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Posts tagged ‘The Atlantic’

Trying to Turn English, Reading, & Literature Into a Numbers Game

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

Is Voting a Practical Choice or an Idealistic One?

A sample ballot for the 2012 presidential election

This article from The Atlantic is surely one of the most hotly debated articles I’ve seen lately. In it, writer Conor Friedersdorf declares flatly that he will not vote for President Obama because of moral objections to (a) drone strikes in Waziristan, (b) the President’s “kill” list, and (c) how Libya was handled. In a follow-up, Friedersdorf shared some of the responses he received from the article, particularly framed around the question of having certain issues be “dealbreakers” for candidates.

Here’s the binary decision: Are there certain issues that will make you refuse to vote for a candidate or, not, because every vote is a compromise already?

Friedersdorf insists that the first is true, not simply because it’s the stance he’s taken, but because he believes that everyone draws their own personal moral lines in the ground. But the examples he gives are of situations that would never happen:

“If two candidates favored a return to slavery, or wanted to stone adulterers, you wouldn’t cast your ballot for the one with the better position on health care.”

That’s probably true. But it’s doesn’t change the fact that, for better or worse, most people at some point will support something they find morally reprehensible with a vote. Obviously not all people are neatly categorized as either Republicans or Democrats. Even once you add in Libertarians, Socialists, the Green party, the Constitution party, or the Modern Whig party (yes, that’s a thing), you can’t possibly encompass the full spectrum of political and moral opinion. And just because someone calls themselves a Republican, Democrat, or whatever, doesn’t necessarily mean they subscribe to every platform of that party.

So people will indirectly support things they find vile, as long as it’s something vile that we, as a society, have still marked as up for grabs. The most contested social issues are ones where both sides feel they have the moral high ground: abortion, gay marriage, gun control, capital punishment, etc. While many people will draw their moral lines in the ground over one of these issues, many more people ignore them all together. For some of those people, it’s because they have no interest in getting bogged down in moral debate. For others, it’s the belief that the candidate ultimately doesn’t have that much of an impact on moral issues.

Martin Sheen playing President Bartlet on "The West Wing"At this point, I’d like to turn the article over to conversation. What do you believe is the purpose of voting? Is it strategic, made to help whoever you think would be the most capable leader to win? Or is it to take a stance, to say “This is what I believe,” and strategy be damned? (Even if casting a vote for what you believe is by writing in a vote for Martin Sheen or Oscar the Grouch.)

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