During my time teaching secondary English, I was more than once guilty of recommending Twilight to reluctant readers. But, like most hard-working teachers, I sought to base my instruction on high quality, challenging literature.
Disturbingly, the latest report on high school English curricula from the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers shows I wasn’t alone in my occasional reliance on adolescent fiction.
More than ever, students are meeting unchallenging content in their courses. The report lists the top 40 texts read by high school students — revealing an average readability on a middle school level. Rather than learning to carefully read and analyze a text, students are increasingly encouraged to “read a literary work as if it were a reading comprehension exercise (i.e., devoid of a literary history or literary context) or a Rorschach blog (i.e., meaning whatever the student chooses to see in it).”
Notably, only a third of text selections come from a coherent curriculum. Without core content, teachers and students have greater freedom to make their own literary choices. Freedom’s not all bad, of course. Students should learn to choose quality books, to read for pleasure. But, not surprisingly, students are choosing to read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows instead of The Scarlet Letter. And high school graduates’ steep college remediation numbers and falling reading and writing scores make me question the content (or lack thereof) of the courses they took.
The long-term trends identified in this report indicate that many states, without the guidance of coherent curricula, are set for collision with the new Common Core State Standards. Standards mean little without the means to reach them. Quality curriculum materials are needed now, more than ever.