Op-ed: Poetry teaches more than rhyme

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Originally posted beginning on Apr. 23, 2016 in The MetroWest Daily News, The Milford Daily News, The Brockton Enterprise, and on Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

“[T]he best words in the best order,” is how Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who authored the lyric sea ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), defined poetry.

April is National Poetry Month, a fitting time to remember that British Romantic poetry, a wellspring of our language, profoundly influenced the flowering of the American Renaissance. That antebellum age of spiritual idealism was charted by Bay State writers, including Emerson, Longfellow, Dickinson, Hawthorne, and Melville.

Schoolchildren should know their names, and that these authors were shaped by Coleridge’s poetry.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a “sea disaster story,” renowned literary scholar Richard Holmes explains. Its moral is the terrible consequences of a sailor’s killing a divinely symbolic seabird – an albatross. Ruination and death follow him and his 200 crewmates. Only the mariner survives, and the dead albatross around his neck is finally released when he atones. The mariner’s penance is forever retelling his story.

Until recently, classic literature and poetry saturated the commonwealth’s K-12 English standards. Between 2005 and 2013, Massachusetts bested every other state on the reading portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, called “the nation’s report card.” Great fiction and poetry contributed to Massachusetts’ success on virtually every K-12 reading test known to the English-speaking world.

But in 2010, Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration succumbed to the temptation of $250 million in one-time federal grant money, killing off our edifying English standards in favor of inferior nationalized benchmarks known as Common Core. These national standards – an educational gooney bird – cut enduring fiction and poetry by 60 percent and replace it with “informational texts.”

“God save thee, ancient Mariner!

“From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—

Why look’st thou so?”—With my cross-bow

I shot the Albatross.

Farsighted analysis predicted grave declines in student achievement. “We could find no research to support the assertion that substituting informational texts for literature will improve students’ college readiness,” scholars Mark Bauerlein and Sandra Stotsky said in 2012. “In fact, experience suggests that exactly the opposite is likely to happen.”

By 2015, the commonwealth tied for second in the country on the eighth-grade NAEP reading test, and SAT scores were down 20 points, especially in the writing portion. Students don’t learn to write well by reading Common Core’s soul-deadening “informational texts.”

This is an irresponsible descent from established academic excellence. “For much of the 20th century, British literature held the center of high school English and … college courses in composition, English, history, [and] linguistics …,” Bauerlein and Stotsky continue. “We find no explanation for Common Core dispensing with it.”

For Massachusetts students, the Patrick administration and education Commissioner Mitchell Chester’s legacy of shooting down better English standards in favor of Common Core has been an albatross around everyone’s necks.

Recent WBZ News-UMass polling finds that Bay State voters support a statewide ballot initiative to restore our previous, higher quality K-12 academic standards by a 53 percent to 22 percent margin.

Nationally, Common Core backer and failed Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush called the standards “poisonous,” while Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently said Common Core’s implementation has been “disastrous.”

As Common Core has seeped into America’s classrooms, Brookings Institution researcher Tom Loveless observed last month, “[T]he dominance of fiction is waning … Teachers in 2015 were less likely to embrace the superiority of fiction in reading instruction than in the past, and the change is evident in both fourth and eighth grades after 2011.” Common Core’s arid, fiction-less English classes are straight from Coleridge:

Water, water, every where,

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water, every where,

Nor any drop to drink.

When we allow policymakers to cut off schoolchildren’s access to timeless poetry, we deprive students of far more than just some old book. British Romantic poets awaken us to the intellectual mission of education through spiritually uplifting words that can elevate young lives.

That’s because great poets impart sage wisdom about the complexity of human nature. “Poor hawk, oh strange lust of murder in man,” Coleridge wrote in his 1804 journal explaining the motive behind sailors shooting an elegant seabird. “It is not cruelty – it is mere non-feeling from non-thinking.”

If non-thinking state policymakers can’t appreciate beautiful poetry, then perhaps citizens and parents will.

Jamie Gass is director of the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.