Annie Paul Murphy writes about neuroscience. In this article in the New York Times in 2012, she says that neuroscientists have documented how fiction helps brains develop. Reading fiction enlarges our understanding and imagination. It teaches us about a wide range of social situations that we may have never encountered. As others have written in the past, fiction is a magic carpet that allows us to enter into other worlds and other places, to walk in the shoes of people we might never meet or people that are purely imaginary. (I actually have some trouble, philosophically, with the idea that we must find a utilitarian justification for engaging with art, whether literature or music or other imaginative expression, like those who say that listening to Mozart increases your math scores, or similar claims of the connection between test scores [i.e., the Holy Grail of education] and activities whose purpose is to give people a sense of joy, to stimulate their imagination, to deepen our humanity.


This relates to a discussion on the blog a few days ago about how Common Core appears to be causing a decline in the teaching and reading of fiction in fourth and eighth grades, which are tested by the National Assessment of Education Progress. Brookings scholar Tom Loveless pointed out what appears to be a direct connection between the introduction of Common Core and the decline in reading fiction.


The Common Core standards direct that teachers in the grades K-8 spend 50 percent of instructional time on fiction and 50% on non-fiction. In the high school, teachers are supposed to spend 30 percent on fiction and 70 percent on non-fiction. This directive has no basis in research, experience, or reason. Why cut back on fiction?


Apparently, the drafting committee decided that the best way to prepare students to do well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress–federal tests that are given every two years to samples of students in every district across the nation–would be to incorporate the NAEP instructions to assessment developers. NAEP recommends that the developers allocate 50 percent of the test questions on the reading exams in fourth grade to fiction and 50 percent to non-fiction, and that the proportions shift in high school to 30 percent fiction and 70 percent informational text. For some unknown, unexplained reason the CCSS writing committee decided this must be the way that reading is taught in American schools, with a declining emphasis on fiction.


This is not only arbitrary, it is senseless. No other nation tells teachers how to allocate time between fiction and non-fiction. Both are worthy. Teachers should make their own decisions about what they think is best in their classroom.


When criticism of this arbitrary allocation became widely known, there was a public outcry that the Common Core was anti-literature. The advocates for the Common Core responded that the allocation applied to all subjects–including mathematics, sciences, physical education, social studies, and so on–and thus left English teachers free to teach fiction if they chose, to the extent they chose.


But neither textbook publishers nor teachers saw it that way. If the purpose of the 50-50, 30-70 divisions was to leave reading teachers free to choose their own assignments, what was the point of embedding the allocations in the standards? If they had no purpose other than to tell math teachers and science teachers not to assign fiction, did the allocation make any sense? Obviously not. It doesn’t take a high level of sophistication to see that the purpose of the allocation was to diminish the amount of time devoted to fiction.


I know of no research that says that children who read fiction are less well prepared to understand informational text than children who read informational text. The most important determinants of reading fluency and skill are not the genre read, but the students’ vocabulary, background knowledge, and interest. Government regulations are “informational text” and O. Henry short stories are fiction. Which is more likely to contribute to a students’ ability to read?


I am not making a case here for fiction over non-fiction. I write non-fiction, and I read non-fiction. But I would never claim that anything I write is worthier than poetry by William Blake or novels by John Steinbeck. Yes, I think students should read classic literature, including classic speeches (“the Gettysburg Address,” Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches) and classic essays (like George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”). Students should be exposed to both great literature and great speeches and essays (otherwise known as “informational text.”)


But I fail to see why any committee anywhere should have the right to tell English teachers whether to teach fiction or “informational text.” That is a decision that belongs to teachers.