Archive for October, 2010

No Civil Discourse

Recently read this post in the Austin Chronicle by Michael Ventura, courtesy of a link from my friend Aaron’s blog. As always, I was foolish enough to read the comments. And as usual, they were disheartening. My response to the Comment section below.

Personally, I found that Vance’s use of big words served no useful purpose in communicating his point. In my experience, such overblown rhetorical flourishes are the mark of a autodidact who desperately wants to show off and mistakes polysyllabic assaults for intellectual rigor. Don’t bother with your sincere concerns, Vance: I promise to do some soul-searching.

It was also amusing to see RonReagan stating that liberals cannot stand opposing points of view, right after Vance took an entirely one-sided stand on the article. Note that while the original essay criticizes the Tea Party, it does not exclude the left from blame for our current situation.

I’m not sure what else Vance is ranting against, though complaining that Ventura’s article was a bit dull would have been appropriate. It’s a fact that the Tea Party is overwhelmingly white and that the demographics in this country are shifting rapidly toward whites becoming a minority. The Tea Party is explicitly outraged by changes that have taken place over the past couple decades (apparently ignoring the Republican periods of control).  To suggest that there is no connection between whites wanting to protect a status they’ve grown accustomed to and the nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Tea Party ignores one of the simplest explanations for their behavior. It also ignores historical precedents for such reactions to demographic change.

It’s also laughable to suggest that only liberals choose to use victimization as a defense. The Tea Party movement is one giant cry of “We’re being victimized!” Accusing the left of having a strangehold on relativism is also amusing, given that defenders of intelligent design have co-opted this very strategy to defend their non-scientific theories as acceptable equivalents to evolution.

As far as liberals controlling the national education agenda, it was Bush who passed No Child Left Behind, a monument to centralized state planning of education if ever there was one. I work in the textbook industry and just as Ventura noted, efforts to warp the historical record toward a particular political goal emerge from both the left and the right. Pretending otherwise is willful Ignorance (gee, Vance, it IS fun to used initial capitals constantly). It is certainly not mature rationality. Nor does childish hyperbole like leftism “is the postmodern parent of all tyranny, genocide, and enslavement” advance a credible argument or further a meaningful debate. Genocide in the Sudan and Rwanda was not the result of leftism. I could go on, but there doesn’t seem to be a point.

There are serious problems with public education in the United States. They do not stem from a single, exclusive cause. Fixing them will require the sacrificing of sacred cows on the left (teacher unions and lack of accountability for poor performance) and the right (a war against teaching the scientific method).

I can’t see how shouting “Liberty!” addresses those systemic problems. Nor would eliminating the only competition in a two-party system promote greater freedom of choice, which is supposedly a cornerstone of “Freedom!” I’m left nodding my head sadly at the opening comment of the article: the two sides simply can’t talk TO each other.

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Readability Meeting

“First off, let’s discuss readability issues in the student edition. Margaret?”

“Well, it’s for a seventh-grade audience. So it needs to be written for a fifth-grade reading level.”

Dan blinked. “For seventh-graders?”

Margaret nodded. “Yes. Studies show that the average seventh-grader reads at a fifth-grade level. So our readability needs to be grade 5, as measured on the standard Dale-Chall scale.” Before she could move on, Dan spoke up again.

“Then isn’t that actually the seventh-grade reading level?”

“What?” Margaret’s eyebrows knitted together. Roger gave Dan a wary glance.

Dan pressed on. “If the average reading level is actually fifth-grade, and the reading level is supposed to reflect the average reading level of students, then isn’t the fifth-grade reading level actually a seventh-grade reading level?”

The conference room was silent for a moment as everyone digested this argument.

Finally Margaret spoke up. “Who said the reading level was a reflection of average reading ability?”

“It isn’t?”

“No, it represents the level the students are supposed to be able to read at according to national standards incorporated into evaluation metrics like those advocated by No Child Left Behind.” Roger shot Margaret a nod and a smile.

Dan shook his head. “So the average American seventh grader is reading two grade levels below what he or she is supposed to be able to read?”

Roger cleared his throat. “Um. Dan. We don’t like to say, ‘below level.’ It’s discouraging to students to label them in that way. We say ‘approaching level.'”

“Okay, I guess labels aren’t that important. What I’m saying is–”

Roger’s eyes widened. “Whoah, hold on, son. Labels are very important.” He smacked the palm of his hand on the table for emphasis.

Margaret chimed in. “We have to have a label for students so that we can match them with activities and questions adjusted to meet their label level.”

“But the labels can’t hurt their feelings,” said Dan, wrapping his head around the idea.

Roger snorted. “Well, of course not. Would you feel motivated if I labeled you a ‘sub-standard’ editor?” He held Dan’s gaze a little too long.

Dan broke eye contact and looked down at his notepad. “Um, no. Certainly not. But if the goal is to avoid hurting their feelings, wouldn’t adjusting the reading level scale to reflect the reality of student literacy levels accomplish that, while being more accurate? I mean, instead of being labeled as lagging behind, the students would just be on-level.”

Margaret just stared at him, as if he had suggested in a casual tone that Nine Commandments might really be a more sensible number than Ten.

