This New York Times article, saying it’s harder to raise students’ test scores in reading than it is in math, indirectly raises some cultural/epistemological questions about the differences between math and reading.

The article opens with this anecdote from someone who has apparently taught both:

David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.

A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, “you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it,” he said.

Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. “It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective,” he said.

I have taught high school science and English, and I’m not sure I’d say it’s easier to teach science, because of what it means to “teach science.” The expectation (as I was informed after I pursued a different goal) is for students to learn and apply the set of science ideas (theory of evolution, atomic theory, Newton’s Laws, etc.) that are provided in the textbooks. The discipline of science observes and tries to explain the physical world, but most science classes don’t allow this. Students take notes, do equations, take tests. Real research is not done by most students (though some high school science competitions, such as this one, show that students are capable of doing impressive work).

Science classes, then, just teach a set of ideas — let’s call it a story, Science Stories — and so do math classes. Math classes could be theoretical explorations of these abstract ideas, but many high school math classes simply teach procedures (algorithms) for doing things: to find the area of a rectangle, multiply the base times the height. Sure, that’s useful information, but hardly intellectually all that challenging. Math, as taught to high school students, is a tidy system of right and wrong methods for arriving at an answer. What mathematicians do is far more abstract and creative, of course, but we don’t generally let students see that.

In English, however, we’re actually asking students to do the same things (though obviously adapted to younger minds) that English professors do — read and analyze texts and write about them. What I love about teaching writing is that students are truly CREATING texts. Students in our science and math classes are not making anything — they are just taking in the ideas that others have made.

Of course, creating something is more intellectually demanding than just memorizing and applying an idea (even Bloom’s Taxonomy, that education cliche, says so). So we writing and literature teachers give our students guidelines and models to help them “scaffold” (in the teachers’ vernacular) their way to completed projects.

But of course, there are very few right or wrong essays or literature interpretations — there are worse ones and better ones, and judging which is which is highly subjective. The student essays I like best are those that go beyond what is merely stated in a text to make connections that are not obvious. In other words, I like essays that are interesting, that say things I hadn’t read or thought of before.

Lately I’ve been suspecting that maybe the best way to teach this kind of creative thinking and individual judgment is to model it for my students. As a teacher, I have my own biases and peculiarities, and so I’m not an ideal (Platonic?) model — but maybe learning to be analytical and/or creative is really more of an apprenticeship anyway, rather than something that has set standards for students to adhere to.

And here’s where teaching the study of literature gets interesting and/or controversial. The recent Common Core State Standards for teaching literature include statements such as the following:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.2 Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

The very use of the the word “objective” in relation to a text is nearly an absurd statement to someone familiar with the critical theories used to interpret literature that arose in the last few decades. Taking undergrad literature classes in the mid-1990s, I gained just a limited understanding of some of these approaches, but judging by the enthusiasms of the younger professors and by the resistance of the older ones, I understood these ideas to be important.

But the Common Core standards seem written in ignorance of these developments in interpretation, as if the standards writers were just gonna elide the last 50+ years of criticism. And though the standards are careful to call their lists of texts for use in classes “illustrative” rather than “recommended,” this listing shows 14 texts, only two of which were published in the last 50 years.

So the act of reading and interpreting texts is something that, in addition to necessitating word-processing skills, also “requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references” (as the Times article states), and from these basic skills and resources, we ask students to make coherent, logical statements of analysis. That’s asking a lot of anybody. But then, all too often, standardized reading tests ask students to select an interpretation from multiple choices, which requires students to also analyze the test to see which of the many possible interpretations of a text is the one that the test will honor as the “right” answer. The student has to match minds both with the text-writer and with the test-writer. In the Times article,

But when [the teacher] asked [students] to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text.

Uh, yeah. Why only two descriptions? We ask students to make this complex, creative, personal interpretation, and then ask them to compare theirs to an adult’s?

This might all be despair-inducing, except for the fact that when we teach interpretation skills to students, we also empower them to see the tests and the standards as the bullsh*t they so often are. This reminds me of the Hemingway quote featuring his one standard of education:

“Every man should have a built-in automatic crap detector operating inside him.”

(One, too, might employ such a crap-detector while reading Hemingway.)