The NCTE on College Readiness

After the Common Core project released its first draft of standards for English Language Arts last summer, the National Council of Teachers of English had a “review team” issue a report on the document to be submitted to the project as it worked its way through subsequent versions.  The ensuing 21 page critique noted strengths and weaknesses in the Common Core draft and urged detailed revisions in emphasis and document language.

Apart from the immediate aim of steering the core standards in certain directions, the document also offers a vision of English education that strangely downplays the fundamental principle of the project, namely, college and career readiness.  The core standards project wants to create a model that will send high school graduates to college with the equipment to keep them there–a critical ambition given the high dropout rates in two-year and four-year institutions.  But “readiness” only comes up briefly in the NCTE report, and there it is dismissed:

“The standards speak to ‘college and career’ readiness. However, there are important dimensions of education beyond these two domains. Purposes for writing include self-expression; releasing the imagination; creating works of art; developing social networks; engaging in civic discourse; supporting personal and spiritual growth; reflecting on experience; communicating professionally and academically; building relationships with others, including with friends, family, and other like-minded individuals; and engaging in aesthetic experiences. Most important perhaps is education for social and civic participation.

A central purpose of education—and certainly literacy education—has been to create citizens who understand and evaluate complex situations within societies and to influence the democratic process ethically, responsibly, and effectively. Much reading and writing in college centers on the public good, with students frequently asked to produce texts that address various publics, not only other academics.”

That’s about it.  The report authors believe “readiness” is a restrictive premise, and so they highlight all the things that it doesn’t cover.  They insert, also, off-campus elements that we should all recognize–“the public good” and “various publics.”

In a document that speaks elsewhere in altogether high-minded tones about solid research and evidence-based assertions, this take on college activity is remarkably out-of-touch.  Ask professors of sociology, art history, history, French, philosophy, biology, political science, and every other discipline outside of Creative Writing what they want out of student writing and you won’t find anybody who says, “self-expression.”  Nobody values the ability to “develop social networks.”  “Personal and spiritual growth” doesn’t impress them at grading time.  Indeed, I do not know of any college English teachers except those composition and rhetoric teachers who are caught up in “identity” issues who would agree to this list.

Instead, they’ll reply, “Give me clear sentences and coherent paragraphs.”  They want students to observe rules of grammar and adopt a style adequate to communicating an idea, describing an event, summarizing an argument, or analyzing a thesis.  They want English teachers to improve student grammar and style so that they don’t have to.  They don’t want to fix writing.  That’s an exhaustive, labor-intensive activity, and it takes precious minutes away from course content.  They want to impart their subject and assess students’ knowledge of it.  Self-expression, imagination, relationships . . . they’re all wonderful, but they don’t mean a thing if the verbal mechanics aren’t in place.  (One might add that rhet-comp people who do turn their writing courses into “self-exploration” and “public good” settings are widely disparaged by people across the quad who receive their students a semester later and and have to tell them: “I’m not interested in your identity–just craft a thesis and provide evidence for it.”)

We have, then, competing visions of English in play.  NCTE wants English education to be a broader, more social- and self-cognizant enterprise.  The Core Standards project envisions English education as a narrower training in basic reading and writing skills.  The rest of the disciplines agree with the Core Standards project.  Does NCTE really believe that anybody is going to pay attention to them when they start waxing about “releasing the imagination”?

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