Photo by Lennart Tange

New nationwide education standards are reducing the amount of fiction read in schools in favor of nonfiction readings such as “scientific tracts, maps, recipes, and train schedules.”

When I was a band director, I taught algebra. For ten minutes a day at my middle school, I was required to begin my forty minute Symphonic Band rehearsal going over three math problems the vice-principal had left in every teachers’ box that morning. The idea was that this little bit of extra time given to math – and subsequently taken away from band, choir, drama, art, English, science, gym, and more – would help bump up our school’s abysmal standardized test scores.

Ridiculous? I thought so too. But it often seems like “down with creativity” is the rallying cry of those proponents of “No Child Left Untested” and other similar programs.

All but five states in the US have adopted the new Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks that “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” in order to be successful in college and their careers, which are expected to take full effect by 2014. For English teachers, these benchmarks mean some pretty big changes – most notably, a shift towards studying more nonfiction materials, and (in some cases, drastically) reducing the amount of fiction taught in schools. For example, 70% of the 12th grade curriculum must consist of nonfiction titles.

Sara Mosle made a nice argument in favor of these changes in The New York Times Opinion Pages.

What schools really need isn’t more nonfiction but better nonfiction, especially that which provides good models for student writing. Most students could use greater familiarity with what newspaper, magazine and book editors call “narrative nonfiction”: writing that tells a factual story, sometimes even a personal one, but also makes an argument and conveys information in vivid, effective ways.

Agreed. A better answer than what the CC proposes would be to improve on or replace much of the nonfiction already taught in schools with more compelling narratives, rather than replacing fiction on the reading lists with more nonfiction. But my bigger concern is with this tidbit:

David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”

Absolutely. Market analysts likely do not need to turn in personal narratives to their supervisors. Well said, Mr. Coleman.

The practice of diminishing the value of any arts-focused curriculum that fosters self-expression in favor of more lessons built to groom perfect test-takers isn’t exactly new. At that same middle school back in 2006, I lost three of my band members completely one semester – one of whom was an all-city saxophonist – because they were required to take a second English class in addition to the one in which they were already enrolled. All three students were Hispanic and ESL.

Designers of programs like Common Core seem to believe that all students are destined to become stock analysts, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, architects. Many are. Many are not.

Where do the future composers, novelists, and artists fit into the Common Core? Historians, librarians, illustrators? Do I need to go on?

Much, much more importantly – Mr. Coleman’s sarcastic dismissal of a typical writing exercise just proves his complete lack of understanding of the value of that exercise. And were I a market analyst – or architect, or engineer, etc – I would take offense to the idea that self-expression and creativity were not vital parts of both my education and my career.

rockstarToo often, we separate the arts and the sciences as if they are completely different entities. Worse, the latter is usually deemed superior to the former. I have a music degree, and believe me when I say that the mathematics and physics of sound played a large role in not only my course work, but also in shaping my artistic abilities as a musician. And numerous studies have shown time and again the positive effects of the arts on intellectual development. (This study by The National Association for Music Education is a good place to start reading.)

Mr. Coleman’s statement, in fact, is an excellent counterargument to his own point – his glib, overly literal example of the value of creative exercises demonstrates his lack of ability to think outside of the box. And this is the president of the College Board.

I wonder if there are any traditional, well-paying careers out there in which thinking outside of the box is encouraged. Market analysts come to mind.

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