When I was in high school, I chose to major in English in college because I wanted to be wiser. That’s the word I used. If I ended up making lots of money or writing a book, great; but really, I liked the prospect of being exposed to great thoughts and deep advice, and the opportunity to apply them to my own life in my own clumsy way. I wanted to live more thoughtfully and purposefully. (Also, I hoped literature would help me understand girls.) Now I’m a veteran English teacher, reflecting on what’s slowly changed at the typical American public high school—and the word wisdom keeps haunting me. I don’t teach it as much anymore, and I wonder who is.
As a new teacher at San Luis Obispo High School in California more than a decade ago, I asked my principal about his expectations for my students’ Advanced Placement scores. He said, "Just make sure the kids are ready for the next part of their lives. They’re going to be on their own soon, and forever. Prepare them for that. Literature can help."
His idea of how to prepare kids for their futures was significantly different, in both meaning and tone, from how teachers are now being informed by the Common Core State Standards—the controversial math and English benchmarks that have been adopted in most states—and the writers and thought leaders who shape the assessments matched to those standards. It all amounts to an alphabet soup of bureaucratic expectations and what can feel like soul-less instruction. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium—referred to in education circles simply as "SBAC"—is the association that writes a Common Core-aligned assessment used in 25 states, including mine. The consortium has established four of what it calls "major claims"; the first purports that students are "college and career ready" if they "can read closely and analytically to comprehend a range of complex literary and informational text."