Another reason for concern about Common Core standards

Beyond the humorous observations, Joel Stein‘s latest “Awesome Column” for TIME raises some serious questions about the new Common Core standards that will impact the education of public school students in North Carolina and other states across the country.

I was not worried about the American education system until after I started writing a column, because that’s when I found out there are English teachers who assign my column as reading material. I regularly get e-mails from students asking about my use of anastrophe, metonymy, thesis statements and other things I’ve never heard of. To which I respond, “Transfer high schools immediately! To one that teaches Shakespeare and Homer instead of the insightful commentary of a first-rate, unconventionally handsome modern wit! Also, don’t do drugs!”

I can expect to be sending more of these e-mails thanks to the Common Core State Standards, with which public schools are encouraged to comply by 2014. The new curriculum standards dramatically shift about half the nation’s high school English reading lists toward an emphasis on nonfiction. In a speech last year, David Coleman, the new president of the College Board, who was one of the chief creators of the Common Core, worried about students’ focusing on opinion over analysis in their writing. …

… When I asked Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers–which, along with the National Governors Association, created the Common Core–he told me that CEOs and university professors championed the shift to nonfiction. Only a small, vocal group objected. “It upset people who love literature. That happens to be a lot of high school teachers,” Wilhoit said. But students aren’t reading nonfiction on their own, he added, and their history-class assignments tend to be short textbook summaries, not primary sources. “It’s not a good trend,” he said. “I guess it’s a by-product of the media world we live in.” Students are clearly not getting examples of how to make a persuasive argument by, for instance, avoiding insulting the media world that is interviewing them. …

… School isn’t merely training for work; it’s training to communicate throughout our lives. If we didn’t all experience Hamlet’s soliloquy, we’d have to explain soul-tortured indecisiveness by saying things like “Dude, you are like Ben Bernanke in early 2012 weighing inflation vs. growth in Quantitative Easing 3.” Teaching language through nonfiction is like teaching history by playing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or teaching science by giving someone an unmarked test tube full of sludge and having him figure out if the white powder he distilled is salt or sugar by making Steven Baumgarten taste it, which is how I learned science and how Steven Baumgarten learned to be more careful about picking people to work with. Something he could have learned by reading Othello.

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