The new Common Core State Standards are all the buzz among educators and publishers—not to mention parents. But what exactly are they, and what do they mean for the book industry? As it turns out, these are not easy questions to answer.
“It’s a magnificent opportunity fraught with fear, as change always is,” says Common Core consultant Marc Aronson, a Sibert Medalist for Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado and, most recently, the author of Master of Deceit: J. Edgar Hoover and America in the Age of Lies. From the most optimistic standpoint, the initiative—with its focus on more “informational” text—is a potential boon for award-winning nonfiction authors and their publishers.
To backtrack: the Common Core State Standards are not federal standards. After all, the U.S. Constitution gives Congress no authority to fund or regulate schools or control curriculum, standards, or policy. But at its annual fall meeting in 2008, after previous informal discussions, the Council of Chief State School Officers—with input from some state governors—formally decided to come up with some uniform standards to get more low-performing students into college courses without needing remedial courses once they got there. What’s now known as the Common Core is a set of standards that its supporters, including the Council and the National Governors Association, think will better prepare k–12 students for college and careers.
Typically, Core authors want students to think more critically about what they’re reading, rather than just summarizing text; to compare multiple sources in different formats; and to give more sourced evidence, and less personal opinion, in their writing. And, as noted in the standard’s criteria for publishers, scientific and historical texts should receive the “same time and weight as literary text.” By the 2014–2015 academic year, the initiative calls for 50% informational text (including textbooks, essays, speeches, newspaper articles, and nonfiction trade books) in elementary school and 70% in high school—on average, across all curricula. “The 50–50 split is not for English class,” says David Coleman, a lead writer of the Core’s English language arts plan and the incoming president of the College Board (which administers the SAT and AP exams). “The celebration of nonfiction’s role is not meant to be at the expense of fiction.” The nonfiction-to-fiction ratio currently being taught in schools nationwide is unknown, but Coleman says the new split is based on the ratio found in the National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Critics say no studies show that those percentages are best or that the NAEP exam creators wanted them to be those used in school. The exam creators did not intend to be “dictating what should be taught in a classroom,” says Sandra Stotsky, a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas who sat on the NAEP committee. She remains skeptical of the Common Core State Standards. “David Coleman has never taught English. He’s never been in k–12,” Stotsky says, and Susan Pimentel, the other lead writer of the language arts standards, only briefly taught Head Start, not English. “[And] there’s no research that shows informational reading will make kids ready for college.”
What’s more, critics say, no one has tested the initiative to see whether it works. “My problem with the Common Core standards is they have never been implemented anywhere,” says Diane Ravitch, author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System and a research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. “If you haven’t ever tried them anywhere, how do you know they’re good?” Perhaps, she adds, Core advocates didn’t want the feedback from a test. “They wanted to get this thing moving so far down the track that it couldn’t be stopped.”
All states but Texas, Alaska, Virginia, Minnesota, and Nebraska have signed onto all the Core standards for math and English language arts. Cash-strapped states said yes, at least in part to be able to compete for the carrot—$5 billion in Race to the Top funds from the U.S. Department of Education. Only 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, won any of the money; all winners adopted the Common Core, and the competition is closed. One public policy research organization, the Pioneer Institute, has estimated the costs of the initiative at $15.8 billion, including materials, teacher training, and technology. But no one knows how much money states will spend on new books.
Although Coleman insists that the Core enjoys bipartisan support, the potential upheaval in a presidential election year leaves the Core’s future in question. “We are in a period of complete uncertainty in so many ways in this country,” says Margaret Quinlin, president and publisher of Peachtree Publishers. “This is just one more element of uncertainty—it remains to be seen how it will roll out.” Quinlin does see tremendous potential in the Core: “It’s going to cover the instruction of about 85% of the children in the country, and that’s pretty amazing. The fact that governors started it and that [so many] states have come on board and said, ‘Yes, we’re going forward with implementation’—it’s not like a federal program. If the education community can rally around it, it could in fact be a very exciting development for education, number one, but for publishers, too.”
Even before the initiative, some publishers were making Core-like changes. Capstone Publishers, for example, saw a need for more fiction and nonfiction text on similar subjects, told from different perspectives, says Ashley Andersen Zantop, group publisher and general manager. “A lot of the desired outcomes in the standards are outcomes we had already identified as things that need to happen,” she says. “Common Core kind of makes them official.”
One Core section that’s been a magnet for criticism is its Appendix B, which provides what it calls “exemplars” of language arts texts. It’s not perfect: “With so many great, timely nonfiction books available, it’s disappointing that a dated 1992 book on Mars makes the list,” says Kathleen Odean, a former Newbery committee chair, former elementary school librarian, and author of Great Books About Things Kids Love. “What could they have been thinking?” As for other titles on Appendix B, she likes Philip Isaacson’s 1993 A Short Walk Through the Pyramids and Through the World of Art, but notes that it’s out of print, and Patricia Lauber’s 1996 Hurricanes—though it, too, is not current. And, she says, “side by side” with Mary Ebeltoft Reid’s out-of-print 1997 book Let’s Find Out About Ice Cream is Russell Freedman’s “outstanding” The Freedom Walkers, about the Montgomery bus boycott.
