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."
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."