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March 22, 2013
Ben Boychuk: Little 'Core,' too much 'Common' in reading list

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(March 22 -- By Ben Boychuk, Special to The Bee)

A prediction: In five years, California's kids will be even worse readers than they are today.

Why so pessimistic? After all, California's elementary and secondary school students already rank near the bottom in literacy. How much worse could they get?

Under the new Common Core standards coming to a school near you in 2014, the answer is: A lot worse.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson this week unveiled the state's new recommended reading list for the Common Core standards. The searchable database includes more than 7,800 titles for students in kindergarten through high school.

Torlakson's office says the list is "a vital resource for students, teachers and parents," updated with "appropriate contemporary titles that reflect rich cultural diversity written over the last decade," and designed to "accommodate a variety of tastes, interests and abilities."

Cut through the soothing press-release assurances ("rich cultural diversity" might as well be "rich Corinthian leather") and you're left with an undifferentiated mountain of books attempting to be all things to all people. What would you expect from a list so large, and no doubt written by committee?

I alighted on the middle school section because my son heads to sixth grade next year. The "general" English language arts list for grades 6 through 8 includes nearly 400 titles. "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "Aesop's Fables" appear alongside the likes of "Choosing Up Sides," a novel about a preacher's son and a southpaw pitcher who rebels against a blinkered theology that regards both baseball and left-handedness as sinful, and "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen," a story about, well, a teenage drama queen in New Jersey.

What do I have against adolescent drama queens and ball-playing sons of preachermen? Nothing in particular. Just don't get me started on New Jersey.

No, the real trouble is that California's list makes no helpful distinctions and offers no useful judgments.

Would anyone beyond the hallowed halls of the California Department of Education seriously claim that "Tom Sawyer" is no better or no worse than "Teenage Drama Queen," or a dozen other books I could have plucked randomly from the list? Is it all really just a matter of taste? And should a middle-schooler's taste matter that much?

Even if some of these books are worth reading outside class - "Choosing Up Sides" and "Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen" are popular for a reason - I doubt even their authors would place themselves alongside Twain in a middle-school curriculum.

California's reading list highlights one of the problems with the entire Common Core State Standards Initiative. By ostensibly focusing on "college and career readiness" - itself a term that means less than meets the eye - the new standards also make few useful distinctions and offer little in the way of good judgment.

Unlike the brouhaha over national standards two decades ago, few outside the rarified world of education policymaking knew much about Common Core until fairly recently. The initiative was a joint effort of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Most states simply fell into line when the Obama administration made adopting the "voluntary" standards a condition of winning federal Race to the Top funds. Public input was an afterthought.

That may be changing, as cash-strapped states have begun to dig in to the standards and realized how much money they'll cost to implement. Thirteen states, including Indiana, Florida, Missouri and Colorado, are considering legislation to opt out of Common Core. The Golden State, naturally, is rushing in to the tune of $800 million.

In theory, the new standards are supposed to let teachers spend more time on longer works. Students are supposed to read and analyze more complex material - whole books rather than excerpts. But the new standards also put much heavier emphasis on nonfiction "informational texts," presumably because future workers need to know how to follow instruction manuals.

As Sandra Stotsky points out, that would actually be a step away from research-based, internationally benchmarked standards. She would know. A decade ago, Stotsky led the effort to develop Massachusetts' English Language Arts standards, which rely heavily on good literature and are arguably the best in the land. Bay State students consistently score at the top of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Stotsky argues that too much nonfiction and too little regard for good books - as opposed to any old book on California's reading list - is a recipe for mediocrity.

How many parents know this? How many teachers? I wouldn't consider my experience representative, though it might be illustrative. At a parents meeting last week with the principal and teachers of my son's future middle school, Common Core came up only in passing.

I worry about what my son is in for. By California's current standards, he's an advanced reader. By my standards, he could do better. Doing better means reading better books. Under the Common Core - and certainly under California's conception of it - better books don't seem to be much of a priority.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Reach him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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