Are Your Kids Getting a Daily Dose of News Propaganda with Their Common Core?

Many public schools are now assigning their students children’s versions of newspaper articles through a new company called Newsela. Newsela takes articles from outlets such as Washington Post and Associated Press, rewrites each one to fit five reading levels, and publishes them online.

The “ELA” part of Newsela’s name evokes the “English Language Arts” component of the Common Core State Standards, which has established national teaching norms for K-12 schools. One of the core characteristics of the Common Core is its emphasis on “informational texts” – its term for nonfiction. Thus, textbooks take primacy over literature in the English Language Arts world of Common Core.

News is the informational text par excellence. The creators of Newsela found an opportunity to profit from the Common Core standards by adapting news to the classroom and selling it to schools as “Common Core-aligned.” It offers grade-appropriate versions of newspaper articles as reading exercises, coupled with four-question quizzes to test students’ comprehension.

While this may seem a useful teaching tool, not everyone thinks of it favorably.

A Liberal Slant?

Leslie Wilson, a mother of a seventh-grader said by email that she is concerned that “the articles seem—to me at least—to consistently reinforce a very leftist political view.” She said that for example, “an article about returning the Elgin marbles to Greece quoted a variety of supporters of that view, but did not offer any viewpoint from the British Museum or other informed/interested party for keeping the marbles where they are.” The mother also said she believed that the material was of a poor quality and that her daughter had found two factual errors in them.

Do Newsela articles consistently reinforce a leftist point of view? A scan of its daily offerings would suggest this, but the articles were originally published by professional media, so the political slant reflects the original source’s as well as Newsela’s own bias:

  • Newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and AP, from which Newsela articles come, already lean left.
  • Newsela cherry-picks the news in such a way as to emphasize ideas sympathetic to progressivism.

Many of Newsela’s articles are PBS-type material about animals, sports, science, and popular culture. Headlines from recent weeks include:

“Slow, sleepy sloths lead a relaxed life”

“McDonald's to change what it's made of, removes unhealthy ingredients”

“Popular ‘Pokemon Go’ game has been banned in Iran”

“Newly discovered planet may support life, scientists say”

But when Newsela chooses articles with an ideological flavor, that flavor is distinctly progressive. It abounds with articles that sound the alarm on global warming, pollution, or animal extinction (“The role of climate change in the Louisiana floods”); praise President Obama (“President Obama is protecting more water off the coast of Hawaii”); or focus on racial and ethnic grievance (“Indian tribe sues over river damage”).

Shrinking, Scrubbing, Simplifying

How does a Newsela version of an article compare with the original? The company’s article “A career as a costumed mouse? Not just for Disney World anymore” is the “1020L level” version of the September 6 Washington Post article “Japan is so crazy about mascots that ‘fluffy toilet character’ is a real job.

The 1020L rating is matched to 7th graders. Newsela’s reading levels correspond to the Lexile Framework for Reading, which bills itself as “the gold standard for college and career readiness.” The highest Newsela level is labeled “MAX” and is the unaltered text of the original article. Second graders read articles around the 400L-450L level, such as “To many people, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is more than just a song.”

The 1020L level article about careers as Japanese mascots differs from its Washington Post original in a few small ways:

  • Vocabulary simplified. For example, it says “goofed around” instead of “bumbled around.”
  • Vulgarity scrubbed. The Post article mentions a mascot name formed from a mashup of Japanese and English words that ends up sounding like the f-word. The Newsela version edits out this paragraph.
  • Derogatory description deleted. Newsela purges the description of one interviewee as “a short, round 35-year-old with a lisp.” The only detail it keeps is his age.
  • Generally the 1020L article retains the ideas of the full article but in fewer words. It appears that Newsela never changes the quotes it keeps.

Next page: See how Newsela reports "news" about "climate change."