Standards, but from the standards of several other countries as well. I quote from her report for its shock value to anyone who might still imagine that our secondary students could still be reading one complete nonfiction book during their four years:


“Global Readings: Nations vary widely in the selection of readings and other language arts material that finds a home in the curriculum. In some cases, these are required texts [but evidently never complete history books for some odd reason—WHF]; others show up on lists of recommended titles; and still others are offered as examples of literature [no history wanted—WHF] that can satisfy academic standards and curricula.

In the United States, students in states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are required to read The Declaration of Independence, the preamble to The Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address [that should take them the entire afternoon—WHF]. Readings suggested for 11th and 12th grade include As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell; and “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.

In Ontario, Canada, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is on the list of approved readings for grade 11 English classes.

New South Wales, Australia, requires 9th graders to read “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a poem based on Arthurian legend, and at least one work by William Shakespeare [one of the Sonnets, perhaps?—WHF]

In Hong Kong, students taking the English-literature section of a required secondary school exam must pick from an eclectic basket of selections, from Shakespeare’s Othello and short stories by James Joyce and Edith Wharton to the iconic 1974 Hollywood film “Chinatown” and poems by Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes.

In England, required readings for the national English-literature exam taken by many 16-year-olds include Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.”


It may be premature, and eccentric, to celebrate the dumbed-down reading standards of other countries when compared with our own, but perhaps on their non-Literature standards, if any, other countries do require the reading of complete history books, but this report doesn’t say.

For our own students, it would be hard to come up with a livelier set of low expectations for reading at the high school level. As I suggested, the “texts” [we don’t talk about books any more] are all short enough to be read together by most secondary students in an afternoon.

I don’t believe that sort of workload would be found in the standards for their Latin, physics, chemistry or calculus courses, and even in United States Literature classes at the secondary level, most students read actual books, as in novels, don’t they? Or has that now gone by the board, ignored as they seem to be by the Common Core Standards?

In history classes, of course, in the absence of the rare teacher with demanding academic standards of his or her own, the assignment of complete real history books, even by popular historians such as David McCullough, has long ago vanished.

In the 2010 NAEP test of high school history students, 55 percent of Seniors scored Below Basic, which would be impossible to do if they had opened one history book or listened in one history class. Our students do worse in history than in any other subject, but our new Common Core Standards seem very likely to ensure that such a level of achievement is not disturbed in the slightest degree.

The Common Core academic expository writing standards, it should be noted in passing, are even more vague and superficial...

So let our Literature students get ready for their Common Core Standards requirements, just make sure they never read a complete nonfiction book, so that when they, and of course our History students, encounter such books at the college level, it will be a nice surprise for which they are completely unprepared.

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