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May 17, 2012


It is my understanding that the reason personal essays and opinion are emphasized in standardized tests isn't so much the influence of Friere or Delpit, the NCTE or even the content of state standards, so much as the difficulty of evaluating a student's ability to write in isolation from other factors, including reading or specific content knowledge.

You cannot assess someone's ability to write sentences, paragraphs, and essays if you ask them a question to which they do not know the answer.

Tom, good point regarding assessment environments. But Coleman's goal is to also reach into the curriculum and classroom practices.

Let's talk about the common core's emphasis on reading non-fiction. What concerns me is that students won't be assigned to read many works of fiction in high school.

The argument that fiction is less challenging, and doesn't promote critical thinking is bizarre. Students often find it tougher to read James Joyce, than say Thomas Payne's essay "Common Sense."

Furthermore, many of the "informational texts" (love the Orwellian phrasing) recommended are also covered in social studies. So, students will read essays by Orwell, Martin Luther King, and others twice -- and may not get around to the Shakespeare and Melville at all, because non-fiction is only supposed to comprise of a small part of the assigned readings.

Well -- these architects of the Common Core might pick up a copy of Moby Dick, and notice there's a lot of "information" about whaling, and some essays by Orwell might actually be less informative, and more persuasive.

Students who haven't read important works of fiction simply won't get a well-rounded liberal arts education, and will lack sufficient cultural capital. We are already cutting the arts enough -- less music, less art. Can we really afford these utilitarian reforms -- which don't make sense, anyway?

My concern is the framing of the current status quo. When you transition from the content of standardized tests to the concerns of progressive educators, and on to the poor reading performance in the US, it suggests that there is a clear link from one to the next.

I would argue that English instruction in the US today is shaped by assessment and accountability, not progressivism, and indeed what passes for progressive education in US schools today, like balanced literacy -- is also structured primarily around accountability.

Debbie Meier nailed it today: "One is that the skill involved in doing well on reading and math tests do not constitute something worthy of the name "academic achievement." Such a claim dumbs down "academia" in ways that do serious damage. And the second is that even simple-minded questions of "can she or can't she read, and how well" can't be answered "psychometrically." The third strike is that belief in them takes time away from using our schools to develop intellectually honest habits of mind, genuine respect for evidence, the capacity to take apart or defend a good argument, etc., in a variety of domains (including math and literature)."

If kids are really reading 80% fiction in school today (I don't buy it myself), it is because of Mr. Coleman's allies in the testing and textbook industries, and we must believe that the same people and processes which got us into this mess will get us out.

As a former college writing instructor (and huge fan of Atul Gawande), I agree with the need to shift the focus to more analytic writing.

As the parent of a fourth-grader who just took the recalibrated (oops!) Florida Writes, I would rather see very young writers given wide latitude in what they write about until they have the basic skills down. That's how they learn reading: "Learn to read, then read to learn." My son was being asked to do five-paragraph "writes upon request" drills in first grade, before he could even string together a correct sentence. He is a much more enthusiastic (and better) reader than writer today.

The memo from Florida DOE about changes in K-12 writing tests tied to new college readiness standards is worth a read to see the change in expectations. (This is the source of the precipitous drop in scores that caused the state board to back off its new standards.)


Inverness, I agree that some fiction has as much background information as non-fiction. I just want to add that the Common Core/Coleman's vision is for these reading guidelines to stretch across the curriculum, not just in English class, so there shouldn't be double assignments in English and social studies. Rather, social studies and science teachers are going to be asked to make more reading assignments outside of the textbook. Obviously teachers in a grade level should be working together to make sure the various reading lists complement one another and don't duplicate one another.

Their vision for the whole curriculum is not at all clear, and given that these standards are being rolled out along with new individual teacher evaluation policies tied to test scores, there is every reason to believe that they will, in fact, lead to all kinds of crazy duplicated and conflicting assignments across disciplines.

Who is responsible for which standards? If they're shared, and you want to keep your job, you'd better cover all of them, redundancy be damned.

What is the vision behind including American historical documents in "informational texts" not as primary source documents in history/social studies?

The science reading standards don't require reading outside textbooks, and it is not clear why they would, since you don't read popular science books or articles in college or career.

Also, the range of "informational texts" calls for "literary
nonfiction" exclusively. How much literary nonfiction do you read and analyze in college and careers?

Dana, you are correct in that teachers should coordinate to make sure that too many texts aren't assigned twice. But that still doesn't address the reality that students will be reading an awful lot of "informational texts," and not nearly enough fiction in high school. I've yet to find any good reason to do so. As a social studies teacher, I worry about when my students will read poetry, literary fiction...I don't see what that's a desirable result, but that's probably what happens when non-teachers are put in charge of curriculum.

For an interesting discussion of who Coleman is, go to Diane Ravitch's post:


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