Study Finds Poetry Slighted in Common Core English Standards

Sandra Stotsky

This article originally appeared on The Pioneer Institute on April 26, 2014.

BOSTON – April is National Poetry Month, but poetry is not well addressed in Common Core’s English language arts standards. It’s unclear whether the genre will survive a Common Core-based English classroom given the dramatic reduction in time spent on literary texts implicitly mandated by these national standards, and the ambivalence, if not hostility, of the standards writers towards literature, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.


In “The Dying of the Light: How Common Core Damages Poetry Instruction,” co-authored by Anthony Esolen, Jamie Highfill, and Sandra Stotsky, Esolen, a poet and professor of literature at Providence College, concludes, “The Common Core proponents do not like poetry.”

Professor Esolen, who between 2002 and 2005 translated the three volumes of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy for the Modern Library, describes why poetry is at the heart of an education that seeks to transform a child into a fully realized human being. Highfill, an award-winning English teacher, then describes the three-part process by which poetry has traditionally been taught in American schools.

The first step is working out the meaning of poems, simultaneously fostering students’ own thinking about meaning. The second is developing poetry-reading skills by helping students analyze literary features like tone, structure, themes, rhythm and rhyme and style. The final step is for students to write about poetry and write their own poems.

“A school’s poetry curriculum is not designed to teach skills that will help students get jobs,” Highfill says. “It is to ‘make minds, not careers.’ When a mind is strengthened, so is the ability to secure employment.”

The report also provides a case study of the texts and themes recommended by a Common Core consultant for a Common Core-based literature unit in the school system she taught in until this past year.

University of Arkansas Professor emerita Sandra Stotsky traces the history of the poetry curriculum in this country’s public schools. She notes the paucity of poetry included in Common Core and the incoherent list of poems in an appendix that gives teachers little guidance about the poems’ relative complexity or quality. “It’s unclear whether the real audience for the appendix is English teachers or the editorial board of The New York Times,” she says.

The shrinking role of poetry in public schools is particularly troubling in Massachusetts, a state whose poets form such a large part of our national literary heritage.

Not only was Massachusetts the home of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Bay State has produced at least five United States Poets Laureate. At least another five Massachusetts poets have won Pulitzer Prizes, and two more have won Nobel Prizes.

In addition to his work on Dante, Professor Esolen is the editor and translator of two other didactic and epic poems for Modern Library: Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things and Tasso’sJerusalem Delivered.

Jamie Highfill was chosen 2011 Middle School English Teacher of the Year by the Arkansas Council of Teachers of English Arts and taught grade 8 English in Fayetteville, Arkansas for 11 years.

From 1991-97, Sandra Stotsky was the editor of Research in the Teaching of English, published by the National Council of Teachers of English. She was also in charge of developing and revising Massachusetts’ 2001 English Language Arts Curriculum Framework.

Common Core’s Validation: A Weak Foundation for a Crooked HouseLowering the Bar: How Common Core Math Fails to Prepare High School Students for STEMHow Common Core’s ELA Standards Place College Readiness at RiskCommon Core Standards Still Don’t Make the GradeThe Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional WaiversNational Cost of Aligning States and Localities to the Common Core Standards, and A Republic of Republics: How Common Core Undermines State and Local Autonomy over K-12 Education. Pioneer produced a video series: Setting the Record Straight: Part 1, and Part 2, and has earned national media coverage, including op-eds placed in The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard.


Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts through civic discourse and intellectually rigorous, data-driven public policy solutions based on free market principles, individual liberty and responsibility, and the ideal of effective, limited and accountable government.

Image: The Venerable Bede,
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