Rhyme and reason

What impact will Common Core, the new set of national educational standards being adopted by most states, have on literary education? Some fear the new standards replace specific goals of literary education with watery notions of “critical thinking” lacking specific content.

While these objections have merit, we find a more complex picture. The ongoing reduction of literary education in schools has a long and disturbing history.

There is no question many interpret the Common Core as a mandate for drastically reducing literary education.

Recently, one of us, David J. Rothman, had a high school poetry text canceled by a major education publisher, which halted publication of new poetry textbooks because “what we are seeing right now in high schools around the country is a move away from literature and an increased emphasis on non-fiction. Obviously, this is largely tied to Common Core Standards and for better or worse, they are really dictating what is going on in high school classrooms right now.”

This dispiriting response accords with other reports that the Common Core is leading public schools to offer less poetry instruction.

In fact, Common Core does recommend that most reading be “informational,” but this is across the curriculum, not in literature classes alone. Common Core’s literature standards are not very prescriptive. The only author mentioned is Shakespeare, a problem for those who insist that serious literature standards require recommended readings. Unfortunately, its vagueness allows educational administrators to blame Common Core for all manner of silliness.

The Rialto, Calif., public schools had students write papers assessing evidence whether the Holocaust really happened (spoiler alert: it did). Rialto claimed it developed the now-notorious assignment to meet the “critical thinking” component of Common Core.

Why do so many educational administrators choose to interpret Common Core in the silliest ways possible, from Holocaust denial assignments to slashing poetry? For that, we have to go back long before Common Core to 1918, when the National Education Association (then an administrator’s association) issued the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. Prior to the Principles, schools emphasized content because more knowledge makes us better citizens. Over time, the Cardinal Principles changed all that.

Early 20th century Progressives thought most people were just not capable of much learning. Accordingly, the Cardinal Principals reoriented schooling around keeping children in schools so they would not compete in the job market with grown-ups, and to prepare them for their eventual work in factories. Thus, the seven Cardinal Principles are distinctly non-academic: health, worthy home membership, vocation, worthy use of leisure, civic education (meaning cooperation) and ethical character.

A single goal, the awkwardly named and ill-conceived “command of fundamental processes,” was to cover nearly all the academic disciplines: math, history, the sciences, music, art and of course, literature and poetry.

For decades, teachers fought back, retaining scholarly content in k-12 schooling. Teachers have always been badly trained, hired, paid and managed. Yet teacher quality remained high as long as women had few other career options. This is less true today, making more teachers less able to maintain standards when administrators water down content. That gives Common Core more deleterious impacts than it would have had in the past. Among other developments, that means less poetry.

Fortunately, the dumbing down of American public schools may have hit bottom. Growing numbers of geeky charter schools challenge students with rigorous academics. In combination with a poor economy making teaching jobs relatively attractive, alternative teacher certification programs like Teach for America are producing better-educated teachers more likely to resist lowest-common-denominator standards. The astonishing growth of creative writing programs is also keeping poetry alive.

We retain hope. Stalin, Franco, Hitler and Mao killed poets, but they couldn’t kill poetry. The Common Core won’t, either, its weak standards and weaker interpretations notwithstanding. Poetry may be on a starvation diet in the public schools for now, but in the long run, it will be back.

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Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. David J. Rothman is a widely published poet and critic who directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Western State Colorado University.