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Have high school literature classes retrogressed?

June 12, 2013

The verdict is in from NPR:  young people read crap.   Another story from the same source:  audiences have lost their manners.  Yes, apparently NPR is so starved for news that it now imposing its judgment on middlebrow commuters across the land:  the world is going to hell in a handbasket. 

Lynn Neary’s “younger generation poised to be the most stupid ever” story is notable for being almost entirely based on anecdotal reports:

“Like I just read Anna Karenina … I plowed through it, and it was a really good book.”

Walter Dean Myers […] is surprised by his own fan mail.  “I’m glad they wrote,” he says, “but it is not very heartening to see what they are reading as juniors and seniors.” Asked what exactly is discouraging, Myers says that these juniors and seniors are reading books that he wrote with fifth- and sixth-graders in mind.

[Anita] Silvey teaches graduate students in a children’s literature program, and at the beginning of the class, she asked her students — who grew up in the age of Harry Potter — about the books they like.  “Every single person in the class said, ‘I don’t like realism, I don’t like historical fiction. What I like is fantasy, science fiction, horror and fairy tales.’ ”

Professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, [Sandra] Stotsky firmly believes that high school students should be reading challenging fiction to get ready for the reading they’ll do in college. “You wouldn’t find words like ‘malevolent,’ ‘malicious’ or ‘incorrigible’ in science or history materials,” she says, stressing the importance of literature. Stotsky says in the ‘60s and ‘70s, schools began introducing more accessible books in order to motivate kids to read. That trend has continued, and the result is that kids get stuck at a low level of reading.

Hold on a moment Sandra!  First of all, why did you choose those words:  “malevolent,” “malicious,” “incorrigible”?  Bad week, perhaps?  More to the point, these words show up all the time in science and history readings.  Don’t believe me?  Check it out at Google Scholar.  In fact, those words show up regularly in the newspaper.  (At the New York Times, there were four hits on “malevolent,” 621 hits (!) on “malicious,” and one hit on “incorrigible” in the last 30 days.)

The one piece of non-anecdotal evidence cited in this puff news piece is a citation to a report from Renaissance Learning that claims

In conducting our review of high school required reading from 1907 to 2012, we noticed a tremendous amount of change, with very few titles demonstrating staying power by authors not named Shakespeare. Also, the complexity of assigned texts has sharply declined, from about 9.0 in the early 20th century to just over 6.0 in the early 21st century.

Now this is just silly.  First, there is no good test of reading complexity.  As an example, Renaissance Learning claims that Alice in Wonderland is at the 7th grade reading level – but I first encountered the book long before I was in 7th grade (as I think many people have), and I most recently read the book six months ago.  I still get something out of reading Alice in Wonderland.  Second, the sampling was not representative.  But third, the methods used to track reading materials in 1907, 1923, 1964,  1989, and 2010 and in this most recent survey were wildly different.  In fact, there is wide variation between the cited 2010 study [Stotsky, Traffas, Woodworth] and the current 2012 study.  (Yes, that is the same grumpy Sandra Stotsky who was quoted for the NPR story.)  If these studies were even slightly comparable, one would have expected a greater degree of agreement between the Stotsky  et al. and Renaissance Learning reports. 

Amazingly, despite the breathless prose of most of the Renaissance Learning report (and Neary’s wildly irresponsible story), Renaissance Learning acknowledges that these studies are not comparable:


Please note: Caution should be exercised in making inferences about the changing nature of assigned texts over time, because for the most part, the surveys involved different methodologies, instruments, and target populations. Only Applebee (1989) sought to replicate Anderson’s (1964) methods. Furthermore, only the Anderson (1964), Applebee (1989), and Stotsky et al. (2010) studies attempted to create representative samples of U.S. high schools by creating stratified random samples. The other studies used samples of convenience, and two of those (Tanner, 1907 and Hudelson, 1923) were relatively small. Although the 2012 Renaissance Learning survey sample is fairly sizable and broad in geographic terms, it is a convenience sample of Accelerated Reader users and may not be representative. If all of the instruments and methods had remained consistent over the years, the results presented here may have been different.

Caution is out the window though, as Renaissance then proceeds to draw all sorts of dire conclusions from its dubious data. 

Lynn Neary claims:

But in 1989, high school students were being assigned works by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Emily Bronte and Edith Wharton.  Now, with the exception of Shakespeare, most classics have dropped off the list.

How misleading!   According to the 2010 study, Sophocles, Dickens (two entries), and Shakespeare (four entries) were still among the 40 most assigned readings in high school.  Meanwhile, a new heavyweight joined the list:  Homer. 

Besides the authors mentioned above, the new Common Core requirements which will influence curricula at high schools throughout the US include writings by Cervantes, Chaucer, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Melville, and Voltaire.

I fail to see any support whatsoever for the conclusions being promoted by Neary.

Perhaps her strongest point is to mention that The Hunger Games was the most popular book last year among youth.  However, I suspect that most observers would consider The Hunger Games to be sophisticated literature compared to the most popular book among adults last year:  Fifty Shades of Grey. 

Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, Lynn Neary’s puff piece weighs in at the sixth grade reading level, according to the sort of automated tools that Renaissance Learning used to conclude that high school literature levels have declined.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 12, 2013 9:39 pm

    I was all set to take umbrage at the snide comment about kids these days only liking fantasy, sci-fi, etc; but I’ve participated in or witnessed that debate so many times that I don’t think I could say anything that isn’t already a cliche. So I won’t.

    If you like to read, you will eventually read at least some of the classics, because they’re good reads. If you don’t like to read, cramming Crime and Punishment down your throat when you’re sixteen isn’t necessarily going to help.

    The slap at science and history is just egregious.

  2. June 12, 2013 11:57 pm

    Not to mention that ‘malevolent,’ ‘malicious’ and ‘incorrigible’ are words I frequently encounter in my fantasy and science fiction!

    Perhaps her strongest point is to mention that The Hunger Games was the most popular book last year among youth. However, I suspect that most observers would consider The Hunger Games to be sophisticated literature compared to the most popular book among adults last year: Fifty Shades of Grey.

    Heh! Good one.

    I’m personally just pleased the kids are reading books, and lengthy ones at that. There’s time to discover literature later, if you’re a habitual reader.

  3. June 13, 2013 1:33 pm

    Excellent points Nina and Victoria.

    While it is also anecdotal evidence, my own experience suggests that undergraduate students I see (note — not a random sampling) are on average better prepared than they have been in at any point in the past.

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