(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

(c) 2009 Christiana Lambert

I have an odd educational background: I not only earned a liberal arts bachelor’s degree in what we used to call English literature and Spanish (language), but I also followed that with a master’s degree in business. I am both seduced by the concept of standards and assessments in education, as well as a little frightened by how they can be used to narrow the scope of our educational topics and pursuits.

Oh, if we could only rely on just studying a certain percentage of this in order to achieve a certain percentage of that—for all students in the same way.

In an operations class titled Quality and Productivity, we MBA students studied how to tighten up processes in order to achieve the maximum production with the least amount of quality failures. However, we also learned that what worked more uniformly for manufacturing equipment and delivery systems was not so easily perfected in the service industries where the people we served might muck up our systems—because they had different needs and/or wants.

Education is a service industry where not all learners take in information in the same way and not all learners come from the same backgrounds. Nor should they if we want to continue gathering perspectives that show us insights from diverse viewpoints.

The Common Core Standards have specific suggestions regarding the balance between reading nonfiction and fiction sources. The thought is that by increasing nonfiction reading in secondary education, our students will be better prepared to understand the rigorous reading required in higher education.

I grew up reading—fiction—during every free moment I had and went on to choose to read more fiction as part of earning my degree. But reading fiction was more than just amusement for me—I learned that there was a way bigger world out there than just what I was experiencing in small town Nebraska—or than what I was learning in my classes. Sometimes what I found in my fiction stories caused me to read more—nonfiction—about a region, time in history, or concept.

Reading stories taught me to love all reading so much that sometimes I even cracked open the encyclopedia (yes, back in the Stone Ages when there was no Internet) or the dictionary for fun. Nonetheless, a lot of my classmates would have run screaming from most nonfiction reading, required or otherwise.

Some people almost have to be tricked into, first, reading at all, and second, starting to care about the bigger picture about the times and people in a story. They have to be drawn into what is happening before they can begin to figure out if they can trust a narrator or how a situation is portrayed. It’s quite naïve to expect those people who don’t choose to seek out reading to find their information only from the most applicable (nonfiction) sources. If you can barely get them to read in the first place, you’re going to have a very difficult time getting them to read nonfiction and read it well.

Like many schools today, my high school focused more on math and science courses. Truth is the school didn’t have a rigorous language arts program—I would have liked to have any standards in place for those classes. When I got to college I discovered I had missed out on most classic literature. I like to think my own “extracurricular” reading taught me not only how to interpret literature, but also how to apply my fiction-reading skills to understanding nonfiction texts in subjects such as philosophy, history, psychology, and political science.

The Common Core language arts standards focus on nonfiction reading may work for some student populations and not for others—does it make sense that there is only one nonfiction/fiction mix that will work to help all students across the United States reach the targeted standards? Or might states, schools, and teachers know better what the individual students in their classrooms need to study in order to meet the targets?

Repeat after me: students aren’t widgets. (But what are widgets anyway? Oh wait, I never cared enough to look that up.)