Steve DelVecchio, a public librarian in Seattle and a former teacher and school librarian, edited Appendix B in 2009 and says that it is meant to show the types of materials that meet Core standards. “It was never, ever meant in any shape or form to be a recommended booklet or reading list,” he says. “It’s not meant at all to de-emphasize reading classic or traditional literary text or poetry or drama. Just read the darn thing. Very few people are doing that.”
As it turns out, many educators are, in fact, treating Appendix B as a national reading list. “I’ve watched people say, ‘We need to go ahead and order all these materials, and now I’m doing the Common Core,’ ” says Melissa Jacobs-Israel, a library services coordinator for the New York City schools. Indeed, “the likelihood is that most states are going to adhere to what’s actually in the printed booklet,” says Ravitch. And this represents an opportunity for publishers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, for example, already hands out a tear sheet with all of its books that appear on Appendix B. “[Appendix B] is a terrific place to start,” says Betsy Groban, senior v-p and publisher of HMH Children’s Book Group. “It’s a huge opportunity.”
The upshot: publishers may see a bump in sales for books on the list. Sibert Medalist Jim Murphy has already noticed one for The Great Fire, his Newbery Honor book about the infamous 1871 Chicago disaster. Some of his nonfiction titles that were not on the list have also “picked up a bit—enough for me to notice,” he says, and his publisher has also sold additional rights to textbook companies.
Many nonfiction authors, unsurprisingly, are thrilled that the Core is promoting their genre. “This is not at all to diss fiction, but I think nonfiction has been overlooked for so long,” says author Sy Montgomery, whose Quest for the Tree Kangaroo won the Orbis Pictus Award in 2007. “Kids themselves have believed that nonfiction books are just big books of boring answers.”
Not so, according to the Core: dull-looking nonfiction is out. Appendix B notes that “visual elements are particularly important in texts for the youngest students and in many informational texts for readers of all ages.”
Yet pushing more nonfiction on fiction-loving kids remains a tough sell. Some parents in New York, such as Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and a cofounder of Parents Across America, were unhappy with an e-mail message they received from New York State education commissioner John King, which urged them to get their kids to “read as much nonfiction as fiction” and to “read nonfiction texts aloud or with your child.” Haimson believes her own son would read far less—and much less enthusiastically—if he had to turn to nonfiction as often as fiction at school and in his free time.
Veterans of past education reform efforts such as the late-1980s whole language movement, which emphasized meaning rather than phonics, caution against swinging too far toward nonfiction at the expense of fiction. Francie Alexander, a former teacher who served as deputy assistant secretary of education in the Clinton administration and is now v-p and chief academic officer for Scholastic, says, “In terms of avoiding mistakes of the past, and going too much in one direction, just publish really good stuff for children and young adults.”
So how can they do that? “We should all be writing books that are emotional and passionate and are the best we can write,” says Murphy. “I see it as a kind of music, that every line kind of leads to the next line. You don’t want any disruptions. You want this to be a perfect score.”
Mining the Backlist
Many of those quality books are already out there; the trick is getting them noticed. Publishers could consider contacting the associations for science, English, social studies, and math teachers to get the word out about award-winning nonfiction books in their backlists. “The opportunity for publishers is in making available the books they already have and in the fact that their strength is voice and complexity and richness, which Common Core favors,” says Aronson. “Their challenge is making their work known to teachers.”
Publishers could also work more closely with teachers, says Myra Zarnowski, professor of elementary and early childhood education at Queens College, City University of New York, and part of an informal group that calls itself the Uncommon Corps. She suggests that publishers could provide teachers with samples of their books, and then print, in their own e-newsletters, teachers’ writeups about how they used the books successfully with their students.
Another idea from Zarnowski: suggest more pairings of multiple primary source–based accounts of an event. “We are going to be looking for clusters of material—a series of books and other materials on a topic,” she says. “It’s not a question of, [do] we need all brand-new books? It’s a question of how do we make the best use of what we have?” For example, students who read Caitlin O’Connell’s The Elephant Scientist could be referred to books on another female researcher, Jane Goodall, suggests Carol Jago, past president of the National Council of Teachers of English and director of the California reading and literature project at UCLA. Or, says Murphy, kids could pair his An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 with Laurie Halse Anderson’s historical fiction Fever 1793. A teacher covering the civil rights movement could incorporate the first-person memoir Through My Eyes: Ruby Bridges with Cynthia Levinson’s We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March, Nikki Giovanni’s Rosa, Christopher Paul Curtis’s The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963, and Carole Boston Weatherford’s Birmingham, 1963, says author and school consultant Lester Laminack, a professor emeritus at Western Carolina University. He wonders if publishers could come together—perhaps through the Children’s Book Council—to suggest related books on topics. “There could be one master site, and there could be a click-and-purchase kind of thing,” he says. Of course, some publishers already pair nonfiction and fiction titles. Random House, for example, publishes nonfiction companion guides to Mary Pope Osborne’s Magic Tree House novels, written with her sister, Natalie Pope Boyce.
