Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Changes in America's Secondary School Literature Programs

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Changes in America's Secondary School Literature Programs

Article excerpt

Good News and Bad

In just the past half-century, great changes have occurred in both the specific selections and the cultural content of secondary school literature programs. Ms. Stotsky details these changes and discusses concerns that they raise.

Vast changes have taken place over the past three decades in the content of history textbooks and in the teaching of American and world history. Vast changes have also occurred in the content of reading and literature programs. But in contrast to the professional and public attention that has been focused on changes in history textbooks and curricula, relatively little attention has been paid to reading and literature programs. Several recent studies suggest how much secondary literature curricula have changed, not only in recent decades but over the course of the 20th century.

In a review of relevant studies over the course of this century, using a 1907 report by George Tanner as a base line, I found that a dramatic cultural transformation has taken place in the secondary schools of this country.(1) At the time of Tanner's report, not surprisingly, in 67 high schools in the Midwest only nine of the 40 most frequently assigned works for grades 9 through 12 were written by Americans; the rest were by British writers. Less than 90 years later, two studies by Arthur Applebee and one study by Philip Anderson and me suggest that the situation has reversed, not just for individual works but for secondary school anthologies as well.(2)

After asking English department chairs in 322 representative schools around the country to list for each grade in their school "the book-length works of literature which all students in any English class study." Applebee found that - of the top 43 titles reported for grades 7 through 12 - 26 are by American authors (see Table 1). About 20 titles reflect 20th-century life, and all of these, except for George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm and William Golding's Lord of the Flies, are by Americans. Interestingly, only four of Applebee's 43 titles appeared on Tanner's 1907 list.

After asking all secondary school members of the New England Association of Teachers of English (NEATE) to name 10 well-known and 10 less-well-known titles that they would recommend to their colleagues for whole-class instruction, based on their own experience in teaching these works, Anderson and I found that 29 of the top 45 titles recommended for grades 7 through 12 are by American authors (see Table 2). Only five of the45 titles also appeared on Tanner's 1907 list. (Our questionnaires were returned by 27% of the secondary school members of NEATE.)

What I think is most informative about these two studies is that the lists do not look very different, despite differences in methodology, in the question each study asked, and in the limitations of each study. For example, the NEATE study was much smaller in scope than Applebee's, and we did not survey a random sample of English teachers. On the other hand, as Applebee noted in a later report, the department chairs in his study may not have known what each teacher was teaching.(3) Nor, we might add, do teachers necessarily teach what a curriculum guide or course catalogue suggests they are teaching.

In the face of these differences, the similarities between these two lists suggest that the two studies are capturing a reality: the predominance of American works over British works in contemporary secondary school literature programs. And it appears from Applebee's survey of leading secondary school literature anthologies, all copyrighted in 1989, that here too we now have an America-centered curriculum.(4) Applebee found that between 68% and 79% of the works collected for grades 7 through 10 were written by "North American authors." (Grade 11 anthologies focus solely on American literature, and grade 12 anthologies focus on British literature or world literature.) It is surprising that the change from a British-centered curriculum to an America-centered one has received almost no attention from scholars and teachers of literature. …

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