Should Local Taxpayers Pay for an Incoherent English Curriculum?

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Individual secondary teachers often have had personalized and idiosyncratic goals for the elective courses they prepared and taught. What is not clear is why local taxpayers should have supported courses years ago that contributed to an incoherent school curriculum. Or why they support a K-12 reading and literature curriculum today that is even more incoherent than ever. The problem may have its roots in the idea that English (called Reading in the elementary school) should be a required subject at every grade level from kindergarten through 12th grade.

There once seemed to be a consensus that the K-12 curriculum should require all students to take a full year of English every year (among other subjects) and that the school district should pay teachers and their supervisors no matter what they taught in such a course. Even when a school had no coherent curriculum in a subject, school administrators and teachers were to be paid.

The absence of a coherent English curriculum was frequently the case when semester “electives” in the English curriculum were the rage. There were many problems with English electives — i.e., the breakup of the required year-long high school English course (typically in grades 9-12) into semester-long elective courses, beginning in the mid-1950s but accelerating in the mid-1960s. Foremost among these problems was the lack of coherence in the literature and reading curriculum (or as the editor of The English Journal — the major journal for high school English teachers — put it in 1979, the “inherent weakness in its conceptual design”).

Whatever their interest to particular individuals, these English electives tend to focus on narrow tributaries of the English language. As an example, consider an elective aimed at students in 9th or 10th grade at one Massachusetts high school. It examines classics not in English literature but in recent Young Adult novels, highlighting “common themes” such as “dystopia, multiculturalism, problem solving and self-understanding.”

A mix of motivations led to carving up year-long English courses into a variety of electives. Some English teachers saw fragmentation into electives as a way to honor individual uniqueness and highlight the democratic roots of having and making choices. Most were undoubtedly seeking to arouse more interest in reading literature (the passion that had led most of them to become English majors and English teachers) in advanced students as well as in those with poor reading skills. Electives offered a way to provide groups of typically teacher-selected literary works at varying levels of difficulty and on varying topics for students to choose from. (The editor of The English Journal quoted a critic who had called the electives movement an “undisciplined, uncritical leap into instant relevance.”)

But even educators who favored electives instead of a compulsory year-long English course in high school were willing to admit their limitations after parents and others began to call for a return to the “basics” in the 1970s and 1980s and the elimination of a high school English curriculum consisting wholly of electives. Nevertheless, although students might then be asked to choose among seemingly reasonable options (e.g., a literature elective in one semester and a composition elective in the other), one can rarely find discussions of why schools should require a 12-year English curriculum altogether.

In other words:  Why teach English every year? Did the English curriculum have substantive intellectual purposes that warranted its requirement for a full year every school year until graduation — and a detailed plan for sequencing the content? For example, a history or social studies department might assert that studying United States government every year from grade 1 to grade 12 in some form would lead to an in-depth understanding of our basic political principles, their philosophical antecedents, and the institutions or procedures embedding them (i.e., “informed citizenship”). Did the reading/literature curriculum have similar types of content objectives, with similar kinds of pre-20th century readings?

It had long been accepted by local taxpayers and school boards that the English curriculum had social and political purposes (such as developing skill in communicating with others as well as in using these skills to participate in a civic culture). English teachers have long struggled to make it clear that their curriculum also had affective and aesthetic purposes – that responding to literature and appreciating it are themselves worthy goals. But affective, aesthetic, social, and political goals don’t necessarily require for their implementation joint planning by secondary English faculty of curriculum sequences or staging. These kinds of goals can easily be satisfied by haphazardly provided readings or school experiences at any grade level (as can be seen in a reading and literature curriculum aligned to Common Core’s English language arts skills-based standards).

Should there be substantive intellectual reasons for all high schools in this country to require all students to study annually the language and literature of the country they live in, as part of a planned coherent sequence from grade to grade? Did and does such study develop students’ minds, however this goal may be described? (Today, for instance, it is often described as “critical thinking.”) Without a clear articulation of the ultimate goal of the curriculum, how could an English curriculum be progressively shaped for over twelve years? How could schools go about developing and organizing their menu of required English courses without some sense of where they wanted to take students from grade to grade or from middle/junior high school to high school and then to graduation? Should there be similar academic goals for all students (i.e., a core)? Or is literary study like Franz Kafka’s “Hunger Artist” — something to be allowed to wither away in silence because the crowd has moved on to another attraction?

