Does Two-Bit Literary Criticism Really Improve Student Learning Or Literacy Rate?

A student who is to enter grade 9 advanced English showed me his summer assignment. He was to read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon and “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, two books the teacher “loves.” He was given a rubric explaining how the assignment would be graded. Each book was to be annotated. A grade of Excellent required an annotation on each page; a grade of Adequate needed far fewer annotations. Additionally, he was to write a 350-500 word “creative response.” The books are on the Common Core Engage NY recommended ELA text list, says the teacher.

Every page of “The Curious Incident” had a post-it sticker on it indicating something was annotated. The assignment became onerous: he had difficulty finding something to annotate on each page and boredom ensued. Although reading “The Chosen” when I talked to him in August, he was nowhere near completion and school loomed on the horizon. At this point, he hated the books.

The assignment is linked to Common Core learning standard: CCLS-ELA RL.9-10.1: “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.” Dr. Terrence Moore, professor and author of “The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core,” examined Common Core ELA teacher manuals. He wrote that this “two-bit literary criticism” is one of the reasons students don’t understand or even like good literature, and why they remember very little of what they’ve read or the characters encountered.

Here are instructions to teachers from Engage NY ELA, “Developing Core Proficiencies” and rather laughingly labeled “Brain Gain”: “The instructional focus of this unit is on learning to read text closely: attending to details, language and perspective; posing and responding to text-dependent questions, and analyzing connections and relationships to deepen understanding.” Common Core directs teachers in “analysis,” dissecting stories, speculating how the author created the story, focusing on “characterization,” how the author created the characters rather than getting to know and understand the characters. Tragically, a literary work is not read and discussed on its own terms and merits.

Do readers analyze every page when they read a good book? Is it even analysis in which they are interested? Aren’t readers more curious about the characters-actions and interactions, complex behaviors, strengths and weaknesses, motives for what they do, getting at their soul — just like people in real life? Yes, readers read for entertainment and excitement, but they also read great stories that inspire and teach. Great stories humanize readers. No doubt readers recognize the ridiculousness of these learning standards for teaching literature.

Does any reading, thinking person believe that forcing these questionable standards of “two-bit literary criticism” onto literature will improve student learning or the literacy rate in America? Currently, 44 million adults are unable to read a simple story to their children, reports the Literacy Project Foundation. Another 45 million are functionally illiterate, meaning they read below a grade 5 level.

Common Core standards and curricula never were field-tested before they were propagandized onto schools. There was not a shred of research evidence supporting Common Core before it was implemented. Nothing confirmed that Common Core would increase literacy in students or make them “college and career ready.” In fact, data from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress demonstrate that only 34 percent of students in grade 8 read at or above the proficient level, a national disgrace. More tragic, however, is that only 16 percent of black grade 8 students are proficient. Nearly 60 percent of students entering college require remedial work in reading, math, and writing. Sadly, only about 48 percent of entering freshmen will graduate within six years; most graduate with majors that are not linked to employment with high wages.

Shouldn’t students read great works that describe human thought and behaviors, works that contain themes such as hope, education, courage, love, lust, despair, self-delusion, misunderstanding and strife, among others? Shouldn’t education be direct discussion about the deeper meanings and motives of human beings in great literature? Common Core’s forced analyses of books trivializes and spoils our great stories. It does not encourage a love of reading literature. In fact, when six out of 10 households do not buy a single book in a year, our nation has a continuing literacy problem.

“We have to come to grips with this fundamental fact of education,” wrote Moore. “If literature offers human beings a window into life, not only the complexity but the quality and the meaning of that literature will shape the readers’ views of life. If there is nothing great in that literature, the readers will expect nothing great out of life.”