Who Gets to Decide What Students Read?

Mar 16, 2023 8:30:00 AM


There is a lot of pretending going on. On the one hand, we have the far right pretending they don’t know what’s happening in schools and they don’t like it. On the other hand, we have more traditional conservatives pretending they know exactly what’s happening, and they don’t like it

We know what’s being taught!

Let’s start with the latter, exemplified by Pamela Paul of The New York Times, whose column this week was titled “How to Get Kids to Hate English.” According to Paul, college students are eschewing English majors because they were made to hate English in high school. Now, to know something like this, Paul would have to speak with students or teachers or read a survey or two where this sentiment was expressed. But she didn’t. She just decided to say they hate it. 

She also came up with reasons why they hate it. One: Barack Obama. Paul blames Obama for how she imagines English is being taught in 2023 because he supported Common Core, though that bipartisan initiative largely failed — only a minority of states still administer its standardized tests. 

It failed as a result of right-wing political opposition (ironically, to anything but local control) but also teacher, parent, and student resistance to its excesses, including scripted lessons and too much testing (BTW, teachers could have used support from pundits back then when our resistance was being characterized as obstinance and laziness). 

Despite its decline, Paul pretends Common Core remade high school English so that most of what is read in English classes is nonfiction. This is and always was demonstrably false. Common Core proponents sought to increase reading of nonfiction across the curriculum, including science and history. Some English teachers, including me, made efforts to introduce more nonfiction into our classes, but fiction, poetry, and drama continued, and continues, to dominate secondary English curricula. Paul rants about close reading analysis, but the methods teachers use to teach literature vary widely, as each adds new methods to old if they prove effective with their particular students. Pamela Paul just pretends to know how English is taught.

Paul claims students are being forced to read, in addition to reams of nonfiction, young adult books they don’t like instead of classics. Her main evidence is an article from 2006 that showed only that some teachers had “either replaced some of their traditional canonical selections with timeless works of young adult literature (YAL) or [had] expanded their literature curriculum by pairing YAL with the classics.” 

Meanwhile, it also showed some wary of young adult literature. And this remains a fair description of where things stand 17 years later. Paul provided no evidence that students are unhappy with the books they study and no evidence that classics have been tossed wholesale.

Paul’s misconceptions could again have been corrected by talking to a variety of teachers — or just by looking at the College Board website. Each year’s AP Literature exam is posted, listing some of the titles that the nation’s leading shaper of curriculum knows seniors across the US are likely to have read. It’s a wide mix of contemporary and classic books.

Paul’s complaint isn’t new among conservative columnists, who have long hand-waved about the classics, usually without doing the work to find out what’s being taught, where, and why. Two years ago, Kathleen Parker wrote an entire Washington Post piece against Shakespeare being “canceled” based on a single teacher’s tweet about his preference. (Not long before that an AP trainer told me so many students write about “Hamlet” on the exam that I should tell my students to use another book.) 

As a way to gauge their preferences, for years I assigned my upperclassmen David Brooks’s 2006 essay about why boys don’t read. They were quick to notice that Brooks based his conclusions about American teens on a survey of British adults, and they didn’t recognize the YA books he insisted they were being made to read. The boys were unenthusiastic about the classic authors he claimed they would love if only they weren’t being denied them. Why? They’d been assigned works by many of these authors and had not had their joy sparked (except for one kid who was obsessed with The Odyssey — hi, Ryan!).

Brooks was convinced boys were going to eat up the books he had devoured decades earlier. Paul similarly wants teachers to assign the books she loved and found challenging, assuming she knows better than teachers do about what their students lean into and how they learn, despite the fact that these teenagers arrive to class every day more than eager to share their thoughts about the assigned reading. (Sometimes my students surprised me. Many boys enjoyed “Jane Eyre” against my expectations. Students in one district did not like “Wide Sargasso Sea,” but those I taught two towns over did.) 

Here’s the thing: Paul presumes to know better than America’s teachers, regardless of whether they teach seventh graders or seniors; rural, suburban or urban kids; students in New England or New Mexico or New Orleans; English language learners or students with disabilities; reluctant readers or book club organizers. Pamela Paul very specifically knows better: She thinks teachers should assign Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” instead of “The Bluest Eye” because Pamela Paul deems it the better book. 

