Samuel Clemens wrote the way real Americans talked. That was revolutionary in the 19th century, when literature was considered high-brow, not something to be expressed in everyday language.
Under his pen name “Mark Twain” (a riverboat term meaning two fathoms, 12 feet deep, indicating “safe water”), Clemens wrote like the common man, but this common man was also a literary genius.
Mark Twain’s greatest achievement was “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a tale about the title character, the abused backwoods son of an alcoholic, and Jim, a Negro slave fleeing captivity. The story chronicles their journey together down the Mississippi. Twain not only uses Jim’s humanity and heroism to help Huck unlearn his own racism, but to illustrate the moral and societal failure of slavery and racial discrimination.
Sadly, students in Massachusetts and across most of the country may soon have to seek out Huckleberry Finn on their own, because it isn’t included in national K-12 education standards that have been adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.
Twain’s masterpiece isn’t the only casualty of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision to adopt weaker national standards known as “Common Core.” These new English standards include less than half as much classic literature and poetry than the Massachusetts standards they will replace.
Our previous literature-rich standards served the commonwealth exceedingly well. Since 2005, Massachusetts students finished first in every category tested in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “the nation’s report card,” each time the tests were administered. Prior to 2005, no state had ever finished first in each NAEP category.
This success highlights the key role literature plays in student learning. Even though NAEP’s reading questions are largely based on nonfictional, so-called “informational texts,” Massachusetts students’ grounding in classic literature gave them the knowledge and vocabulary to excel.
The argument that the national standards would better align Massachusetts’ standards with NAEP was one of the great ironies of the Bay State’s decision to adopt Common Core. Many of those making that case were the same people who spent the better part of two decades decrying the evils of tests “narrowing the curriculum.”
Pioneer Institute research found that Massachusetts students are among the nation’s best in writing, and that they made enormous strides since the commonwealth’s literature-rich standards were adopted in the late 1990s. This should come as no surprise; to write well, students must read great writing.
But with its adoption of Common Core, Massachusetts has chosen to hit the reset button on nearly two decades of unparalleled student achievement. Twain himself best captured the wisdom of that move when he wrote, “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.