Study Finds Poetry Endangered in Common Core English Standards

A new study suggests that the literary genre of poetry is likely to become endangered in the Common Core-based English classroom due to the dramatic reduction in time spent on literary texts in favor of informational ones, a change that is implicitly mandated by the centralized standards.

The study, published by the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, is titled “The Dying of the Light: How Common Core Damages Poetry Instruction,” and is authored by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky.

In a press release by Pioneer Institute, Esolen, a poet and professor of literature at Providence College, concludes as a result of the study, “The Common Core proponents do not like poetry.”

Esolen, who translated the three volumes of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy for the Modern Library between 2002 and 2005, describes in the report why poetry is at the heart of an education that seeks to transform a child into a fully realized human being.

Highfill, an award-winning English teacher, describes the three-part process by which poetry has traditionally been taught in schools in the United States. First, students are taught to work out the meaning of poems, in order to foster their own analytic skills about meaning. Second, students analyze literary features such as tone, structure, themes, rhythm and rhyme, and style. Finally, students write about poetry and also write their own poems.

“A school’s poetry curriculum is not designed to teach skills that will help students get jobs,” Highfill says. “It is to ‘make minds, not careers.’ When a mind is strengthened, so is the ability to secure employment.”

University of Arkansas Professor emerita Sandra Stotsky provides the history of the poetry curriculum in America’s schools in the report, noting the lack of poetry content in Common Core and an incoherent list of poems in an appendix that provides teachers with little guidance about the poems’ relative complexity or quality.

“It’s unclear whether the real audience for the appendix is English teachers or the editorial board of The New York Times,” Stotsky states.

The report gives particular attention to the fact that the shrinking role of poetry in public schools in Massachusetts is especially distressing since the state’s poets comprise a large part of the country’s literary heritage. Massachusetts was the home of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, for example, and the state has produced at least five United States Poets Laureate. Another five poets from Massachusetts have earned Pulitzer Prizes, and two have won Nobel Prizes.

In examining the reasons Common Core appears to be hostile to poetry as a literary genre as it also focuses on transforming students into workers, the authors state that supporters of the nationalized standards are using marketing and political strategy in their advertisement that, with Common Core, students will “actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews.”

The authors counter:

The designers of the Common Core, ideologues themselves… In all their hundreds of clotted and ill-written pages of self-promotion, diktats, and appeals to statistics, they mention beauty only once, in the context of a “skill.” But the greatest “skill” in reading is not a skill at all. It is something quite different. It is a virtue, a habit of peaceful reception. One cannot produce joy on an assembly line. One cannot manufacture gratitude. One cannot devise a formula for humble hearing.

“The whole thrust of their standards is away from poetry and toward ‘informational’ texts,’” the authors write. “Information can be managed. But poetry cannot.”

“Information for information’s sake befits a soulless drudge in a soulless world,” they add. “Poetry for poetry’s sake befits a fully mature human being, who is infinitely more than a worker or a voter.”


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