It was this detail that really sent me around the bend. Because both Toni Morrison novels are on very many of the lists of books now being pulled from school shelves as a result of right-wing media hysteria and base-pleasing Republican politicians. “The Bluest Eye” was one of last year’s top 10 banned books. “Beloved” was featured as the book that traumatized a white Virginia boy in a Glenn Youngkin campaign ad meant to stoke fears about what’s being taught in schools. Her own paper wrote about it.

You might expect someone concerned about students being denied literature would be aghast at the 137 education gag orders passed in 37 states in 2022 or the explosion of book bans spanning hundreds of districts and affecting millions of American kids. Paul does mention book bans — but pretends the barrage is from the left. One of her hyperlinks supporting this misrepresentation is to an item about a singular district making its own decision to simply stop requiring teachers teach two texts; the other is to a call for a more inclusive curriculum! At this and other points, Paul makes clear inclusion, not exclusion, is her real beef. And so it is with those pushing the unprecedented wave of GOP-led government censorship that her piece ignores — the single biggest threat to high school English today.

We don’t know what’s being taught!

Meanwhile, the far right continues a crusade that is limiting the books available, the texts and authors and topics and theories taught, the discussions held and words used in schools. Furthering this effort has been the pretense that K-12 parents are being purposefully prevented from knowing what’s going in schools. Extremists concluded calling for "school transparency” was a clever tack, so dozens and dozens of transparency bills, branded first as parental control and then as parents rights bills, have been proposed or passed in states. Now, the House GOP is readying to vote on a national version, HR 5

When a failed U.S. Senate version of this bill was proposed in 2021, I wrote about it for The Washington Post, pointing out that the need for transparency was a pretense:

Parents have long known what their children learn in school via curriculum nights, teacher conferences, emails and phone calls….These methods still exist, but a fire hose of electronic information has blasted open what might once have seemed a black box.

Want to know exactly what a child is studying, reading, viewing, hearing, discussing and debating in class? Most districts provide 24/7 access to online gradebooks that list each assignment and assessment. In addition, many now use electronic assignment pads such as Google Classroom. There, parents can view past, current, and upcoming assignments and assessments, with links to readings, handouts, slide decks, videos and online discussions. There is much more: state websites publish standards along with resources for teaching them. Districts publish skills and content curriculum for every level and subject.

If these bills don’t do much, it might seem there is no harm in them, but transparency is a pretext to wreak havoc:

So why a push for transparency that already exists? Because activists are less interested in “parental control” of schools than in controlling parents and educators through an atmosphere of fear and distrust. There are side benefits: creating an administrative burden for educators and investing parents in the project of sifting through materials looking for “gotcha” stories that further the dangerous but energizing false narrative that public schools are secretly indoctrinating children. 

Like the gag orders focused on CRT or “divisive concepts,” many of these bills give individual parents more than the ability to opt their child out of activities or reading they find problematic — they give them the power to prevent other people’s children from accessing a full curriculum and selection of books. 

Where the twain meet

Those pretending to know what’s going on in schools, like Paul, can lead people to believe that teachers trained in curriculum and pedagogy can’t be trusted to make decisions about curriculum and pedagogy. These pundits want teachers to meet them, rather than their students, where they are. So do the extremists who pretend teachers are hiding things from parents. These actors are working to discredit the education professionals who work in their communities, collaborating with parents, listening to students, and reporting to democratically-elected school boards. Extremists do not want these professionals deciding what books students can access. 

The problem is not one columnist. Few among the pundits who call themselves moderates and conservatives and write for major newspapers and magazines have used their platforms to address the worsening censorship legislation affecting K-12 and higher education. Instead of fighting this threat, many of them have continued to fret about what they see as threats to free speech from the left. Occasionally, we get a piece from one of them that both-sides the issue

Silence on or downplaying of actual government censorship is contrary to these pundits’ stated beliefs about free speech. And it is contrary to the beliefs of the majority of the nation’s citizens: Public sentiment is against book bans, against censoring history and diverse voices in literature, and against culture wars playing out in schools. So why do they remain silent? Or worse yet, discredit teachers and misrepresent trends in education, contributing to an atmosphere that has emboldened authoritarian politicians? I’m not sure I want transparency on that. 

This essay originally appeared on substack.com

Anne Lutz Fernandez

Anne Lutz Fernandez is a former marketer, investment banker and English teacher. She is the author of Carjacked and Schooled.

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