JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Once upon a time, in the long-ago world of high school reading on a hilltop far, far away, Holden Caulfield was perhaps the epitome of angst, a young man suddenly an outcast in the world he thought he knew. J.D. Salinger's anti-hero was about to enter a perilous journey of self-discovery.
Today, down from the hilltop, high school English teachers may identify with Holden because reading scores for American students have dropped precipitously. How much? David Coleman, president of the College Board, says it's alarming.
DAVID COLEMAN: We have a crisis in the country around remediation rates. What I mean by that is so many kids, often as many as 50 percent, graduate high school in this country visibly, demonstrably not ready for the demands of a first-year college course or a career training program, which means they enter remediation courses in college, which they don't get credit. And that's often a path to not completing college, particularly for low-income children.
LYDEN: David Coleman is the lead architect of the Common Core, a sweeping new curricula change, which integrates nonfiction into the English program. Only one problem: Where does it leave The Catcher in the Rye? That's our cover story today: fiction, nonfiction and the great debate.
The Common Core is an ambitious realignment of school curricula. With remarkable unity, it's been touted by the Obama administration and Republicans and by the two largest teachers unions. States receive federal money to opt in, and only four states have not.
At the heart of the debate, though, is the requirement over exactly how fiction will fare in this brave new world. By the last couple of years of high school, 70 percent of what students will be reading across all subjects must be nonfiction. I asked David Coleman what this achieves.
COLEMAN: Fiction remains at the heart of the Common Core standards in English language arts classrooms. For example, Shakespeare is twice required; there's a focus on American literature. What changes instead is that high-quality nonfiction becomes an essential part of the history and social studies curriculum as well as science and technical subjects.
Within English language arts, the only shift is that there's some entry of high-quality literary nonfiction, such as the founding documents and the great conversation they inspired. The idea is that things like Lincoln's second inaugural, Martin Luther King's magnificent Letter from Birmingham Jail, these documents are worthy of close attention, not just in a historical context, but also for the interweaving of thought and language. And in that way, they are appropriate for studying English language arts as well.
LYDEN: I don't think anyone would disagree that Letter from Birmingham Jail isn't an important historical document, but I wanted to ask, when those are incorporated into the English class, isn't this something that students should actually be required to read in either history or American studies or social studies?
COLEMAN: The idea is that in English language arts, there's a wonderful attention paid, not only to the historical impact of such a work, but its use of language, the expression of language through rhetoric. And so what English teachers throughout this country as well as other teachers talk to us about is, for kids to be ready for the demands of college and career, they should attentively read literature and understand the force of language in that context to convey ideas, to debate them, to distill them. That is also a part of the essential work of preparation and a wonderful part of the force of English language.
LYDEN: How will you know, as a person who has developed this curricula, if it's working?
COLEMAN: I think if the Common Core standards are successful, we should see a world in which remediation rates at colleges, in other words, where kids enter college after receiving a high school degree and still need remediation, we need those rates to go down. So that would be a visible victory. In this country, for the past 14 years, the scores on the national assessment of educational progress in reading in eighth grade have been flat.
If we can't have a breakthrough in this country in reading performance, particularly in later grades, so many students will be consigned to a world where they can't read the texts in front of them and hence grow and learn. So success in performance terms would look like breakthroughs in those areas of achievement. Those aren't - happen in a moment but over time.
LYDEN: That's David Coleman, the lead architect behind new guidelines. Before the Common Core, most high school English classes read mostly literature. The reality now is that students must split their time between fiction and nonfiction. There are even some school districts where teachers have been asked to drop novels to meet the new requirements. And that's exactly what Azar Nafisi is afraid of.
Nafisi is the author of the critically acclaimed "Reading Lolita in Tehran," a nonfiction book. In Iran, she used Western literature to challenge autocratic thinking. Now, she's worried that in America, the great novels will inevitably be sacrificed.
AZAR NAFISI: Imaginative knowledge is a way of perceiving the world, relating to the world and changing the world. And nothing can replace it. So where I disagree with Mr. Coleman is trying to replace fiction with nonfiction rather than finding creative ways of teaching students a very creative interdisciplinary program where you could teach them side by side and focus on quality rather than on bringing about these sort of changes.
LYDEN: And according to Nafisi, the value of getting lost in a really good novel can't be overstated.