Our secondary English departments some years ago did not seem to have available a professionally acceptable model of a substantive intellectual framework for a reading and literature curriculum (not a list of specific works to be taught but the framework for teacher choice). So the vacuum was easily filled in 2009-2010 by the Common Core English language arts skills that its chief writers, David Coleman and Susan Pimentel, poured in, along with an idiosyncratic K-12 division of skill-based standards for “informational” and literary reading. In essence, Common Core’s writers, neither of whom had taught reading or English language arts from kindergarten through the senior year of college, gave schools a core of skills to apply to an already incoherent reading/literature curriculum.

But, some readers might ask, what did a coherent literature/reading curriculum look like? We can see one below, in the titles (and their sequence) that were taught in the original 14-month Rainier Scholars program, a private program in Seattle beginning in grade 6. The program, begun in 2002, recruited about 60 students each year, chiefly from the Seattle public schools. The program was for “African American, Hispanic Latino, Native American, and first generation Asian American students” who “demonstrate a strong work ethic and motivation combined with the cognitive ability to thrive in college prep settings.” (It is not clear from the Internet what is taught in this program today and to whom.)

In the original program, students agreed to spend two summers doing intensive academic work, take after-school classes twice a week for the entire school year, and do three hours of homework every night. The primary outcome of the 14-month program was to prepare the students for and to place them in demanding academic programs at higher grade levels, in public or private schools. The program also gave students individual mentoring, tutoring, and counseling from the end of grade 5 through college. 

According to the literature specialist for the original program (Drego Little), all students read all these books, which increased in reading difficulty, overall, from the first two units to the final two. (RL means Reading Level; 4.5, as an example, means the fifth month of grade 4. Reading Levels for the titles, where available, were determined by ATOS for Books, the readability formula used by Renaissance Learning, a company in Wisconsin.) The grouping of the books in each unit was guided in part by an academic typology for plots:  plots of action, plots of character, and plots of thought.

The First Unit 

*Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed, RL 3.6
*Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark, RL 5.3
*Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, RL 5.6

The Second Unit

*Kate DiCamillo’s Tale of Despereaux, RL 4.7
*Jacqueline Woodsons’ Maizon at Blue Hill, RL 4.1
*Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, RL 4.5
*Richard Wright’s Black Boy, RL 7.4

The Third Unit

*Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, RL 6.9
*Ingri d’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, RL 6.6
*Ingri d’Aulaire’s Norse Myths [reading level not available]
*Richard Chase’s “Jack in the Giant’s New Ground” from The Jack Tales, RL 4.8
*Richard Chase’s “Jack and the Bean Tree” from The Jack Tales, RL 4.8
*Kate DiCamillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, RL 4.4

 The Fourth Unit

*Ellen Levine’s Freedom’s Children, RL 6.3
*John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, RL 7.1
*Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men [reading level not available]
*Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy, RL 6.8

The Fifth Unit

William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, RL 8.6

The Sixth Unit

Homer’s The Odyssey, RL 10.3


Five principles appear to underlie the reading sequence in the original program:


(1)  Texts read in the early part of the school year or in earlier grades have substantive links to texts read later in the school year or in later grades.

(2)  Assigned texts increase in reading difficulty over the course of a school year or several school years to develop students’ cognitive capacity to handle more advanced vocabulary and complex sentence structure (among other features of these texts).   

(3)  Students study culturally and historically important works that stimulated the imagination or thoughts of later writers and that continue to influence the language that students listen to, speak, read, and write.   

(4)  Access to historically and culturally important literary texts is staged over the course of a grade level and across grade levels because these texts are usually difficult to read. This principle reflects such psychological constructs as “scaffolding.” 

(5)  The nonfiction taught in an English course provides the historical and cultural context for some of the imaginative literature taught.  

So, what might the Rainier Scholars have learned in this intensive reading program?

1.  The sources of many allusions and references in classical mythology so students can read many works in the future closely and with deeper understanding.

2.  The moral questions raised by prejudice and the hostility or violence it may provoke in the real world. The chosen books show unacceptable behavior directed against others on the basis of racial or ethnic stereotypes in this country (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird, Maizon at Blue Hill, Black Boy, Freedom’s Children, and Twelve Angry Men), on the basis of common or commonly perceived characteristics relating to ethnic and/or cultural differences in other countries (e.g., Milkweed, The Pearl), and on idiosyncratic family relationships in the same society (Romeo and Juliet).

Today the typical secondary English curriculum has no teacher-worked-out developmental sequence that would get most students (those willing to do the reading) up to the high school level by high school. What happens to student growth when many English teachers are influenced by a highly lauded grade 10 teacher who recommends Alissa Quart’s Branded and articles on nerds, fast foods, and teen-age marketing as the stuff of an English class? Should local taxpayers pay for such an incoherent English curriculum? Should parents support it? Should English and other teachers and school administrators?

Or would the students be better off just studying math?


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.