Sorry Professor, a Love of Reading Simply Is Not Enough

Last weekend Aaron Barlow, an associate professor of English at the New York City College of Technology published a scathing review of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on Academe Magazine’s Blog. His basic idea is that the English Language Arts standards will not prepare students to be successful in his Composition and Literature classes.

To arrive at this conclusion, Barlow sets out his standard of college-readiness (although I hesitate to call “what it takes to be successful in my class” anything resembling a rigorous standard and certainly not a scientific evaluation):

If a student comes into my classroom with curiosity piqued by broad exposure to cultural, historical and scientific information and the ability to sit down and read a book with pleasure for an hour at a time, that student will succeed in my class. That student is primed for the dynamic conversations at the heart of learning…

 He continues:

Mastery of ELA is participatory, a dynamic and not a thing that can be broken down into items on a list. Communication is process and involves a speaker/writer, the vehicle of interaction and an audience. What CCSS will do is remove this dynamic, killing the process through a focus on the vehicle, the “text.” Not only does this not prepare students adequately for college success but it leaves me facing classrooms of students prepared only to be as bored by school now as they were in high school. CCSS, I believe, will make my job harder.

So, boiling it down, to be successful in professor Barlow’s class the only requisites are that you enjoy reading, have a broad curiosity, and can sit still for at least an hour — never mind the need to be able to analyze what you’re reading, draw conclusions, deconstruct theme, or even write yourself (which is ironic considering he teaches composition). These skills – knowledge that is built only through extensive instruction and practice – are apparently superfluous for college-readiness.

The “dynamic conversations” Barlow desires are made possible by the very practices that he seeks to diminish: robust engagement with text. Complex and nuanced discussion is produced by facilitating deep textual analysis, deconstructing not only what is said, but how it is said, extracting meaning while also revealing how meaning can be manipulated and changed. This is reading done well — a series of layered interactions, critiques and analyses. Loving to read will not get us there.

Barlow’s ideas about what training is necessary to be ready for college appears to be in the same vein as “learning for learning’s sake.” Or, perhaps more appropriately in this case: reading for reading’s sake. This is a convenient position since stakes for him are nil. If his students are unprepared, or love reading but are simply poor at the companion skills of analysis, critique and writing, he can continue on with those few who are ready. At worst, his job is a little harder. I encourage Barlow to consider that these standards do not exist for him, but for students who are habitually underserved and underprepared by the current education system both at the secondary and postsecondary level.

Not only are students grossly underprepared to be successful at the New York City College of Technology, the college has a poor record of serving its students once they arrive on campus. The majority of students who attend are low-income (73%) and students of color (64%), and many are nontraditional students or attend only part-time. These are the students that were failed by the public K-12 system. They were never taught to anywhere near the rigor of the Common Core, attended segregated and under-resourced schools, and were disproportionately taught by out-of-field, unlicensed or inexperienced teachers.

The New York City College of Technology fails them again. After four-years nearly 30% of them will have transferred and only 3% will have graduated. After 6 years, 24% will have walked across the stage.[1]

Barlow is right to worry that students are not ready for college—even one as low quality as his—but how dare he stand in the way of meaningful academic progress for students. The status quo is not working for millions of students, and despite his privileged nostalgia for a time immemorial, when joyful reading translated to success, the Common Core will have tangible benefits for all students, but particularly those who are underserved by public education time and time again.

[1] Data compiled from College Results Online. Databank / Reporting Tool Developed by WebFirst. The Education Trust.

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