Tougher standards, better readers?

A week with a Washington High honors student highlights the hopes and challenges of a national push to deepen adolescent literacy.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

What will you read this week? As part of our April print edition on engaging curriculum, the Notebook and NewsWorks took a multimedia peek inside the reading lives of local high school student Zach Morales and School Reform Commissioner Lorene Cary.

Zach Morales learned early that high school would go more smoothly if he kept certain things to himself.

But privately, the unassuming teen is proud of his passion for reading. So he hesitates for only a moment before opening the door to his small bedroom.

"I have a vast collection of books," says Morales, sweeping an arm towards shelves packed with horror novels, Harry Potter books, and biographies of professional wrestlers.

"Every book in this bookcase, I’ve actually read," he proclaims.

Listen to more of Zach’s story in reporter Benjamin Herold’s radio feature.

Morales is a senior honors student at one of Philadelphia’s higher-performing neighborhood schools, George Washington High in the Far Northeast. Among Washington’s 2,000 or so students, reading isn’t exactly a hot topic of conversation.

But policymakers and academics are very interested in what students like Morales read. They argue that high schools across the country aren’t pushing even their motivated students to read enough nonfiction, digest difficult texts, or do more than regurgitate information.

"In high school, there’s not very much reading at all," says Elizabeth Moje, an expert on adolescent literacy at the University of Michigan. Worse, students "basically can’t make meaning of what they have read."

Morales’s teachers cite standardized testing and a losing battle with video games, iPods, and social media as barriers to student reading.

Experts cite another culprit: the dumbing-down of the high school curriculum.

That’s why many are pushing the new Common Core State Standards, which aim to get students to read more diverse and challenging materials.

Pennsylvania is one of 45 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have signed on.

But a week inside George Washington High with Zach Morales shows just how challenging implementation will be – even in "good" schools.

The 70 percent goal

The hallways at G-Dub, as students call it, teem with urban diversity and adolescent hormones.

To survive, Zach Morales mastered the art of blending in.

He credits Stephen King.

"All of his books are like a godsend to me," says Morales.

The horror author’s dark take on human nature has helped Morales to make sense of high school life. When he needs a break, Morales escapes with King’s stories, which feed his imagination and help him accept his place in Washington’s social hierarchy.

"I’m not anyone that stands out," says Morales. "And I’m not unhappy to say that."

Policymakers acknowledge the important role that novels and other literature play in the lives of young people.

But they stress that in order to succeed in college and careers, students need to read more nonfiction.

"By the time they graduate, [students] should be reading about 70 percent informational texts," says Carrie Heath Phillips, program director for the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Even good students in relatively high-performing schools are a long way from that target, however. Despite being enrolled in honors and Advanced Placement classes, Morales is assigned relatively little reading from textbooks, research journals, news stories, and technical manuals.

His second period marketing class highlights the challenge of reaching the Common Core’s lofty goal for nonfiction reading.

Teacher Albert Brown passes out a thin packet of worksheets. Students are expected to analyze basic data, then read and respond to questions. Many appear either indifferent or lost.

After quickly finishing each section, Morales waits, bored.

No reading homework is assigned.

Brown says it’s hard to get most students to read anything, let alone bar graphs.

"They want everything spoon-fed to them," he says.

It’s a vicious cycle: Kids aren’t exposed to nonfiction, so they’re bad at reading it, so teachers are reluctant to assign it.

But CCSSO’s Phillips is emphatic: "We’re not helping kids by keeping expectations low and then lamenting when they can’t meet them."

College material?

Broadcasting an obsession with computer hacking isn’t the best way to fly under the social radar of the modern high school.

So for almost a year, Morales read in private about hacker groups like Anonymous.

"I would just think about it all the time," he says.

A few weeks ago, though, Morales got to take his interest public during a presentation to his philosophy class about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).

Exuding confidence, Morales briefly mentioned SOPA, then enthusiastically filled his classmates in on the details of a recent confrontation between Anonymous and Dana White, the president of mixed martial arts company Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

"White called [Anonymous] ‘internet nerds’ and told them to bring it on. So they hacked the UFC website and shut it down," Morales delightedly recounted.

Afterwards, he beamed:

"It was so great to get up there and finally inform everybody about what’s really going on."

That level of classroom engagement is a rarity for many high school students.

But a closer look through the lens of the Common Core standards reveals another challenge to ramping up the quality of high school reading.

Phillips says high schools should be pushing students to read long, challenging, college-level texts.

But for their class presentation, Morales and his partner visited a Wikipedia page and a couple of websites. The bulk of the information came from Morales’s recollection of prior reading.

Christopher Meile, the philosophy teacher, is a dedicated and engaging 10-year veteran, but he’s skeptical about using more rigorous texts.

Even if he assigned readings from Plato, says Meile, students "don’t really follow it unless you break it down into a lot of little pieces and say this is exactly what [the author] is talking about."

That’s precisely what Phillips doesn’t want to hear.

"I think it’s fair to say that the materials that [high school] students have to read have been dumbed down," says Phillips.

In college, "no one’s sitting there helping you decipher words or understand a text," she adds. "You’re expected to do it on your own."

Weaving it all together

Ultimately, says Moje, the University of Michigan professor, what matters is what students are able to do with what they read.

On that front, too, there’s little disagreement that most U.S. high schools have a problem.

"Being able to make meaning, interpret, [understand] how one text relates to other texts and ideas – that is what our students are not able to do very well," Moje says.

She appreciates the Common Core’s intentions but is concerned that teachers won’t be given enough supports to effectively implement the new standards.

"We cannot simply say that kids need to read more," she says. "We can’t just dump high-level texts, things [students] are reading in graduate school, into high schools."

CCSSO’s Phillips acknowledges that the new standards will be a "big change" and that educators will need significant training. She stresses that "there are a lot of people working hard" on implementation, and she cites the acceptance of the Common Core by so many states as reason for optimism.

But in Philadelphia, like many school districts, details on implementation are hard to come by.

"The Common Core is more of the ‘what,’" said District Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon. "It doesn’t tell you how to do it."

She says Philadelphia’s approach will be to get state help to train teacher leaders who will then train other teachers.

By then, Zach Morales plans to be in college, studying computer science.

The quiet tenacity Morales has shown in privately pursuing his passions might be the best reason for hope.

While no one was looking, Morales spent the past four years stitching together in his mind all the independent reading he’s done – fantasy stories, horror novels, research on hacker groups – to create a vision for his future.

"It gets me excited," he says, "to think that maybe I could be the next big video game designer."