NAFISI: When you look at a documentary or read a real-life story, you can understand the experiences that that person went through. When you read Zora Neale Hurston, you not only do not understand that particular person's experiences, but you also are able to empathize and become that person. You put yourself in that person's mind and heart. And so the experience is completely different. And that is why I think from time immemorial, human beings have had the need to understand the world through telling the story.
LYDEN: Writer Azar Nafisi. Her new book called "Dispatches from the Republic of Imagination" talks about the necessity of fiction.
However, almost the entire country - 46 states and Washington, D.C. - have already signed on to the Common Core. While some states won't adopt the guidelines for several years, others already have. Kentucky was the first.
Angela Gunter teaches English at Daviess County High School in Owensboro. Gunter says that at first, many of her colleagues opposed the changes.
ANGELA GUNTER: As you can imagine, we English teachers love our literature. And the greater emphasis on nonfiction text was uncomfortable for some of us.
LYDEN: Now, Gunter says her students actually like it. She kept them in the loop the whole way, beginning by showing them their own reading level scores.
GUNTER: When they realized how relatively low they were, it was a real wake-up call for them. They were very upset, and I told them they should feel like they should've been cheated. They've not been taught this. And we understood at that point that we needed to start challenging the students more.
LYDEN: Take, say, "To Kill a Mockingbird." That's a novel, she says, with deceptively simple language.
GUNTER: However, there are so many themes that are much more complex that required mature thinking that we want to keep it at the high school level. So we paired it with Malcolm Gladwell's piece, which alleges that it's an elitist story. And the kids have never heard that. So the students find that there's a purpose in the reading that may not have been as apparent before.
LYDEN: The downside?
GUNTER: We can't read everything. We can't fit everything in. So we have had to deal with abridging a bit.
LYDEN: Take Shakespeare. Instead of reading all five acts of Julius Caesar, her freshmen now read only the speeches delivered by Brutus and Mark Antony after Caesar's execution, rather than reading the play as a whole. And that's the problem, according to Mark Bauerlein. He's an English professor at Emory University.
A few years ago, he helped the team developing the Common Core. But he eventually parted ways with David Coleman mainly because he disagrees with the attempts to standardize learning. Mark Bauerlein says the standards pile so much onto English teachers, but the cultivation of critical, passionate reading is in jeopardy.
MARK BAUERLEIN: When you interpret these standards at the state level, when you try to develop lesson plans, when you select works to be assigned, when you find the assignments that people have, one can interpret those so broadly that we actually end up with a lot of weak practices.
LYDEN: So what happens to the classic novels, Mark Bauerlein, when we're reducing the amount of fiction students are reading? Is that a concern?
BAUERLEIN: It is a concern. Now, the Common Core has a wonderful standard for 11 and 12th grade English, which runs: demonstrate knowledge of 18th, 19th and early 20th century foundational works of American literature. But you've got so many other pressures on English teachers in Common Core - the teaching of writing, of nonfiction texts, you have research skills that they're supposed to develop. And the problem is that all those classics, they take a lot of time, especially in the hustling, bustling, hyper-digital world of 17-year-olds.
I worry that we're just going to find that teachers will teach shorter works, they will spend less time on those classics, and they'll tend to orient them more toward topical, relevant concerns.
LYDEN: Do you think that students and teachers will both, in some ways, evaluate the entire experience of literature quite differently so that they're reading with some sort of purpose to fit a curriculum and perhaps "oh, I just want to fall into the world of this novel" may be getting left out?
BAUERLEIN: The sort of free-floating, open-ended literary intellectual experience simply is hard to fit into the achievement orientation and accountability system. So if the English class does not hold the line against the kid who has a curiosity, who is really struck by Quentin Compson in "The Sound and the Fury," the kid who gets taken up with Ivan Karamazov in "The Brothers Karamazov," that bright kid who's having issues with atheism or with despair, things that happen often during those years, well, that area in which you want to cultivate the intellect of that thoughtful 18-year-old who often isn't oriented toward grades but who often ends up being the kind of thoughtful intelligence that ends up doing something extraordinary 10 years later, are we losing the support or at least the conditions that will prompt that student to continue reading and thinking?
LYDEN: That's Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and an opponent of the Common Core State Standards. You're listening to NPR News.