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Education

(AP File Photo)

An 8-month-old taunted with racial slurs?

I was never so personally seared by bigotry than when I strolled my newly adopted son past a trio of adolescent boys on a Cape Cod sidewalk. Nine years later, their chant still haunts me. Chinc, chinc, chincee, go back to Chinatown!

When one of their mothers found out what they said, and harshly punished them – the boys learned a powerful lesson, albeit the hard way.

But many of life’s lessons are taught in the boundless classroom that is classic literature. Authors such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson spur discussion, debate, emotional growth and, yes, literacy.

Sadly, children’s exposure to such texts is about to be diminished.

That’s because national K-12 standards known as Common Core — adopted by Massachusetts in 2010 and soon to be implemented — will drastically reduce classical literature in educational curriculum.

It would seem unfathomable that Massachusetts, the birthplace of public schools and the state that gave us Thoreau, Longfellow, Dickinson, Emerson and Hawthorne, would make such a compromise.

Connaughton: Adoption of Common Core means many classic texts will no longer be included in curriculum. (AP)

There’s a reason why Bay State students lead the nation in literacy. In 1997 (and slightly revised in 2001), under the leadership of Sandra Stotsky, with active support from then Board of Education Chair John Silber, the state adopted a robust English language arts curriculum that focused on literature, fiction, poetry and drama. With the foresight to create painstakingly detailed curriculum frameworks, education policymakers ensured that classic literature would remain prominent in the classroom.

It worked.

In 2011, Massachusetts fourth-graders led the nation in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores. That same year, Massachusetts eighth-graders tied for first place on the reading test, along with Connecticut and New Jersey. In 2009, the last year for which results are available, Massachusetts 12th-graders topped all other states in reading scores.

In fact, Massachusetts students have achieved the top scores on NAEP reading tests every time they have been administered since 2005.

A literature-heavy curriculum promotes mastery of complex and vocabulary-rich texts that have yielded unchallengeable results. So why would we shift so dramatically away from it?

Common Core proponents boast the new standards will invert the current ratio of literary texts to “informational texts” (blogs, essays, non-fiction) in the high school classroom, providing more of the latter. New tests will be based on this revised focus.

While Common Core provides some leeway for additional classic literature, the reality is that teachers lack the time to focus on what is excluded from tests. In all but the most elite public schools, what’s on the national assessment will be the vast majority of what is taught in the English classroom.

That means goodbye to large swaths of literature such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Well-funded suburban and private school students will still have the opportunity to relish the unlikely friendship that takes root between Huck and the runaway slave, Jim — a relationship that climaxed in an historic apology. But will students in less affluent communities ever know that, as Mark Twain expert Ron Powers recently said recalling the remarks of Twain scholar Robert Hirst, that Huck’s apology to Jim “is surely the first time in an American novel … that a white character apologized to a black one”?

In her book “The Jim Dilemma,” Jocelyn Chadwick writes that Twain’s classic challenges white readers to “learn about and experience a traumatic and debasing period in American history.”

But under the new standards some kids — and perhaps kids that need the lesson like the ones on that Cape Cod sidewalk — won’t ever board that raft down the Mississippi. And by missing out on that experience — they might miss an opportunity to understand our country’s history of racism and why such slurs inflict so much pain.

As parents file into PTO meetings across the state this fall to hear about the implementation of Common Core, they should do so with a keen awareness of just what their children will be losing.

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Emily Antul

    This is NOT what I mean when I say we need national standards. I do not understand why we are stooping to these pathetic tests and standards. If we lead the country, everyone else should be striving to reach our heights, and we should be pushing ourselves higher.

    According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the average American adult reads at an 8th grade level. This is totally unacceptable, yet here we are further dumbing down the top states’ curricula to match the lower states. Are we trying to go back to the Middle Ages, where the vast majority of the population was completely dependent on the small, powerful minority for all information and nearly incapable of free and inventive thinking? Who honestly thinks that more testing and making the better states sink their standards is going to raise the lesser states? Who can possibly justify that argument? It’s bad enough that we’ve allowed some states to sink so far into ignorance and illiteracy, but to bring down the good states with good education is beyond the pale. And I’m not even that impressed with Massachusetts’ educational system. I’m taking some online classes right now and the level of functional illiteracy is shocking to me. I don’t understand how some of my classmates passed the entrance exams allegedly required for the school.

    • Good Luck

      Look at schools like Udacity or Capella for online courses that pass the test.

