One of the most annoying features of the Common Core standards is its mandate imposing set percentages of fiction and informational text. I know of no other national educational standards that impose such a rigid division. This mandate is absurd. It should be eliminated.


The New York Times reports on the controversy here in typical Times style, quoting some who say they like the new approach while others say they don’t like it at all.


“The new standards stipulate that in elementary and middle school, at least half of what students read during the day should be nonfiction, and by 12th grade, the share should be 70 percent.”


Where did these numbers come from? Not research. They happen to be the same as the instructions to assessment developers for the federal test called NAEP. NAEP wanted a mix of fiction and informational text. They were not concocted as guidelines for teachers. Yet the CCSS project adopted them as a national mandate, with no evidence. Is there evidence that students who read more nonfiction than literature are better prepared for colleges and careers? No. There is none. None.


There is absolutely no valid justification for this mandate. When it was challenged five years ago as a threat to the teaching of literature, the authors of the CC said there was a misunderstanding. They said the proportions were written for the entire curriculum, not just for English classes, so the nonfiction in math, science, and other classes would leave English teachers free to teach literature, as usual. This was silly. How many classes in math, science, civics, and history were reading fiction? Clearly the goal was to force English teachers to teach nonfiction, on the assumption that fiction does not prepare you to be “college and career ready.”


And as the article shows, English teachers are taking the mandate seriously. Frankly, every English teacher should be free to decide what to teach. If he or she loves teaching literature, that’s her choice. If she loves teaching documents, essays, biographies, and other nonfiction, that’s her choice.


Or should be.


Now, read Peter Greene’s dissection of this article. He is outraged by the writer’s bland acceptance of Common Core’s nonsensical demands on English teachers, as well as the assumption that English teachers never taught non-fiction in the past. They did and do.


He lists the elements of the article that are infuriating. Here is one:


Taylor does not know where the informational text requirement came from.


Taylor notes that “the new standards stipulate” that a certain percentage (50 for elementary, 70 for high school) of a student’s daily reading diet should be informational. And that’s as deep as she digs.


But why is the informational requirement in the Common Core in the first place? There’s only one reason– because David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. All these years later, and not one shred of evidence, one scrap of research, not a solitary other nation that has used such a requirement to good results— there isn’t anything at all to back up the inclusion of the informational reading requirement in the standards except that David Coleman thought it would be a good idea. Coleman, I will remind you, is not a teacher, not an educator, not a person with one iota of expertise in teaching and is, in fact, proud of his lack of qualifications. In fact, Coleman has shared with us his thoughts about how to teach literature, and they are — not good. If Coleman were student teaching in my classroom, I would be sending him back to the drawing board (or letting him try his ideas out so that we could have a post-crash-and-burn “How could we do better” session).


Coleman has pulled off one of the greatest cons ever. If a random guy walked in off the street into your district office and said, “Hey, I want to rewrite some big chunks of your curriculum just because,” he would be justly ignored. But Coleman has managed to walk in off the street and force every American school district pay attention to him.


Here is another:


Taylor uses a quote to both pay lip service to and also to dismiss concerns about curricular cuts.


“Unfortunately there has been some elimination of some literature,” said Kimberly Skillen, the district administrator for secondary curriculum and instruction in Deer Park, N.Y. But she added: “We look at teaching literature as teaching particular concepts and skills. So we maybe aren’t teaching an entire novel, but we’re ensuring that we’re teaching the concepts that that novel would have gotten across.”


So, you see, we really only use literature in the classroom as a sort of bucket to carry in little nuggets of concept and skill. The literature doesn’t really have any intrinsic value of its own. Why read the whole novel when we only really care about (aka test) a couple of paragraphs on page 142? If we were hoping to pick up some metaphor-reading skills along the way, why not just read a page of metaphor examples?


This is an attitude of such staggering ignorance and numbskullery that I hardly know how to address it. This is like saying, “Why bother with getting to know someone and dating and talking to each other and listening to each other and spending months just doing things together and sharing hopes and dreams and finally deciding to commit your lives to each other and planning a life together and then after all that finally sleeping together– why do all that when you could just hire a fifty-dollar hooker and skid straight to the sex?” It so completely misses the point, and if neither Taylor nor Skillen can see how it misses the point, I’m not even sure where to begin.


Literature creates a complex web of relationships, relationships between the reader and the author, between the various parts of the text, between the writing techniques and the meaning.


You don’t get the literature without reading the whole thing. The “we’ll just read the critical part of the work” school of teaching belongs right up there with a “Just the last five minutes” film festival. Heck, as long as you see the sled go into the furnace or the death star blow up or Kevin Spacey lose the limp, you don’t really need the rest of the film for anything, right?


And here is the truly outrageous change that Common Core is imposing on English classrooms across the nation: No need to read the whole novel or the whole play. Just read little chunks to get ready for the test. That is an outrage.