Stotsky: Coleman’s 50/50 mandate for literary/informational texts

The following was written Sandra Stotsky, one of the primary authors of the highly-regarded Massachusetts standards for English Language Arts.  Here is an earlier piece by Stotsky on the Common Core standards.

It is amazing that one badly informed person could single-handedly alter and weaken the entire public school curriculum in this country, without any public discussion.  Indeed, David Coleman, author of the Common Core standards in English Language Arts, had no trouble imposing his personal preferences on a document called our “national standards” and keeping them there. Not one legal organization in this country has so far mounted a challenge to the entire series of non-transparent procedures, funding sources, and appointments that gave one person the authority to make national educational policy over the heads of parents, local school boards, and even Congress.

Why did David Coleman mandate over 50% reading time on “informational” texts in K-5 and up to 70% thereafter in the form of ten grade-level informational reading standards and nine grade-level literature standards at every educational level in the Common Core standards in English Language Arts?  Here is my hypothesis based on his speech, “Part 4–Introduction to the Common Core State Standards for ELA & Literacy.”

We begin with the first of Coleman’s many extra-evidentiary claims: his claim that 80% of the elementary school day is currently spent on “stories/literature.”  He says the research is clear, but I can find no study to provide evidence for this claim. Most schools spend about an hour a day on math alone. The other four hours a day are not spent reading or listening to stories. If they were, our educational problem might be in good part solved.  Perhaps Coleman is trying to count as part of literary study the time kids spend writing and revising experience-based “stories.”  But, whatever is left of the elementary school day after math instruction and the typical 2 ½ hour “literacy” block is not spent on reading literary stories, as any elementary teacher would attest.

Stories have been too abundant in reading instructional materials, as I commented in my 1976 dissertation on vocabulary development. They continue to be in excess because education researchers found that a narrative was easier for struggling readers to understand than an expository piece (not surprisingly).  The more important question is what texts teachers are using today for teaching math, history, geography, science, grammar, and language usage. We really don’t know.  Neither does Coleman.  Years ago, as a grade 3 teacher in a typical small New England town, I used the textbooks my town bought for these subjects to teach students how to read informational texts, as well as to teach their content.

Coleman also claims schools eliminated science and history when they expanded the typical 2 ½ hour literacy block (often after math instruction) to 80% of the school day. He offers no evidence for this, either – which is strange for a person who often speaks of the need for students to bolster their own writing with evidence.  If anything, elementary teachers reduced reading instructional time after the 1960s to make more time for writing and revising experience-based stories. Over the years, sales of history, science, grammar, and spelling textbooks declined for a variety of reasons. Education schools stressed hands-on science (which most elementary teachers were not trained to teach) and “more engaging” history materials, much of which came to be written in story form for the sake of struggling readers.  Reading instructional series (A.K.A. basal readers) then integrated spelling, grammar, vocabulary, and composition study as part of their programs to make the language arts cohere with what students were reading.

Schools didn’t eliminate science, history, and geography; they just eliminated the means by which these subjects could be taught systematically and accurately by teachers who knew little about these subjects.  In addition, struggling readers couldn’t read (or didn’t want to read) history and science textbooks, no matter how much publishers lowered the reading levels of these textbooks.

By the upper grades in a self-contained elementary classroom, language arts time was used for high quality children’s literature. Reading instruction focused on comprehension strategies, while reading and discussion of informational material, as well as projects based on them, took place in the rest of the school day. In other words, informational material involved a considerable amount of time during the school day, and it was likely that high quality children’s literature got much less time than it deserved.

The split in the school day between children’s literature and whatever expository reading took place with other curriculum materials (and with instruction in reading comprehension strategies occupying an elastic amount of time) abruptly ended in middle or junior high school. The structure of the school day changed typically to a subject-divided day, and the major subjects in the curriculum became the object of study. English teachers (instead of teachers of self-contained elementary classrooms) were now responsible for literary study (which always included a few well-written speeches, essays, and biographies), grammar, composition, spelling, and vocabulary work.  Other, subject-trained teachers were responsible for subjects that were usually not taught effectively in self-contained upper-elementary classrooms, as the decline in the percentages of students at or above Proficient from the NAEP grade 4 tests to the NAEP grade 8 tests would suggest in mathematics and civics, for example.

What happened in the middle grades depended on the overall level of children’s reading skills and how the middle or junior high school was organized.  Children with average or strong reading skills could be taught from discipline-based textbooks.  Children with weak reading skills needed more help with reading  (the major instructional reading series expanded to grades 7 and 8)  and were often placed in leveled subject classes with less difficult reading materials. Publishers’ sales representatives were regularly told to lower the reading level of the subject area textbooks to address the increasing number of students who didn’t read, or didn’t want to read, outside of school.

Eventually, to avoid having classes designated for different levels of academic challenge, most grade-based cohorts of middle school students were placed heterogeneously in the same subject classes.  To cope with the widening range of reading skills in an English class, middle or junior high school English classes began teaching more literature written at an elementary school reading level and fewer challenging or even grade-appropriate literary texts.

These already weakened middle or junior high school English classes are the classes Coleman wants to see teaching over 50% informational text (or “literary nonfiction.”). What this mandate fails to take account of is the change in the structure of the school day, as students move from self-contained classes in the elementary school to 45-60 minute periods for English in the middle or junior high school.  The teacher in a self-contained elementary classroom today can still teach high quality children’s literature in the time set aside for reading or language arts IF she doesn’t interpret the Coleman mandate to mean that no more than half of the reading/language arts block can focus on literary texts.  And she can teach expository reading in the other subjects IF school districts provide appropriate and systematic discipline-based materials in these other subjects.

