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Hello Common Core, Goodbye 'Huck Finn'

This article is more than 9 years old.

An 8-month-old taunted with racial slurs?

I was never so personally seared by bigotry than when I strolled my newly adopted son past a trio of adolescent boys on a Cape Cod sidewalk. Nine years later, their chant still haunts me. Chinc, chinc, chincee, go back to Chinatown!

When one of their mothers found out what they said, and harshly punished them – the boys learned a powerful lesson, albeit the hard way.

But many of life’s lessons are taught in the boundless classroom that is classic literature. Authors such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville and Emily Dickinson spur discussion, debate, emotional growth and, yes, literacy.

Sadly, children's exposure to such texts is about to be diminished.

That's because national K-12 standards known as Common Core — adopted by Massachusetts in 2010 and soon to be implemented — will drastically reduce classical literature in educational curriculum.

It would seem unfathomable that Massachusetts, the birthplace of public schools and the state that gave us Thoreau, Longfellow, Dickinson, Emerson and Hawthorne, would make such a compromise.

Connaughton: Adoption of Common Core means many classic texts will no longer be included in curriculum. (AP)
Connaughton: Adoption of Common Core means many classic texts will no longer be included in curriculum. (AP)

There’s a reason why Bay State students lead the nation in literacy. In 1997 (and slightly revised in 2001), under the leadership of Sandra Stotsky, with active support from then Board of Education Chair John Silber, the state adopted a robust English language arts curriculum that focused on literature, fiction, poetry and drama. With the foresight to create painstakingly detailed curriculum frameworks, education policymakers ensured that classic literature would remain prominent in the classroom.

It worked.

In 2011, Massachusetts fourth-graders led the nation in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading scores. That same year, Massachusetts eighth-graders tied for first place on the reading test, along with Connecticut and New Jersey. In 2009, the last year for which results are available, Massachusetts 12th-graders topped all other states in reading scores.

In fact, Massachusetts students have achieved the top scores on NAEP reading tests every time they have been administered since 2005.

A literature-heavy curriculum promotes mastery of complex and vocabulary-rich texts that have yielded unchallengeable results. So why would we shift so dramatically away from it?

Common Core proponents boast the new standards will invert the current ratio of literary texts to “informational texts” (blogs, essays, non-fiction) in the high school classroom, providing more of the latter. New tests will be based on this revised focus.

While Common Core provides some leeway for additional classic literature, the reality is that teachers lack the time to focus on what is excluded from tests. In all but the most elite public schools, what’s on the national assessment will be the vast majority of what is taught in the English classroom.

That means goodbye to large swaths of literature such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”


Well-funded suburban and private school students will still have the opportunity to relish the unlikely friendship that takes root between Huck and the runaway slave, Jim — a relationship that climaxed in an historic apology. But will students in less affluent communities ever know that, as Mark Twain expert Ron Powers recently said recalling the remarks of Twain scholar Robert Hirst, that Huck’s apology to Jim “is surely the first time in an American novel … that a white character apologized to a black one”?

In her book “The Jim Dilemma,” Jocelyn Chadwick writes that Twain’s classic challenges white readers to “learn about and experience a traumatic and debasing period in American history.”

But under the new standards some kids — and perhaps kids that need the lesson like the ones on that Cape Cod sidewalk — won’t ever board that raft down the Mississippi. And by missing out on that experience — they might miss an opportunity to understand our country’s history of racism and why such slurs inflict so much pain.

As parents file into PTO meetings across the state this fall to hear about the implementation of Common Core, they should do so with a keen awareness of just what their children will be losing.

This program aired on October 8, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.



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