"Reading by the Numbers" is an excellent but disturbing New York Times essay by novelist Susan Straight that's worth getting up in arms about. In it, Straight reflects on the rise of Accelerated Reader, a "reading management" software system produced by Renaissance Learning. Accelerated Reader is used by upwards of 75,000 schools around the country, writes Straight. Participating students get points for reading books, with a goal of 50 points for outside reading in a given class.
The problem? How books are rated. Straight notes that she delved into the mathematics of the ratings system, which likely has something to do with page length, average sentence difficulty, and percentage of tough vocabulary words. But in this scheme, Straight says that Willa Cather's My Antonia gets 14 points, while Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix get 44.
I like the Harry Potter books just fine, but comparing one to My Antonia is not only apples and oranges; it's simply the wrong message about what makes a great book great.
Renaissance Learning's web site carries the tagline: "Advanced Technology for Data-Driven Schools." (The link to Straight's essay was sent to me by writer Jeanne Schinto via Facebook.) But how do you measure character development and emotional catharsis?
The comments to Schinto's link to the essay on Facebook—which she titled "Outrageous"—evolved into a discussion of who liked or didn't like Harry Potter. I noted a similar back-and-forth on the Facebook comments about Karen Ohlson's "The Real Trouble with Twilight," which was first published on Talking Writing. Another long comment stream followed "I Won't Read Moby Dick and You Can't Make Me" on Open Salon, in which various participants debated whether children should be allowed to read whatever they want for credit in school or forced to read great books.
I think you do both. I believe teaching students to be critical thinkers about what they're reading, whether it's a Twilight book or Pride and Prejudice, is crucial. But giving kids points for reading books neither encourages analysis (although Renaissance Learning would claim its system of quizzes does just that) nor a love of reading.
Consider this excerpt from Straight's essay and all it says about how great novels expand our notion of the world in ways that can never be quantified:
One day last spring, after my eighth-grade daughter finished reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” (assigned reading for class), she sat on the couch, thoughtful and silent for a long time. Then she looked over at me and said: “I think that was one of the best books I’ve ever read. And not everybody could understand it. But I do. Especially Tom Robinson.”
Her father is 6-foot-4, 300 pounds and black. We talked about how American society has historically projected racial fear onto innocent men, and about how Harper Lee portrayed the town of Maycomb so vividly that you could see the streets and porches...“To Kill a Mockingbird” is worth 15 points.