Selling Shakespeare short?


Toledo Public Schools, like other districts in the region, the state, and most of the country, is preparing to adopt “common core” standards for teaching English and math. With one conspicuous exception — a recommendation that would diminish students’ exposure to literature — the national standards merit support.

The model curriculum is scheduled to take effect in Ohio next school year. Its goals include elevating the quality of instruction, preparing high school graduates for higher education or fulfilling jobs (or both), improving the ability of standardized tests to measure academic achievement, and enabling states and districts nationwide to develop a common base of expectations to assess and compare how students are learning.

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These are all vital objectives. But one implication of the standards is that 70 percent of the reading assigned to high school students would be nonfiction and 30 percent fiction (for younger students, it’s half and half). These ratios appear to devalue the importance of studying literature in a more-rigorous curriculum.

It’s easy to distort this element of the core. The standards do not require that dreary government reports and technical manuals supplant Shakespeare in English class. Much of the nonfiction reading will occur in other courses, such as math, science, and history.

Plenty of classic nonfiction works — the best American autobiographies, essays, speeches, and journalism — are also soul-stirring literature. Exposing students to these primary sources, rather than boring, dumbed-down textbooks, can only enhance their appreciation of the value of good writing. It also will offer students examples of ways to use their own research to meld fact, argument, and opinion successfully.

Yet the rationale for making fiction and poetry central parts of basic education remains valid. The study of literature need not, and should not, be diluted.

Critical analysis of great works of imagination provides students with skills in thinking, reading, and writing that will help them in other courses, in college, and in their careers. Those skills apply to interpretation of nonfiction texts as well as literary ones.

Under the new standards, English classes could spend a third of their time or more on nonfiction. And since the new standards — and new tests that will measure how they are succeeding — deal with language arts and math, English teachers will be held primarily responsible for meeting the nonfiction reading requirement. It’s easy to see how districts could decide that literature study has become an unaffordable luxury.

School leaders in Ohio say that won’t happen, because districts will retain broad discretion for curriculum development and teacher training under the new standards. But the distinction some officials make between literary and “informational” texts is artificial and arbitrary.

Ohio, Michigan, and 43 other states are adopting the new standards. The Obama Administration is encouraging use of the common core by tying it to federal aid under the Race for the Top program.

The common core usefully makes a priority of instruction in critical thinking and basic ideas and concepts, rather than teaching to standardized tests. That’s a vital antidote to the largely discredited No Child Left Behind federal program that states are properly phasing out.

Overall, the new standards promise to enhance the quality of public education. The fiction/nonfiction ratio, though, threatens to deprive students of the insights and inspiration of great literature. Scrap it.