Roger was shaking his head. “Have you ever taught a class, son?”

Dan fiddled with his pencil. “Well, just some night courses at the community college–”

“How do you expect students to rise to the challenge if you simply lower the standards to wherever they are already at? What kind of mindset does that promote? We are in the business of education, Dan. Learning is the heart and soul of what we are all about.”

“So our goal is to challenge students to improve.”

“It’s called education for a reason, Dan.” Margaret suppressed a snicker.

Dan chewed his lip for a moment. “By labeling a book as being a seventh-grade text and then writing the content at a fifth-grade reading level? How exactly does that challenge students to achieve? Aren’t we just–”

Marcus spoke up for the first time, his reedy voice blending into the background whine of the air conditioning so that Dan had to strain to catch the words.  “Folks, I suggest we table this point so that we can move along with the substantive agenda of the meeting.”

“Agreed,” said Roger and Margaret at the same time. “Margaret, would you mind moving to the next agenda item?” asked Roger with a wave of his hand.

Margaret nodded. “Now, onto the Content Review Assistance Workbook. This summarizes the chapter text at a reading level two grades below that in the textbook. The goal is to provide content modification for reading challenged students that clarifies key concepts with graphical assistance while maintaining a tight interface with existing assessment criteria so as to meet critical state standards.”

Dan looked around the table as Margaret paused for breath, then raised his hand a few inches. “What does that mean exactly?”

Margaret sighed and Dan felt color rising to this cheeks. “Simplify vocabulary, use shorter sentences, active voice only, avoid words that aren’t on the nationally vetted familiarity list, find words with shorter syllables, and so on.”

Sally, who had been scribbling furiously in her own notepad since the meeting began, piped up. “What about proper names?” She was using a phosphorescent orange pen whose ink left a painful afterimage on Dan’s retinas when he tried to catch a glimpse of her notes.


“What if we have to write about, say, Nebuchadnezzar?”

“In that case you’d have to simplify all the verbiage surrounding Nebuchadnezzar to accommodate the excessive word length of his name.” Sally nodded and scrawled another few lines of glow-in-the-dark words.

Dan looked at Margaret, trying to figure out an approach that might work. “I have a pedagogical question,” he said at last.

Margaret’s eyebrows went up. “Yes?”

“How do we expect students to learn the meanings of new words if we don’t expose them to those words?”

Margaret pursed her lips. “We introduce a great deal of new vocabulary.”

“Yes, but once we use it and call attention to it, we seem to be afraid to use it any more. And if a vocabulary term isn’t specifically mentioned in a state standard, we seem to avoid using it at all.”

Margaret dismissed Dan’s point with a wave. “That’s an exaggeration. The goal of the textbook is not to inundate the student with needless academic jargon. It’s to optimize the growth of their content-specific vocabulary as measured by standardized assessments.”

Dan felt his calm slipping away. He looked around the table for support and received only Marcus’s typical blank expression, an uncomfortable view of the pinkish scalp occupying the part in Sally’s hair as she focused on her notes, and Roger’s icy blue eyes narrowing to slits. “The academic word list you gave us says that cooperate is a challenging word. That’s introduced on Sesame Street! And it was defined in context. But the copy editor crossed it out.”

Margaret looked smug. “Was it highlighted?”


“It was defined at point-of-use, but was it highlighted or boldfaced? Or redefined in a sidebar? How you can expect students to develop familiarity with new vocabulary if it isn’t sufficiently called out to their attention?” Margaret had a slight smirk on her face.

Dan tried to keep his own expression under control. “Um, in the average book that they read, difficult words won’t be highlighted. If they come across the word and don’t know what it means, they have to look it up. Or in this case, read the definition of what the words means. Right there. In the sentence.”

He realized that he was jabbing his index finger into the table for emphasis, and that he had jammed something.  “And I would think that reading a contextual definition of a word and then seeing the same word defined in a broader sense in a sidebar would simply confuse a student who just wants to know what the word means so that they can understand what they just read.”

Roger silenced Margaret’s reply with a curt gesture. He leaned over the table toward Dan. “Did you hear what you just said there? That word ‘confuse?’ That’s a death sentence, son. We don’t ever want students to feel confused.”

He glanced around the table and spread his hands wide. “Look, Dan, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but it’s misguided and, frankly, not helpful at this juncture. You need to stop over-thinking this entire readability/vocabulary topic and just trust in the fact that trained professionals have evaluated the learning styles of students and determined both the appropriate terminology needed to promote academic success and the degree to which students should be exposed to said terminology. It’s all part of a larger educational rubric that fosters critical thinking and creative independent thought at an age-appropriate pace. So just follow the damn rules and stop asking questions so we can get through this meeting, okay?”

He sat back and turned to Margaret without acknowledging Dan’s response. “Next agenda item, please.”

Dan kept his eyes focused on his notepad for the rest of the meeting, glancing occasionally at the clock as he tugged at his finger, trying to pop the joint back into place. He thought of graduate school and his last English courses as an undergraduate, coming to the belated recognition that he had somehow woken up and found himself, in this setting, transformed into a cockroach in the eyes of his working peers.

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