  • Parents, it’s your call

    WE have our own reading lists and they don’t comply with any Federal standards. Math class is more than 1 hour drive from our mountain community but all are testing grade levels ahead, so it’s a good investment. There is no excuse for relying on US standards in education, since we are rated just below 30th in the world.
    Put your money where your mouth is and limit children to no more than 2 per family. That is the only way we are going to catch up with the rest of the developed countries.
    Does ANYONE care? BTW: we canceled TVs signals from the house years ago. Try it for it may help.

    • AlcoluJohn

      And limiting children to two (below replacement birth-rate) will make education better how?

      Caring PARENTS — not the public screwls, not public policy, not some faceless bureau-rat in DC or the statehouse, and not the “village” that so capably raises and encourages idiots — largely determine educational and personal-development outcomes of their children.My wife and I have — on a single, lower-middle-class income — homeschooled our five sons, and all are academically advanced, socially balanced, and morally enlightened. All are well on their way to being responsible, active, aware citizens.

      Son #1 just CLEP-tested an entire associate’s degree through a regionally accredited military university, has been promoted ahead of schedule in his extremely demanding Air Force specialty, and has won recognition as a computer artist and illustrator. Son #2 is — at age 21 — a master CAD draftsman and a crew supervisor for a major regional utility; he has also started two businesses, has taught himself advanced automotive mechanics, and leads a statewide organization. Son #3 worked full-time throughout the final three years of high school yet maxed his entrance exams to win an elite position in the Marine Corps with a full-ride college scholarship leading to an officer’s commission. Son #4 has started his own home-based business, works part-time for a local company, is active in social and academic organizations, gets excellent grades in “easy” high-school subjects like math and writing, and is a super kid too. Son #5, at age 10, has an advanced vocabulary, writes complex plots in grammatically advanced short stories, and is very active in church and social activities.

      In case you think our family is somehow exceptional, I could name several much larger than ours where every child has excelled professionally, personally and socially. Not all were homeschooled, either; some were even public-schooled. But in every single case, the parents were actively — intensely — involved in shaping their children’s goals, standards of excellence, and educational pursuits. In every case, excellence was the byword, no excuse for mediocrity was accepted, and no rewards for “participation” were given (or expected). No, my boys never watched “90210″ or “Baywatch” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” they’ve never spent 30 straight hours playing “Grand Theft Auto,” and none of them has ever been drunk or stoned — so I suppose you’d consider them somehow deprived. But they did dive into fine literature, fall in love with history, develop finely tuned senses of humor, study and grasp Constitutional law, sample the arts, and gain practical skills in carpentry, plumbing, auto repair and landscaping. All are articulate, polite, caring and responsible.

      In the meantime, they did the lawncare on our multi-acre yard, washed the dishes, helped with the housework, cut and split the wood to heat our house, assisted in the family business, were in church most times the lights were on, and learned to shoot, fish, and enjoy the outdoors.

      Perhaps coincidentally, none of them has impregnated a girlfriend, been arrested for anything more serious than a traffic violation, gotten suspended from school, joined a gang, participated in a flash mob, or been arrested for shoplifting.

      This used to be the standard for young Americans. It still should be. And it has nothing to do with family size.

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.wozniak.12 Susan Wozniak

    I teach at a community college. My students are the victims of the reduced literacy/literary standards. The result is their vocabularies are small. They can not write a compare and contrast paper because they can not compare the one book I make them read (based on a selection of between 6 and 8 books) with nothing. I think this is the real national security issue.

  • njmom

    While NJ may be highly rated, it still has room for improvement. Children are not taught sentence structure, so find it difficult to analyze in their reading and to construct sentences in their writing. Our teachers have not been exposed to diagramming sentences, so cannot be expected to pass on that knowledge. And removing study and analysis of complex literature in favor of adding the study of blogs and essays is silly. As noted below by Parents, we too eliminated television from our home when the signal went digital in NJ – and replaced it with books and newspapers, as well as with lessons and practice (piano, voice, flute, dance).

  • Joanna

    This article expresses a fear I have heard stated by teachers many time who also believe the assertions made by this author “Sadly, children’s exposure to such texts is about to be diminished.That’s because national K-12 standards known as Common Core — adopted by Massachusetts in 2010 and soon to be implemented — will drastically reduce classical literature in educational curriculum.” Those who read the common core and interpret it as a mandate on English teachers to push literature out of the curriculum are misunderstanding the document. The shift to non-fiction or informational texts is a shared burden, and is not that of ELA teachers alone. If schools take inventory of the texts they are using, I think most will find that science, social studies, and art use nearly 100 percent non-fiction texts. I suggest that educators pay attention to the portion of the ELA common core standards that are specific to these content areas. As educators, it is our responsibility to read the document and to not perpetuate any misinformation.

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