Monday, May 21, 2012

Why Does David Coleman Dislike Fiction?

The answer is: he doesn't, and to say so is a gross misrepresentation.

As background, David Coleman is the former Rhodes Scholar who has been deeply involved in drafting the Common Core standards, and who was recently announced as the new head of the College Board. Diane Ravitch, erstwhile historian and current twitterer and blogger against all things associated with any education reformer, recently accused Coleman of promulgating Common Core standards that basically eliminate fiction from school curricula:
I have been told by several people who attended David Coleman’s lectures that he speaks disparagingly of fiction. That’s why the Common Core standards permit 50% fiction in the early grades but only 25% fiction in high school. I don’t get it. 
First, because teachers should make that decision.
Second, because I can’t imagine a well-developed mind that has not read novels, poems and short stories. . . . [LEAVING OUT SEVERAL PARAGRAPHS ABOUT POETRY THAT RAVITCH LOVES AND THAT WOULD SUPPOSEDLY BE ELIMINATED BY COLEMAN]
Maybe David Coleman thinks that education is wasted on the young. But how sad it would be if future generations of young people never read the poems and stories and novels that teach them not only how to think but how to feel, how to dream, how to imagine worlds far beyond those they know.
To accuse Coleman, or the Common Core standards (little as I care to defend them), of eliminating all "poems and stories and novels" is simply wrong. The Common Core standards DO speak of having 50% of reading be non-fiction in early grades and 70% in high school, but those figures apply to the entire curriculum, not to English classes.

David Coleman himself made that clear in a comment on Ravitch's blog:
1) The 70/30 balance in grades 6-12 does not mean that students read mostly non-fiction in ELA classrooms. It applies to all student reading and explicitly includes the reading of content rich non-fiction in history, social studies, science and technical subjects. The majority of 6-12 ELA remains devoted to literature with some room for literary non-fiction.
2) The standards require the careful study of poems, novels, and drama in K-12. Such things as the study of Shakespeare is required, American literature and wonderful aspects of poetry. Let there please be no misunderstanding that literature in these standards does not remain a central part of student and teacher work.
But anyone who had looked at the Common Core standards would have known this already. To quote the Common Core website:
In K–5, the Standards follow NAEP’s lead in balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. In accord with NAEP’s growing emphasis on informational texts in the higher grades, the Standards demand that a significant amount of reading of informational texts take place in and outside the ELA classroom. Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.
Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.
Maybe 70% shouldn't be set in stone, but if high school students read mostly novels, stories, and poetry in English class, and then read challenging non-fiction for their classes in history, science, the arts, etc., why wouldn't all that additional reading add up to about the 70/30 ratio that the Common Core standards suggest? In other words, Common Core gets to a 70/30 non-fiction-to-fiction ratio not by eliminating fiction but by adding more non-fiction. Is this a bad idea? Ravitch doesn't say, as she's too busy making the false claim that future students will "never read" fiction any more.

Moreover, look at one of the reasons Coleman offers for trying to emphasize non-fiction reading:
We in America in K-5 assessment and curriculum focus 80% of our time on stories, on literature. That is the dominant work that is done in the elementary school and that's what's tested on exams and that's what's in our textbooks. However, the research is overwhelmingly clear and actually Dr. Steiner has been an early proponent of this research at its earlier stages, that in kindergarten through 5th grade, the general knowledge that you develop in those years plays a crucial predictive role in not only your performance in those other disciplines, like science and history, but your ability to read more complex text itself. That is, the elementary school's a magnificent place for students to learn about the world through reading. Whoever thought otherwise?
So the core standards for the first time demand that 50% of the text students encounter in kindergarten through 5th grade is informational text, meaning primarily text about science and history, text about the arts, the text through which students learn about the world. That is a major shift and if you think about what's happening in this country unintentionally literature and stories dominated the elementary curriculum. And then we expanded the literacy block. So we made the literacy block 80% of the time.
Guess what that meant? We destroyed history and science in the elementary school. The core standards are a chance to regain the proper role of the elementary school teacher, to bring their students into the world, to spend equal time on informational and story, and in that way build a real foundation for literacy--that is the first major step. And the standards strongly encourage that the knowledge that's built through this reading and read alouds and then students reading themselves in history and science and the arts--it is coherent both within grades and across grades that students are building this foundation of knowledge.
Ravitch ought to love this. She claims all the time that schools spend too much time on reading and math to the exclusion of a rich curriculum in science, history, the arts, etc. She ought to be applauding Coleman and the Common Core standards for trying to require more challenging non-fiction reading across all subjects. Instead, she is demonizing Coleman by accusing him of disliking fiction.    


Blogger Taking a Leap With African American Students said...

Thanks Stuart, this analysis was a good one. Public School policy, practice, failures and triumphs despite it all fascinates me. I was able to save my children from the circus we call Seattle Public. Figured out all kinds of tricks.
The school reform debates do not allow insights from parents o African American, poor o Brown children. Who wants yo be on a conversation with any s
So believe they have all the knowledge, all the answers. Thank you for your voice, because at least you have the experience as a parent of an African Am. Student.

3:42 PM  
Blogger TGGP said...

I like Ravitch's straw-reformer. Behavioral psychologists/"economists" have shown that the priming effect works even when you explicitly tell the subject that they are receiving worthless data that should be ignored. Whatever we may think consciously, our brains take in what we hear and treat it as truth, often forgetting later why we came to believe something in the first place. And fiction isn't even random data, it has certain systematic biases which appeal to consumers. I deliberately stopped reading fiction a couple years back, even if the non-fiction I read isn't perfect at least I learn some facts by the end.

6:18 PM  

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