Following a post called “NYT Bestsellers So White?” by margaret11smith, two of our Politics of Reading classmates recently discussed Common Core Text Exemplars in our class with respect to their lack of diversity compared to the demographics of the United States, particularly the rising numbers of nonwhite school-age children. They also discussed the fact that many of the texts on the list are quite old: the majority of them were written more than fifty years ago, and many are much older than that.
The original Common Core English-language Arts Work Group members list published in 2009 showed a surprising number of standardized test company representatives: fully half of them were employees of either ACT, Inc. or The College Board (SAT, AP, CLEP, etc.). (Make of that what you will.) The English-language Arts Feedback Group, comprised largely of college professors, was formed to “play an advisory role” to the Work Group, “not a decision-making role in the process” of constructing Common Core State Standards.
Perhaps the standardized test reps and the college professors have not worked with actual children and actual books in the field in a very long time, and are simply unfamiliar with quality books that better represent the diversity of the world we live in and that are available currently?
There is a caveat that introduces the list that disavows its use as a recommended reading list:
“The following text samples primarily serve to exemplify the level of complexity and quality that the Standards require all students in a given grade band to engage with. Additionally, they are suggestive of the breadth of texts that students should encounter in the text types required by the Standards. The choices should serve as useful guideposts in helping educators select texts of similar complexity, quality, and range for their own classrooms. They expressly do not represent a partial or complete reading list.”
Nevertheless, that is precisely what the exemplary text list gets used as–a recommended reading list. The 2010 English Language Arts Work Team contains many more actual school teachers, though, who presumably work with children and books, so what accounts for the age of most of the “exemplary texts”? From my perspective as someone who has worked for years in an elementary school library and in a public library, many teachers are not aware of the most current books–unfortunately, but also understandably. Teachers are very busy, and most do not have the time to read many children’s books (unless they are picture books in a library or bookstore, which are very short and easy to read in a few minutes). That means they tend to use books they are already familiar with, or that are on recommended reading lists. A number of the teachers in my school showed up in the library after Common Core Standards were adopted, anxious and with precisely this list in hand, and asked for these books–just those books, exactly those books, not ones of “similar complexity, quality, and range.”
It is time-consuming to keep up with current children’s and young adult literature. I read many dozens of new books every year, and even more book reviews. I discuss the books with librarians, professional reviewers, authors, booksellers, bloggers, children, and parents. I am more than happy to provide readers’ advisory services to anyone. And yet, the year that I was responsible for updating the recommended summer reading lists by grade level for all the elementary schools in my district, I was faced with an immediate restriction: each grade-level list could only be as long as a single sheet of paper that would be printed out and sent home in children’s backpacks. That meant for every newer book I put on the list, an older, classic one had to be taken off–one remembered and beloved by parents, teachers, and librarians alike. How do you decide?
In addition, even if the newer book was critically acclaimed and award-winning and wildly popular and filled a much-needed niche, if that book was not in the majority of the school libraries in our district, it couldn’t go on the list. Time and again, I was surprised at what various schools in our district didn’t have in their libraries. Library books are not purchased at the district level in our school system: individual school librarians buy books for their libraries according to their needs and tastes. Some need to focus their budget dollars in particular collection development areas.
So for every The Crossover (Kwame Alexander), Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (Grace Lin) (which did make it to the Common Core list), One Crazy Summer (Rita Williams-Garcia) or Esperanza Rising (Pam Muñoz Ryan) that makes it onto the general recommended reading list, there are at least half a dozen books that are thirty years old or more that remain. That is how you end up with a list like the Common Core Exemplar Texts: Tradition. Nostalgia. Canon. Inertia. No one could ever seriously claim that Esther Averill’s The Fire Cat is an undying example of children’s literature, and that nothing has been written that’s better since it was published in 1960, but it’s on that Common Core Text Exemplars list.
It’s a lot of responsibility to represent a pillar of society (education) in producing a list that many people apparently regard as “the last word.” I would have liked to have been able to take the easy way out myself, and claim that the list I was in charge of only represented examples of quality. I felt a little like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz who claimed to be the Great and Powerful Oz, watching parents so seriously consulting their copies of the schools’ recommended reading list, dutifully searching for those books that had the full weight and authority of the school district behind it. Sometimes, when those recommended books were all checked out (because they were on The List), I offered parents alternate suggestions that I knew full well were just as good, but almost invariably I was politely turned down because they wanted only the ones on The List. Worse yet, I felt deeply reluctant to ever admit I was the one ultimately responsible for that year’s list (even though it was a perfectly good list, at least as good as the year before and the year after)–because The List had taken on a life and authority and conclusiveness of its own.
There’s always someone behind the curtain.