Concern Over Common Core’s Nonfiction Requirements

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Over the next several months state lawmakers will review a set of nationally-crafted academic standards known as the Common Core. Indiana signed on to the standards in 2010, but now some parents and policymakers want out. One of their concerns is a requirement that 70 percent of what high school students read now come from nonfiction. But it’s unlikely the nonfiction requirement will go away because state law dictates whatever standards Indiana ends up with be modeled after the Common Core. StateImpact Indiana’s Elle Moxley explains how requiring more nonfiction might blur the lines between disciplines.


Ninth graders in Melinda Bundy’s class at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis are writing research papers — they’re learning about life in 1960s America during John F. Kennedy’s administration.

“Guys,” Bundy says to her class.”If anyone is doing the civil rights, here’s a new book on the civil rights that we just got — it probably came from another library — and the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

But if you guessed Bundy teaches social studies, you’d be wrong: She’s an English teacher. Her former students all researched the legends of King Arthur when it came time to write their papers. But this year she decided to teach a historical document because the Common Core emphasizes nonfiction.

“Why are we doing JFK this year for your research? A historical document, right. And our historical document we started with was what? The inauguration speech of JFK.”

Bundy lived through Kennedy’s administration and has always been interested in the former president, so she says she’s OK making the switch. But here’s what the sophomores Bundy taught last year had to say:

“We’re doing — instead of Arthurian legend this year, we’re doing President Kennedy. No! Is that a joke? That’s my favorite subject! I’m so jealous.”

The student is jealous because she thinks writing about Kennedy will be easier than writing about King Arthur. But the architects who wrote the Common Core would disagree. They say after high school, students are less likely to read To Kill A Mockingbird and more likely to pick up a computer or a car manual. So students need to know how to read informational text if they’re going to be college- and career-ready — that’s the whole reason for the Common Core. The idea was to pick up more nonfiction in social studies and science, not scrap much-beloved literature from English class. But practically speaking, Bundy says the burden falls to the teachers administering end of course assessments and other state tests.

“The ECA is all nonfiction. They’re given an essay to read, and if we don’t cover it in English, it’s on the English part of the ECA, our kids are going to fail. You can’t totally disavow that we’re responsible. We are.”

Of course the shift in academic standards will mean new state tests, often referred to as “next generation assessments.” Mooresville High School teacher Jeffrey Franklin is part of the Indiana Educator Leader Cadre, a group helping design tests aligned to the Common Core. He teaches — you guessed it — social studies.

“It’s going to take people awhile to kind of get used to it and start realizing that my class actually supports science. My government students can do something that’s going to make their English class and their literature skills more enriching.”

Take To Kill A Mockingbird. Franklin says when the English teacher down the hall has her class read Harper Lee’s classic, he can use historical documents to teach common themes of the civil rights struggle. Yet that hasn’t always happened.

“For many times in the high school environment, we get compartmentalized in our little worlds of departments, and we forget that there are other teachers who share similar interests, and we really don’t collaborate as much with them as we should.”

Franklin says social studies teachers have successfully implemented instructional shifts before. There’s more writing and problem solving in history classes today than there was 10 years ago. Still, not every teacher in every grade will have a text like To Kill A Mockingbird to help link content areas, and they’ll need additional training if they’re expected to share in the nonfiction requirement.

“That’s what’s going to be the biggest difference between successfully implementing a new level of education as opposed to just saying, well, this is a new assessment.”

Indiana had just started aligning its standards for social studies to the Common Core when state lawmakers paused implementation of the new standards. Franklin says that means many teachers will have to wait a little longer for the resources they need to successfully implement the new standards in non-tested subjects.

For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Elle Moxley.

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