Since I was (or tried to be) an academic "specialist" in contemporary American literature, you might think I would approve of this trend in high school English classes, as reported by USA Today. According to the article, "Faced with declining reading scores on national tests and the steady buzz of movies, TV and video games, teachers trying to entice students are increasingly turning to contemporary literary fiction and non-fiction, often picked fresh from best-seller lists." Although I cringe at the idea that teachers are turning to "best-seller lists," in theory I do in fact think that using more recent works of fiction or poetry to introduce readers (not just students) to the possibilities of literature could work perfectly well.
In some ways, using contemporary literature in this way is the most accurate and honest way of teaching literature. If "literature" is something that is still vital and ongoing, then the poetry and fiction being written now is the most representative example, perhaps the only representative example, of what is currently understood by the term; what writers and readers seem to agree is "literature" at this historical moment really has the only plausible claim to be in fact regarded as literature. This doesn't preclude acknowledging that certain works of the past ought also to be regarded as such--in many cases as providing the inspiration for current writers--but exactly which works are to be seen as particularly "literary" and for what particular reasons are matters that each generation of writers, critics, and readers is always going to be debating and reevaluating.
The alternative, formulating a rigid definition of "literature" rooted in past practice and long-gone assumptions and then judging all subsequent "literary" efforts by this standard, only results in a) contemporary works (including contemporary works later generations consider unambiguously great) being slighted as inferior to what has come before and b) the works of the past being saddled with a portentous amount of baggage that newer readers understandably don't want to carry. Literature--or at least English--becomes that proverbial subject that everybody hates.
On the other hand, I don't see many indications in this article that those advocating the contemporary over the classic have any better idea of what these works are being taught for. From the remarks made by the teachers quoted, there seems scant justification for the change other than that current books seem easier for the students to read and easier for the teachers to teach: "There's a lot more competition for people's attention than there was in the '70s"; "No one is going to read The Scarlet Letter until they're reading something they're enjoying." That some students are led to enjoy reading these books is probably a good thing, but why is it being done in school?
The closest thing to an explanation of what's being done with these books is this (actually from a Colorado State professor): "Whereas we might have taught Great Expectations because it was a classic, because you could talk about plot and setting and stylistic details, it is not a book that contemporary teenagers ... can relate to. So it loses its value." If teaching "plot and setting and stylistic details" means introducing some of the principles of literary criticism (which in turn might have salience beyond the analysis of literature per se), this is unobjectionable, but what such a thing usually amounts to is establishing some supposed norm that works of literature are supposed to embody, not a preliminary way of illustrating how, in general, the human imagination can be organized in various ways to create what we choose to call literature. And my suspicion is that the ultimate goal of teaching any and all of these books is really just to find something the kids "can relate to," itself a goal without substance as far as teaching is concerned.
I have myself almost come to the conclusion that literature ought not to be taught in the schools at all. Any use of it is destined to reduce it to stale schoolroom platitudes and musty classification. The most common justification is the one quoted above, that students will be led to read The Scarlet Letter after they've read Tuesdays With Morrie. It doesn't happen, or at least it only happens with students who were probably going to seek out Hawthorne or Dickens for themselves anyway. It happens so rarely that if this is the primary reason why literature is taught in school it's going a long way and to a lot of trouble to accomplish very little. Perhaps students who show an interest in reading serious literature should just be given a list of books they might want to seek out. If they'd like, maybe they could talk it all over with the teacher after school. In this scenario it wouldn't matter if the books were contemporary or classic, just as long as the student wasn't made to hate them or to trivialize them and maybe even indicated an interest in reading other books without being prompted.