“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” President John F. Kennedy said in the fall of 1963, memorializing poet Robert Frost at Amherst College. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
April is National Poetry Month, and Massachusetts, more than any state, should celebrate and teach it in our schools. From Emily Dickinson’s Amherst to Herman Melville’s Pittsfield, to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Cambridge and Edgar Allan Poe’s birthplace in Boston, you can barely walk a mile without bumping into the homestead of a famous poet.
In the 20th century alone, the commonwealth produced five United States Poets Laureate; another five Bay State poets have won Pulitzers, and two more have won Nobel Prizes.
Massachusetts politicians like to say “education is our calling card,” but we were first renowned for being the literary hub of North America. For instance, John Adams’ 1780 Massachusetts Constitution clearly prescribes that future state lawmakers need to “cherish the interests of literature.” Does any other constitution in the world contain language like that?
Until recently, classic literature and poetry were deeply embedded within the state K-12 English standards taught to our schoolchildren. Between 2005 and 2013, Massachusetts kids topped their peers in other states on each administration of the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card.”
Our commitment to classic fiction and poetry contributed to Massachusetts students’ success on virtually every K-12 reading test.
But while we’re still number one in NAEP reading, there are ominous signs. Our SAT scores are down 20 points from their 2006 highs. On the 2013 NAEP, Massachusetts’ five-point decline in fourth-grade reading was the largest in the country.
Third-grade reading scores are the best predictor of future academic success. Last year, the percentage of Massachusetts third-graders scoring ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on MCAS reading tests fell to its lowest level since 2009. This year they were flat. At 57 percent, the portion of third-graders who are at least ‘proficient’ in reading is 10 points lower than it was in 2002.
Unfortunately, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration succumbed to the lure of federal grant money in 2010 and dropped our English standards in favor of inferior national standards known as Common Core. The national standards cut classic literature and poetry by 60 percent and inverted 100 years of reading research by emphasizing writing standards over reading ones. As standards expert Sandra Stotsky explains: “Reading precedes writing; good writers are always good readers first.”
In his memoir, A Reason to Believe, former Gov. Patrick wrote fondly of an English teacher he had at the prep school, Milton Academy. “He taught us that written language, at its best, has a rhythm and timbre that is every bit as powerful” as music. In 1978, Patrick graduated cum laude in English and American literature from Harvard College.
But as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard…
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old… [and]
Some [kill their love] with the hands of Gold …”
Truer words were never written. Gov. Patrick and education commissioner Mitchell Chester, by adopting weaker federal standards, killed off the commonwealth’s proven, poetry-rich state English standards for $250 million in federal money.
“[With Common Core] we will no longer be making and owning the major decisions,” then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker said in 2010. “We need to ensure Massachusetts determines what is good for Massachusetts.”
Today, Gov. Charlie Baker, another Harvard-educated English major, could end Common Core’s federalized mediocrity in the Bay State by joining 12 other states in withdrawing from the federally-funded PARCC testing consortium that is designed to lock in the Common Core by replacing MCAS.
“Power unanointed may come — Dominion (unsought by the free)… But the Founders’ dream shall flee …” reads Herman Melville’s 1866 poem Battle-Pieces. Through principled, consistent leadership, Gov. Baker should restore the commonwealth’s historic educational independence and excellence by recommitting Massachusetts to our homegrown, higher-quality state English standards and MCAS tests.
Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.