How Do You Make Our Schools Smarter… By Dumbing Down Our Elected Officials?

21 May

A favorite Republican whipping post is our “failing” educational system”…

The problem being that many of the Republicans who most vociferously shout about American Educational shortcomings…

Have benefited so little from their experience  in a learning environment.

I mean, if the first step to building a strong house is to dig a good foundation…

Then you best better hire a builder with more than a passing familiarity with a shovel.

Didn’t do so great on that last vocabulary test? That’s OK, there’s a place in Congress for you. The current class of congressmembers speaks at a 10.6 grade level—down almost a full grade from 2005’s 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. According to a political scientist at the Sunlight Foundation, the open government group that ran the numbers, one reason for the decline is the influx of new members who were elected in 2010, many of them with Tea Party support. “Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right,” he says. In easier-to-understand terms: All of the 10 members who speak at the lowest grade levels are Republicans, and nearly all are freshmen.

Sophomoric? Members Of Congress Talk Like 10th-Graders, Analysis Shows

It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade.

Making The Grade

The Sunlight Foundation analyzed the Congressional Record and found that Congress’ ranking on the Flesch-Kincaid scale — which evaluates readability — has dropped a grade level in recent years.

Average grade level of Congressional speeches

Every word members of Congress say on the floor of the House or Senate is documented in the Congressional Record. The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database.

Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse.

“We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years,” he says.

In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it’s 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores.

Of the 10 members speaking at the lowest grade level, all but two are freshmen, and every one is a Republican. For the record, though, Drutman isn’t passing judgment about whether speaking at a lower grade level is a good thing or a bad thing.

South Carolina Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney ranks the very lowest, with a grade level of 7.94.

“Gosh, I guess I should be disappointed that I’m not using my higher education to better use, but, oh well,” Mulvaney says. “I hope people don’t take it as a substitute for lack of intellect, but small words can be just as powerful as big words sometimes.”

Mulvaney graduated with honors from Georgetown and earned a law degree at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His father was a high school grammar teacher.

“I was trained to write in a clear and concise fashion, and you didn’t use big words if small words would do,” he says. “Certainly I’m not trying to dumb down the message by any stretch of the imagination.”

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and language guru, puts it this way: “It’s not an issue of dumbing it down; it’s an issue of cleaning it up.”

He says there was a time when members seemed to use the biggest, most complicated phrases possible and didn’t really worry about whether the public could understand them. Now, he says, members are no longer just talking to each other. They’re talking to the public through cable TV and YouTube.

Ranking Members

A look at the members of Congress whose words in the Congressional Record rank highest and lowest by grade level, according to the Sunlight Foundation.

Top 10
Name Grade
Rep. Dan LungrenR-Calif. 16.0
Rep. Lucille Roybal-AllardD-Calif. 14.9
Rep. Jim GerlachR-Pa. 14.2
Rep. Tom PetriR-Wis. 14.2
Sen. Daniel AkakaD-Hawaii 14.2
Rep. Mac ThornberryR-Texas 14.1
Sen. Olympia SnoweR-Maine 14.0
Rep. Rodney AlexanderR-La. 13.9
Rep. Mark AmodeiR-Nev. | Freshman 13.8
Rep. Ralph HallR-Texas 13.7
Bottom 10
Name Grade
Rep. Mick MulvaneyR-S.C. | Freshman 7.9
Rep. Rob WoodallR-Ga. | Freshman 8.0
Sen. Rand PaulR-Ky. | Freshman 8.0
Rep. Sean DuffyR-Wis. | Freshman 8.1
Rep. Tim GriffinR-Ark. | Freshman 8.1
Rep. W. Todd AkinR-Mo. 8.1
Rep. Vicky HartzlerR-Mo. | Freshman 8.4
Rep. Tom GravesR-Ga. 8.6
Rep. David SchweikertR-Ariz. | Freshman 8.6
Sen. Ron JohnsonR-Wis. | Freshman 8.

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