Professor: High School Literature Curriculum Not Serving Many Students Well
Sandra Stotsky worries about what she calls the "wide middle band" of high school students. These are the 50 to 60 percent of students who fall between the top tier of students in Advanced Placement classes and the bottom tier who will drop out before graduation.
"These students work hard and they will graduate, but when they go to college they will struggle because they are not prepared to do college-level work in reading and writing," said Stotsky, who holds the Twenty-First Century Chair in Teacher Quality at the University of Arkansas. "High school-level reading may take place only in Advanced Placement courses and that is unfair to the vast middle. The top students may be taken care of, but that is only the top 20 percent. What about the next 50 percent? Most of the students in college remedial reading courses come from this middle group because they haven't had a challenging enough curriculum in high school."
A national expert in curriculum and educational standards, Stotsky recently published a book outlining her concerns. She focuses on English language arts in The Death and Resurrection of a Coherent Literature Curriculum: What Secondary English Teachers Can Do published by Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Stotsky cites data she collected in 2010 in a national survey of high school English teachers to describe an incoherent secondary literature curriculum that fails to increasingly challenge students through high school. She collaborated on a similar study of high school English teachers in Arkansas that produced basically the same results as the national survey: that there is not much increase in difficulty of assigned reading material from ninth through 11th grades.
"We need to make sure we are increasing the difficulty level of what we expect students to read," she said.
"Literature curricula in public schools simply are not strong or coherent," Stotsky continued. "English teachers need to work on developing a coherent literature curriculum, whether they are in a Common Core state or not. Common Core addresses skills but does not give cultural or historical markers students need in order to analyze literature."
Stotsky has spent much time in the past two years writing and speaking about the Common Core education standards developed through an initiative of the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. To date, 45 states have adopted the standards.
Stotsky served on Common Core's Validation Committee from 2009 to 2010. She was one of five members of the committee who voted against accepting the final version of the standards.
In one critique by Stotsky, she wrote that the proposed standards for college readiness in English language arts do not generate sound grade-level academic standards, especially at the high school level, or provide the basis for reliable and valid common assessments.
Stotsky served as senior associate commissioner in the Massachusetts Department of Education from 1999 to 2003. During that time, she led the development or revision of all of the Massachusetts K-12 standards. Four years later, Massachusetts’ scores for reading and math in grades 4 and 8 led the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests.
Stotsky reviewed all states' English language arts and reading standards for the Fordham Institute in 1997, 2000 and 2005. She co-authored Achieve's American Diploma Project high school exit test standards for English in 2004 and the 2008 Texas English language arts and reading standards.
Despite her criticism of the new Common Core national education standards, Stotsky offers some insight in her book about how teachers and curriculum developers might use some of Common Core's content requirements and 50/50 mandate for a blend of informational and imaginative works to build a coherent sequence of texts for study. Informational texts such as letters, essays and speeches by many of history's greatest fiction writers are available for students to study, she said.
Stotsky provides five principles to undergird coherence in a literature curriculum:
- Texts read in the early part of the school year or in earlier grades should have substantive links to texts read later in the school year and/or in later grades.
- Assigned texts should increase in reading difficulty over the course of a school year or several school years to develop students' cognitive capacity to handle more advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure (among other features of these texts).
- Students should study culturally and historically important works that stimulated the imagination or thoughts of later writers and that continue to influence the language that students listen to, read and write.
- Access to historically and culturally important literary texts should be staged over the course of a grade level and across grade levels because these texts are usually difficult to read.
- The nonfiction taught in a yearlong English course should provide the historical and cultural context for at least some of the imaginative literature in that course.
Stotsky cites examples of some schools that have developed high-quality curricula, and she invited Jamie Highfill, an eighth-grade teacher in Fayetteville, to write a chapter for the book. Highfill describes how she developed a literature curriculum to address substantive gaps in fragmented curriculum her students had experienced.
"I had Jamie in a class on English language arts standards, and she was trying to put in what her kids were not getting in terms of exposure to understanding references, allusions and metaphors from earlier reading," Stotsky recalled.
Stotsky supports the requirement in Common Core for more close reading of texts, but she believes that English education teacher-training programs need to offer more courses in close reading so that future teachers know how to do close reading themselves.
"Close reading requires going line by line, paragraph by paragraph, discussing contextual issues and studying biographical information and historical background where it can be useful," she said.
Her book includes a chapter on close reading written by Christian Goering, an assistant professor who directs the English education program at the University of Arkansas, and Ashley Gerhardson, a doctoral student in the program who is the AP English lead teacher at Northside High School in Fort Smith.
While Common Core asks for successively harder reading, Stotsky doesn't think it gives enough concrete examples for teachers. She also says there is confusion between thematically difficult material and difficulty in readability. Readability formulas measure word difficulty and sentence difficulty, taking into account book length. Such formulas do not work with well with some forms of writing, such as poetry, and many aspects of literary complexity such as theme, mood and character motivation cannot be captured at all by readability formulas, Stotsky said. They should not be a substitute for the professional judgment of well-read and experienced English teachers.
Some thematically advanced works by such authors as Hemingway and Steinbeck are not written on a high school level, she said.
"It's OK to teach them in high school but a steady diet of grade 5 reading level is not doing to do the trick for college work," she said. "The Grapes of Wrath is taught in 11th grade because of its themes, but it's written on about fifth-grade level so students need to have many challenging books as well at the 11th grade. There has to be a notion that the middle 50 percent of students needs to be challenged. They will respond because they show up every day and they are going to try. They have parents behind them who will support them."