This is unlikely to surprise most of you but fewer and fewer kids leave the state’s K-12 education system with, what I will call, functional literacy. In fact the problem is finally becoming prevalent enough that the state is actually looking to address it:
Fast forward to high school reading today, and you might find that a lot of high school English teachers are identifying with Holden more than their students are identifying with him. Reading scores for American students have dropped dramatically, and the solution could see their world change as well.
“So many kids, often as many as 50 percent, graduate high school … demonstrably not ready for the demands of a first-year college course or job-training program,” says David Coleman, president of the College Board, a nonprofit membership organization that administers standardized tests like the SAT.
When I say the state is moving to address the problem I don’t want to imply that it is trying to determine and address the root cause, that’s not how the state operates. Instead I mean to imply that the state has looked at how it defines functional literacy and is adjusting it, while throwing in a few destructive curriculum changes, so that the numbers appear to be higher without actually fixing the problem:
Coleman is the lead architect of the Common Core Standards Initiative, a sweeping curricula change that integrates nonfiction text into the English program. So where does it leave The Catcher in the Rye and similar literary classics?
That question is one stirring debate over how to integrate nonfiction works into English programs to improve reading scores, while not abandoning the novels that have become the gold standard of high school reading lists.
Coleman tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that fiction remains at the heart of English and language arts programs under Common Core, but high-quality literary nonfiction, like the founding documents of the United States, is introduced as well.
In my opinion one of the biggest hurdles to functional literacy is the materials pushed on kids during their K-12 years. Elementary and high schools like to assign kids reading material that is considered classic but that isn’t very useful when kids have no desire to read such works. Instead of encouraging kids to read the state’s education system discourages kids to read by assigning material that most K-12 students find exceptionally boring. I remember the crap we were assigned to read in elementary and high school, none of it appealed to me. Fortunately I had a habit of doing what I wanted instead of what I was told so I read voraciously. For assignments I would, as I assume most kids today are doing, skim just enough material to complete any required test or report or I would forgo reading the material entirely so I could return to reading books I actually cared about (before high school I was reading novels like Jurassic Park and 2001: A Space Odyssey).
Focusing more on nonfiction isn’t going to solve the problem, in fact it may exacerbate it. In order to find things like the founding documents of the United States interesting one must also have enough historical knowledge to put those documents into perspective. Needless to say most state schools fail to teach much in the way of history (and what history they do teach is watered down and entirely boring) so forcing students to read historical material is an exercise in futility. Furthermore the founding documents of the United States are a rather dull read. Most people don’t want to read legal documents such as the United States Constitution. Legal documents lack a story, which requires some kind of conflict. Religions generally teach their laws and doctrines by using parables, which end up being more interesting since they contain story elements such as conflict and character interactions. This was likely done, at least in part, because the writers of religious texts understood that people were usually uninterested in reading and listening to lengthy sterile legal documents. Perhaps it is time we apply that understanding with children today and push them to read fiction instead of nonfiction.
I think the best way to improve functional literacy rates in this country is to introduce a little anarchy into the state’s schools (it’ll never happen unfortunately). Allow students to read material they’re interested in. This doesn’t mean assigning everybody in the class to read Twilight, it means allowing each student to select books they’re personally interested in. If a kid wants to read Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings let him read it an receive due credit instead of forcing To Kill a Mockingbird down their throats.