This paper—a follow-up to an earlier, Arkansas-based study—answers
two simple questions: What are high school students being asked to read
today and is that material challenging enough for them? The short
answers: a hodge-podge of texts, and no. These findings derive from a
survey of 406 ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade English teachers across
the country who were asked what reading material they assigned in their
“standard” and “honors” classes (not in basic, elective, or AP/IB
courses since analysts were particularly interested in the experiences
of the “middle third”). And the responses are plenty disconcerting.
First, literature and reading curricula are not uniform but
“idiosyncratic”; in fact, only three titles (Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Crucible)
appear to make it into even 20 percent of high school English courses.
Second, what students are assigned is generally not challenging enough
for high school-level reading skills: only four (Julius Caesar, The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, and Macbeth) of the twenty most frequently-assigned titles have a high school-readability level (Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men,
often assigned at eleventh grade, weighs in at a fourth-grade level!).
Third, in a check-all-that-apply question, 70 to 80 percent of teachers
report that they choose the major novels, plays, and poems that they
assign (only 30 to 40 percent say they are influenced by their
departments or school curriculae). Finally, most teachers don’t engage
students in close, analytic reading of the assigned texts, instead
utilizing “reader response”—which asks students to render a personal
response or discuss the context of the piece—to determine textual
understanding. The authors make several recommendations, one of which
exhorts states to develop literature and reading standards that help
shape a progressively more challenging curriculum. And though the study
does not mention it, the Common Core Standards lay an excellent foundation.
Sandra Stotsky with Joan Traffas and James Woodworth, Literary Study in Grades 9, 10, and 11: A National Survey (Boston, MA: Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers, Spring 2010).