For example, the Core Knowledge approach, which Coleman seems to admire, has a specific—and long—list of imaginative literary works for students to study at each grade level.  Reading in the other subjects takes place in a systematic fashion to enable students to learn cumulatively in these other subjects over the course of grades K to 8.  Study in these other subjects does not displace study of imaginative literature. Study in these other subjects simply displaces reading comprehension exercises elementary teachers have been trained to use in the literacy block to teach “reading skills.”

The “information” in science and history that students once learned was never part of the reading or the English class. It was learned in classes or time blocks dedicated to these subjects, for which schools once provided textbooks or other publisher-sequenced curriculum materials.

As evidence for his confusion on the matter, Coleman also claims that Common Core contains standards for science and history.  No, it doesn’t.  The English language arts document contains empty “literacy” standards for these subjects.  It contains no content standards for history or science. Coleman doesn’t understand how a skill differs from a content standard, a failure of understanding demonstrated earlier in the empty ELA “college and career readiness standards” he helped to create.

Coleman’s misunderstanding of how the structure of the secondary school alters the amount of time available for all genres of literary study, compared with the time available to elementary teachers in a self-contained classroom, was apparently responsible for his mandate that over 50% of the reading time in the ELA class be devoted to informational texts (or “literary nonfiction” in the high school) from K-12.  While a self-contained elementary classroom enables the teacher to use a good part of the school day for expository reading and other language arts (like public speaking), the English teacher has only 45-60 minutes a day or the equivalent in 2 blocks a week to teach everything assigned to the English curriculum.

These rigid prescriptions to require more informational text (even in the form of “literary nonfiction”) make no sense when applied to the daily 45-60 minute secondary English class.   But there was never a public discussion of this hugely important curriculum issue, not even a short one at a Common Core Validation Committee meeting (though I tried).  The Coleman mandate wipes out the very possibility for a coherent secondary literature or reading curriculum.

I am most familiar with what occurred in my home state of Massachusetts, where I helped to develop the state’s own literature standards while in the department of education and later served on the state board of education. The Massachusetts board never discussed this sacrifice or the rationale for it at its own meetings. Nor did it consult with a broad range of English teachers in the Bay State before voting in July 2010 to replace their own literature standards, which most English teachers liked, with Common Core’s inferior literature standards. Why teaching less fiction, poetry, and drama was perceived as contributing to higher expectations for students, or even to “equity,” begs for clarification from state board members around the country.

Coleman also makes a number of other claims, e.g., that in the English class most of the words kids were taught were terminology.  No study shows that, either.  The one aspect that research is clear on is that developing a strong vocabulary requires lots of reading.  But nowhere does Coleman say that kids have to do a lot more reading if they are to learn a lot more words.  They should have to read at home—as homework. It’s like music practice. But nowhere does the Common Core document say that unless all students increase, drastically, the amount of outside reading they do, they will never become ready, as readers or as writers, for authentic college coursework.  In fact, in his lesson on The Gettysburg Address, Coleman seems to proscribe contextual reading before a historical document is taught for reasons that are inexplicable to many.

Some students will, of course, in this country, still go to college.  And they will likely graduate, if the USDE can get the test passages determining college readiness down to a grade 8 reading level, as they seem determined to do, with a pass score set at the grade 6 or 7 reading level. Indeed, it has become more evident that the Common Core aims to lower standards, rather than raise them.  It won’t be too many years before the damage to the school curriculum inflicted by the Common Core standards (and by the tests based on them) is fully evident, but there will be incalculable and possibly irreparable damage.

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9 Responses to Stotsky: Coleman’s 50/50 mandate for literary/informational texts

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  5. English Teacher

    @SS:disqus : “They should have to read at home—as homework. It’s like music practice.
    But nowhere does the Common Core document say that unless all students
    increase, drastically, the amount of outside reading they do, they will
    never become ready, as readers or as writers, for authentic college
    coursework.”

    Hear, hear!  I thought much the same thing when I looked into this charlatan last spring:

    http://literacyinleafstrewn.blogspot.com/2012/05/david-coleman-and-reading.html

    • Donna

      Hallelujah! At some point both parental and cold responsibility must be addressed. Practice is necessary to learn anything well.

      I will say, though that schools have contributed to this culture by not holding students truly accountable for their work….no one fails unless they do absolutely nothing on purpose all year. Why would a child or youth do anything under those circumstances…no real consequences that they can yet realize exist in their minds. They are too young to understand the real harm they are doing themselves…especially those who come from homes where education is key. China, India, Singapore, and Finland have a huge advantage over us in education that is very hush hush….education is a top priority for parents, the community, and the government. Education comes first there. Their best students become teachers. We cannot compete with that ethic unless we adopt it here.

  6. Donna

    I was wondering what your opinion of Core Knowledge is actually. I have taught both in Core Knowledge and more typical public schools, and I have to say that we definitely taught reading comprehension skills during all readingtimeno matter what subject. Thedifferencewasthat we taught the ability to read words separately and the skill of decoding and recoding text during reading, spelling and grammar instruction which was about one and 1/2 hours. We taught comprehension and writing when we were reading a literature unit or a science unit or a social studies unit. We also engaged the students in projects for our units…including science hands on activities and histor reader’s theater, etc. I left for family reasons, but I have to say that my experience with Core Knowledge is nothing like the CCSS the way we are being told to teach it. Core Knowledge is a framework for very rigorous, deep learning in all areas…the materials are really great and even the youngest students get so into their topics that they play pretend “Egypt” and rather Nile River during recess. They certainly learn more than what I am being told to teach (as well as exactly how” at my current district school.

    • Donna

      Sorry for all the above typos…I am terrible on an IPad.

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