The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


December 29, 2012

Teachers chafe at standards written by millionaires

The Back Porch column


To be well-read or not to be well-read. That is the question. Problem is, those in charge can’t agree on the answer.

The Common Core State Standards, underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the goal of making American kids smarter, is cutting into the edifying power of literature, educators told The Washington Post earlier this month.

English literature courses were among the toughest at college. Students read literally hundreds of pages each night. Those Norton anthologies could give hernias because they compressed the best of centuries of English and American literature into cinder block-sized books.

They included poetry, prose, fiction, nonfiction, essays, and excerpts from the Bible from the famous, infamous and obscure writers of the age. And then there were the endless term papers written about the endless pages of assigned reading.

The theory behind writing about reading assignments is that if one could write well about what was read, the person had achieved some intellectual capacity. The discipline of writing forced the reader to assert an argument and draft support for it from the work in question and the analyses of the experts who had written about the work.

The stated goal of the Common Core State Standards is to introduce more nonfiction into K-12 classrooms, The Post reported. Subjecting students to more fact-based information should prepare them better for college and life beyond the ivy towers.

On the new reading list for high school juniors and seniors are Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” “FedViews,” by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (2009) and “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management,” published by the General Services Administration.

These are important documents, to be sure, but The Post story revealed that meeting these new standards is falling almost entirely on English teachers. That means they are cutting poetry, short stories and other literature staples from classroom diets.

This is what happens when business people take over education. Despite the burgeoning choir of those who scream that education must function more like a business, the reality is saying so doesn’t make it so. Education is not a business, and it never will be.

In a business, the owner can control input and output. In education, teachers control neither because they are dealing with myriad variables over which they have no control. And they can’t fire the students who don’t meet daily quotas.

This writer warned of the dangers of letting the Gates Foundation dictate American education standards when this notion was first reported. The Obama administration codified the standards by requiring states to adopt them to compete for Race to the Top grants, The Post reported. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have adopted the math and English standards. Minnesota has adopted only the English standards.

Some of the essays in those Norton anthologies were about religion, science, politics, philosophy and other topics. It’s ludicrous for school districts to cram informational reading about all those topics into English class. Each subject should bear its burden from this new reading list. Otherwise, the point of the standards is missed.

Forcing English teachers to pull from their curricula the thing that defines their subject area — literature — also defeats the purpose of a liberal arts education.

Already, too few college students understand references to literary works that are touchstones of American history and society. The allusions in modern writing — literature, newspaper stories and columns, movie scripts, TV scripts, ads — are lost on this illiterate generation schooled on the TV sound bite.

The answer is not a new reading list, although required reading that elevates the thought process is good. The answer is getting away from school policy based on standardized tests that evaluate a very narrow skill set in an already narrow way.

Removing literature removes the soul and spirit of humanity. People can live with less technology, less money, less food. They cannot live well for long with less of a soul or a spirit that has never soared with other free spirits in literature.

The time for education reform is long overdue. This ain’t it.

— Young is a Register-Herald columnist with a teaching degree in English literature from Concord College. E-mail:

© 2012 by Nerissa Young

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