Taking Cues from Adult Publishers
Olga Nesi, a coordinator of library services for the New York City public schools, sees great potential for publishers converting the best adult nonfiction into books for kids and teens. For example, Eric Schlosser (with coauthor Charles Wilson) adapted the bestselling Fast Food Nation and produced Chew on This, which looks at how a single fast-food hamburger may contain meat from hundreds of cattle and at how market researchers study kids. And Nathaniel Philbrick adapted his National Book Award–winning adult book Mayflower: A Story of Community, Courage, and War for middle-grade readers as The Mayflower & the Pilgrims’ New World.
Odean would like to see more books along the lines of Loree Burns’s Tracking Trash—a book that is interesting to kids and makes good use of primary documents. Stotsky favors more literary nonfiction, like Dava Sobel’s Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter. “Sobel is writing in a literary style, even as a science writer,” she says. Laminack suggests “denser topics broken down into smaller topics.” Instead of attempting to cover the entire American Revolution in one huge book, publishers could make collections of texts on subtopics such as the Declaration of Independence, he says, which “would allow children to look at multiple points of view.”
Discussion questions and “if you liked this” information, as well as author interviews, would work well in the back of books, says Jago. “It makes the author come alive for young readers.” Publishers should “really use as a model what they’ve used for book clubs,” she says. “The goal of the Common Core is not to have more complicated lessons in class. It’s to have kids doing more reading, talking, and writing about books.”
Working with Schools
Teachers who are trying to work with the Core can turn to Web sites that offer lesson plans and discussion questions. Former bookseller Nick Glass, founder and executive director of TeachingBooks.net, supplies both to more than a quarter of all U.S. schools. Depending on their size, districts pay $40–$500 per year to subscribe to his site, which gives them access to more than 13,000 lesson plans about books. Publishers do not pay TeachingBooks.net a fee to link to their materials; the site is funded entirely through subscriptions. The site also features interviews and blog posts explaining how authors gather material for their books. In her entry, Ann Bausum discusses researching the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 for her latest book, Marching to the Mountaintop.
Some publishers are relaunching their own teacher and librarian Web sites with more Core-friendly information. This fall, Random House’s rhteacherslibrarians.com will include educator guides with Core connections. Scholastic offers On the Record, a print book collection and teacher’s guide for middle schools with a Web link that takes users directly to the grade 7 Core standards. And this month Holiday House posted three charts, for language arts, math, and poetry books, listed alphabetically by title with the age level and Core code.
Teachers traditionally have used their budgets to buy enough paperback novels for each student. But nonfiction titles tend to be expensive hardbacks, intended more for library use. Core advocates want publishers to release nonfiction in more affordable paperback and electronic formats. Some publishers, such as Holiday House, are expanding their paperback lines and launching e-book lines. Core supporters also hope publishers will make excerpts of high-quality nonfiction books more affordable for test makers. Currently, the rights for even a short paragraph out of a well-known book could cost $5,000—and could take six to eight weeks to get.
Publishers can also tweak new books to make sure they work with the Core standards. At Holiday House, for example, executive editor Mary Cash and The Wing Wing Brothers Math Spectacular! author Ethan Long looked at the standards and even sent his sketches to a Common Core expert at various stages. A page in the back of the book, which ships this month, explains how the book meets the Core standards. And Lerner Publishing Group, which won the 2006 Sibert Award for Sally Walker’s Secrets of a Civil War Submarine, is coming out with pop culture biographies on stars such as Justin Bieber and the boy band One Direction. For all titles, even the Bieber and One Direction releases, Lerner is looking at Core criteria such as reading level, narrative arc, and sentence structure.
Currently, the Common Core only addresses standards for English language arts and math. A multistate group is working on similar standards, though not called Common Core, for science, and another group is working on criteria for social studies. For now, interested publishers have their work cut out for them, digesting and interpreting the Core standards for math and English. “You have to tease [the relevant information] out of the Common Core State Standards,” says Lerner v-p and editor-in-chief Mary Rodgers. “They’re not giving publishers a list of, ‘Here’s what you need to do.’ ” Will publishers’ efforts to make sense of the Common Core ultimately be rewarded? Stay tuned.