David Coleman, the non-English teacher who wrote the Common Core national English language arts (ELA) standards, is conducting a charm offensive to persuade Christians to embrace the new national standards. According to Mr. Coleman, students "educated" under Common Core will be better readers and better able to understand Scripture, and thus will enjoy deeper and more satisfying spiritual lives. Quite a claim for any set of school standards – much less standards based on an arid view of workforce-training rather than true education.
The central organizing theme of the Common Core ELA standards is that study of creative literature must be diminished in favor of nonfiction "informational texts." The idea is that students should be drilled in the types of documents they are more likely to encounter in their entry-level jobs (and make no mistake, Common Core is a workforce-development model, not an education model).
What is Coleman's evidence that switching focus from classic literature to nonfiction (including Federal Reserve documents and the EPA's "Recommended Levels of Insulation") will create better readers? There is none. To the contrary, all the historical and empirical evidence confirms the opposite. As Dr. Sandra Stotsky and Dr. Mark Bauerlein have shown, "classic literary texts pose strong challenges in vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony." Isn't this the kind of education students need to be able to understand Scripture – much of which, obviously, is constructed as stories, parables, and creative literature?
The premise that great literature creates great readers is validated by the Massachusetts experience. Massachusetts rejected the workforce-training model in 1993, embracing instead a reading curriculum rich in high-quality literature. This curriculum was incorporated even into the vocational high schools, so that students who chose that path would still be expected – allowed – to explore the classics. The result? Massachusetts SAT scores rose for 13 consecutive years beginning in 1993, and Massachusetts students routinely scored highest in the nation on national reading tests. Sadly, this was before Massachusetts jettisoned its high standards for Common Core.
When not trying to win over Christians, Coleman himself promotes a method of teaching that is greatly at odds with true Bible study. Coleman advocates "close reading" of a text, unencumbered by anything that might help the reader actually understand the text. For example, he has trained English teachers to present the Gettysburg Address "cold," with no instruction about the historical situation, the purpose of the address, or the scriptural allusions, and no dramatic reading of the speech. Students are to consider it as merely a collection of sentences that fell from the sky and arranged themselves on a page.
Apply that technique to Bible study. Christians should read the Scripture closely, of course, but in isolation from the breadth of Biblical truth? How are we to truly understand Jesus' teachings without reference to the Mosaic Law that came before? How is it possible to fully appreciate the instruction concerning, for example, marriage and family without locating it in the center of God's covenantal love throughout Scripture? How can the poetry of the Psalms touch our hearts if it is severed from the deep faith – the souls -- of the people who composed it? Or are the Psalms even worth our time? When has a supervisor asked any one of us to explain Psalm 37?
The fundamental problem with the Common Core approach is that, to achieve its job-training goals, it recognizes no difference between one "complex" text and another "complex" text. A great work of literature has value far beyond the complexity of the words used – it allows students to understand the eternal human condition; it allows them to confront human challenges that recur throughout the ages; it teaches empathy, prudence, forgiveness; it transports the readers to places and times not their own. The Common Core ELA standards are, quite simply, indifferent to this type of education. Training, not educating, is their goal. They are not interested in helping students become the people God created them to be; they are interested in creating workers.
So although Coleman argues that the ELA standards promote "slow, deep, reflective" reading, Christians should ask exactly what types of texts are being offered. Why does Common Core reduce the type of texts that can actually help develop good Christian men and women – and that comprise most of the Scriptures? "Recommended Levels of Insulation," read slowly, deeply, and reflectively, is still "Recommended Levels of Insulation." Students deprived of the great stories are less likely to embrace, fully, the greatest Story.