How Colleges Are Dumbing Our Kids Down, Too, and What We Can Do About It

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

It’s not just Common Core’s standards and the curriculum teachers are putting into place to address those standards that are dumbing our kids down.  Our colleges are contributing in their own way to the problem by the books they assign incoming freshmen to read in the summer for their first “common experience.”

As Beach Books: 2013-2014 ( notes, “most colleges seek to build community through their common reading programs.”  Lest anyone think this experience means a book requiring high school-level reading skill, never mind college-level reading skill, the reading level of the most frequently assigned books (those assigned 5 or more times) should dispel that myth. The average reading level for the 5 of the top 7 books assigned as summer reading by 341 colleges and whose readability levels are based on Renaissance Learning’s readability formula (ATOS for Books), available at, is 7.56 (grade 7, sixth month).

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: 13 assignments (RL: 8.1)
  • This I Believe by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman: 11 assignments
  • The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore: 9 assignments (RL: 7.1)
  • Wine to Water by Doc Hendley: 6 assignments
  • Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan: 6 assignments (RL: 6.1)
  • Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen: 5 assignments (RL: 7.0)
  • Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn: 5 assignments (RL: 9.5)

When we go deeper into the list, the level gets lower. Of the 53 most frequently mentioned titles listed in Beach Books: 2013-2014, the readability levels of 23 were available, with an average ATOS book level of 6.8.  The highest ATOS book level found so far is 10.2 for Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss (assigned twice). The lowest ATOS book level found so far is 4.0 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Alexie Sherman (also assigned twice).

Based on the information available, it seems that our colleges are not demanding a college-level reading experience for incoming freshmen.  Nor are they sending a signal to the nation’s high schools that high school-level reading is needed for college readiness. Indeed, they seem to be suggesting that a middle school-level of reading is satisfactory, even though most college textbooks and adult literary works written before 1970 require mature reading skills.

However, our colleges can’t easily develop college-level reading skills if most students admitted to a post-secondary institution in this country read even high school-level textbooks with difficulty. Strong growth in reading starts in the elementary school.  And it must include student willingness to read regularly in and outside school, a practice that hinges on kids “getting hooked on books.”

As the spirit animating Brave New World penetrates ever more deeply the nation’s language arts curricula in the name of Common Core, school administrators and curriculum specialists need to be reminded of what elementary and middle school children are missing if their teachers give them a steady and heavy diet of “informational” texts, dystopian literature (e.g., The Hunger Games), and realistic “narrative” fiction filled with sex and violence (see Young Adult Literature). The rich body of children’s literature written in the 19th and early 20th centuries helped millions of English-speaking children in the past to view reading as an enrichment to their lives, not as an alarm bell for global catastrophe or as a springboard for fear and depression. By listening to or reading the books and poems written for them, they would:

  • Experience a pleasurable fantasy world (e.g., James and the Giant Peach, The Phantom Tollbooth, Peter Pan)
  • Experience an exciting adventure (e.g., Treasure Island)
  • Expand their imaginations (e.g., Mary Poppins)
  • Develop an ear for wordplay with the sounds of the English language and for humor (e.g., poems by Laura Richardson, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll)
  • Stretch their attention spans, especially when young (e.g., Babar the Elephant, Cat in the Hat Comes Back, The Roly-Poly Pudding)
  • Empathize with other people’s feelings and problems (The Secret Garden)
  • Widen their cultural horizons as they vicariously learned about the world (Around the World in 80 Days)


For almost 100 years, there have been many surveys in this country of what children prefer to read. Despite changes in immigration patterns, family literacy, and cultural influences, the overall differences between boys and girls have been relatively stable across the decades.  Boys prefer adventure stories, military exploits, sports heroes, and historical nonfiction. Girls prefer books about people’s relationships and animal stories.  But, as all teachers know, both love fantasy (e.g., the Harry Potter series). There are no shortages of books in most school and public libraries that children enjoy reading, whether or not there are books in children’s homes.

Today, however, teachers need help from parents in getting children “hooked on books.” They, too, can’t do it all by themselves, certainly not with grim, humorless, social issue-oriented books flooding the curriculum.  Kids need to practice reading every day on their own, and enjoy it.  The school day and the school week are not long enough for all the reading practice needed if all students are to become high school diploma-ready, never mind “college-ready.”

Public libraries can:

  1. Provide lists of counting, alphabet, and imaginative books available in their libraries.
  1. Put lists in pediatricians’ offices and in community boxes in public parks.


Local school boards can:

  1. Adopt a first-class set of English language arts standards. Local schools can add whatever they want to the state board of education’s adopted standards.  There’s no law against it.  And local school boards can require their own teachers to make up their own tests of these added standards, give grades, and send them home to parents.
  1. Strengthen the literature standards in Common Core if they want teachers to teach to them, too. Choice of texts to read can be guided by many sources: the Core Knowledge lists are among the many lists available on the web.
  1. Require every elementary and middle school to develop a writing folder that shows what each child is doing in every subject at each grade in the school. Every month, teacher and student select a paper from every subject (e.g., science, spelling, math, grammar, history) to put into it. A student’s reading skills will be reflected in these papers.  The family should be able to see the writing folder every year at a Back-to-School Night or at a parent-teacher conference. Folders should be given to students’ families after they complete the last grade in the school they attend.

Parents can:

Distribute to all teachers of young children a copy of Appendix A in the Curriculum Framework for English Language Arts that I have made available free of charge and copyright to all school districts and states (see below).  Appendix A was vetted by the editors of The Horn Book, the premier children’s literature quarterly in the country. It lists the names of authors whose works are culturally or historically significant for English-speaking people.

State legislatures can:

Establish volunteer-staffed neighborhood-based programs for young parents to learn from volunteers (1) how to read children’s stories to their children; (2) how to take them to a public library to choose books that appeal to them; (3) how to establish a reading hour at home to make sure children spend at least one hour reading at home.

College or University Faculty, Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts can:

Require a college-level book as summer reading for newly admitted college freshmen and let  the high schools from which their freshmen graduated know its title and reading level. Appropriation committees in the state legislature can tie the amount of money allotted for “Beach Books” to the reading level of the book selected by the college faculty/president.