December 12, 2012 3:33PM

Common Core Caught In Its Own Tangled Web

At this point, I probably don’t need to rehearse all the deceptions that have been central to the triumph of national curriculum standards. (If for some reason you need a refresher, check out this op‐​ed.) Unfortunately, what we are dealing with now are the slowly emerging costs of all that deception. We are indeed entering a tangled web.

The fastest growing hullabaloo is over how much fiction versus nonfiction English teachers — or is it schools? — must teach. Many English teachers are just now learning about seeming Common Core dictates that no more than 30 to 50 percent of what they teach — depending on the grade level — be fiction. You know, Fahrenheit 451 or Animal Farm. The specific reasons for their concern are two tables in the Common Core ELA document  (p. 5) that appear to lay out just such percentages. And needless to say, despite the Common Core’s air of omniscience about what and how kids should learn, there is big disagreement about the relative value of fiction and nonfiction.

But hold on! Common Core crafters David Coleman — now head of the SAT‐​makin’ College Board — and Susan Pimentel insist that’s all off base. The standards are very clear, they say, that the percentages apply to all reading in a school, not just English classes. As they wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday:

The Standards could not be clearer: ELA classrooms must focus on literature — that is not negotiable, but a requirement of high school ELA. On page 5 of the Standards — where the distinction between literature and informational text is introduced — there is an explicit, unambiguous statement regarding the balance of texts relative to the disciplines covered by the Standards:

“… the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary non‐​fiction, [and] a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes…”

I sure hope the Common Core doesn’t have lessons on ambiguity, because I don’t think the crafters grasp the concept. This explanation couldn’t be much more ambiguous, stating that English classes must focus on literature “as well as” nonfiction. Sure sounds like a 70–30 or 50–50 split could be mandated under that.

This is, of course, exactly the kind of obtuse mumbo‐​jumbo one should expect from a document — and overall effort — that tries to simultaneously be revolutionary and innocuous. And wouldn’t it have been wonderful if this sort of thing had been hashed out before states were cajoled into adopting the standards? But then there would have been public disagreements, and all the silliness of people holding different opinions is exactly what destroyed past efforts to impose uniform standards on the country.

The good news is that, absent further federal efforts — which are the huge, looming threat — there is no mechanism that can actually make states adhere to these confusing time allocations, or anything else in the Common Core. And, of course, states can move in a wholly better direction by instituting private school choice programs that don’t include centralized standards. Then individual children — you know, unique people — could seek out educational models tailored to their specific needs provided by educators with the freedom to use different and innovative standards and methods.

Even if that happens, though, the lesson is becoming clear: Practice to deceive, as Common Core supporters have, and you could get caught in a very sticky web.