Failure Is Always An Option

The California Department of Education offers a potentially rather nifty service to parents on its official website: It provides recommended reading lists customized based on the kid's grade level (K-12) and test score on the California Reading Arts exam, with 13 progressively harder lists at each grade level:

"Based on your child's score on the California English-Language Arts Standards Test, a specific list has been designated as appropriate for him or her in terms of reading difficulty and interest level."

These lists are much less driven by multiculturalist quotas than you'd expect. They're heavy on The Classics of Western Civilization, including ones that nobody reads anymore, like Vergil's Aeneid. And the multiculti stuff is pretty good, like Fences by August Wilson.

Unfortunately, educators are living in a dreamland about what kind of books are suitable for their lowest-scoring students. Let's take a look at the recommended reading list for high school students (grades 9-12) who rank lowest out of the 13 levels of scores on the test. So, that's like youths in the bottom decile in reading ability, right?

Here are five of the 57 recommendations from the bottom of the barrel list:

Collected Poems by W.H. Auden
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Right ...

Look, at this level, you just want these kids to read something, so you should be recommending, I don't know, 32-page sports hero biographies in big type with lots of pictures. The Da Vinci Code is way too hard for these poor bastards.

This seems to be a general pattern, pushing public school kids toward books that are way over their heads. Let's talk about average public school students. For example, Shakespeare is frequently introduced to students via Romeo and Juliet, which is the young Shakespeare at his most show-offy and incomprehensible. You should start instead with Julius Caesar, which is written in Shakespeare's simplest style in imitation of Latin. And it's about war and politics, which boys like, and boys are the problem these days. Most of them probably won't get it, but at least they have a fighting chance with Julius Caesar.

For those high school students who go on to a second Shakespeare play, Henry IV, Part I has perhaps the most entertainment value, with war, politics, and some humor that's still kind of funny in Falstaff. Avoid Shakespeare comedies that are based upon transvestism but aren't actually funny, like Twelfth Night. They appeal to a certain type of English teacher, but not to most students. And avoid "problem plays" like Measure for Measure, which are problem plays because they have problems (i.e., aren't very good).

If you are building a public high school reading list of classics, you should look for 1) simple, 2) short, and 3) appealing to boys, which means you'd start with The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane.

Suggestions?