"Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts."

Sandra Stotsky on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 in during a public hearing

Common Core expects English teachers to spend half of their reading time at every grade on informational texts, says opponent

With full implementation of the Common Core State Standards just a year away, Florida is taking last-minute feedback from supporters and critics alike.

Gov. Rick Scott, whose tea party base has been among the most vocal critics, called for three public hearings in October to garner input. Education officials have said that the comments could be used to "tweak" the standards, which already are being used in the state’s schools.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart listened during the first hearing on Oct. 15 in Tampa as dozens of people spoke. The first speaker was Sandra Stotsky, an education professor at the University of Arkansas and staunch critic of the Common Core.

One of Stotsky’s complaints was that literature and fiction would be replaced with nonfiction informational texts.

"Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts — a percentage from which students cannot benefit intellectually," she said

We decided to check the part of her statement about what kind of texts English teachers will be required to use in their classes.

There’s plenty of evidence that the Common Core standards emphasize informational texts. The introduction says, "The standards are not alone in calling for a special emphasis on informational text." The Common Core also states that it follows the lead of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in "balancing the reading of literature with the reading of informational texts, including texts in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects."

Common Core follows a NAEP framework that spells out percentages of literary versus informational texts by grade level. It calls for a 50 percent/50 percent split in grade four, with an increasing emphasis on informational texts in later grades. In grade eight, there’s a 45 percent/55 percent split, while in grade 12, the split is 30 percent/70 percent.

Some news stories suggest that English teachers are using more informational texts in their classrooms as they move to the Common Core. An Oct. 15 story in The Hechinger Report found that some English teachers in Florida have replaced some classic works of literature with nonfiction books or added informational texts to their instruction. One teacher replaced the novel The Great Gatsby, with a memoir, The Glass Castle. Another said she would assign students Martin Luther King Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" speech alongside the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

In a piece for The Heritage Foundation last year, Stotsky pointed to such stories as evidence that the Common Core is damaging the English curriculum.

"Anecdotal reports from high school English teachers indicate that the amount of informational or nonfiction reading they are being told to do in their classroom is 50 percent or more of their reading instructional time—and that they will have time only for excerpts from novels, plays, or epic poems if they want students to read more than very short stories and poems," she wrote.

Stotsky said her remarks were based on the number of reading standards in Common Core. There are 10 standards for informational text and nine for literature in every grade level. "That is approximately 50/50," she wrote in an email sent after publication. "Many departments of education and superintendents have told local school districts to spend 50 percent of their reading time on 'informational texts' and 50 percent on literary study. They have interpreted the 10/9 numbers in exactly the same way." 

However, Stotsky’s claim that English teachers must spend at least half their reading instructional time on informational texts is a misread of the Common Core standards and the percentages it outlines.

The Common Core website specifically states that the "percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in (English) settings."  It goes on to say that "teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational."

So those percentages also count what students read in their science, math and history classes -- which would likely be all, or nearly all, informational.

To meet the 30 percent threshold for literary reading at grade 12, an English teacher would have to focus on stories, novels and plays, said Timothy Shanahan, a retired education professor from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the English Language Arts Work Team for the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

"Depending on how a school is organized, it would be possible for an English teacher to never touch an informational text," he said.

Kathy Short, a professor at the University of Arizona, discussed the issue in a blog item about misconceptions about the Common Core, writing, "English teachers are encouraged to use more short informational texts, such as primary sources that can be found online and in newspapers to surround their reading of a novel, but not to switch their reading to primarily informational text. In fact, students need to primarily read literary texts in English in order to have the 30 percent of their day be fiction reading."

The Common Core website also says that the English classroom "must focus on literature (stories, drama and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction." Because of that, "a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally."

Finally, Common Core leaves most of the decisions about what should be taught to the states and local school districts. It requires, for instance, the inclusion of "classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s founding documents, foundational American literature and Shakespeare." All other content decisions are left up to the local education officials.

Teachers can replace The Great Gatsby with The Glass Castle if they want to, but they don’t have to, Shanahan said.

"That’s all local decision making," he said.

Our ruling

Stotsky stated that the Common Core expects English teachers to spend at least half of their reading instructional time at every grade level on informational texts. The Common Core does emphasize informational texts. But it specifically counts reading informational texts in science, math or history classes, and it says that English classes must focus on literature as well as literary nonfiction. Most of the decision-making about what students read in English classes is left to the local and state levels. We find this statement False.

Editor's note: This report has been updated to include Stotsky's comments, which we received after our initial publication. The ruling is unchanged.