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On Writing

I read a news story the other day that made my heart sink.  It was written by a professor in a business school at a public university.  He told a tale in which his colleagues agreed that the writing skills of their students were miserable, but none would take responsibility for dealing with it.  They were not, they said, writing teachers, and could not be expected to spend time doing what those miserable souls in the understaffed writing labs were expected to do.  This was just as true of the professors in the English department as it was of all their other colleagues.  The author of the article was pretty astute about the causes of that refusal.  Teaching someone to write well takes a lot of time and individual attention, he pointed out.  Professors in university departments are not compensated for that time.  Teaching students to write will take time away from what they need to do to advance in their profession.  And it is not likely to earn them the esteem of their colleagues.  So it was no surprise that his colleagues suggested that the students would be going into a business environment in which presentations were usually done with power points, so maybe the students did not have to learn how to write anyway.  Yes, they said that!

A year ago, my own organization reported on a study we had done of what is required of freshman in their first-year credit bearing courses in a typical community college.  We reported that the texts they are assigned are generally written at an 11th or 12th grade level and the students cannot read them, so their instructors are now used to summarizing the gist of the texts in power points they prepare for their students.  In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that they assign little or no writing to their students.  They have evidently anticipated the suggestion of the business school faculty I was just quoting that they solve the problem by assuming that their students would not have to write.

But surely, you might be saying, it cannot really be that bad. Oh, but it can.  The attitudes of the college faculty I just reported on are not new.  The departmental faculty might have been prepared in the past to help their students with the technical aspects of writing in their particular field, but they never expected to have to teach basic competence in writing.  They assumed that would be done in our schools.  So what happened?

Two things happened.  First, we stopped demanding that students read anything very challenging in school, and then we stopped holding our teachers or students accountable for the quality of student writing.

I did not learn how to write from a writing manual.  I mostly learned to write by reading good writing, a lot it, some of it fiction, much of it non-fiction. And I had instructors in high school and college who were themselves good writers and took the time to coach me.  My friend William Fitzhugh tells us that very few students are ever asked to read a single non-fiction book from end to end in their entire school career, much less many such books.  More to the point, they are rarely asked to write very much and the expectations for what they do write are, on the whole, absurdly low.

And why is that?  Because we do not hold our teachers accountable for the quality of student writing.  Under prevailing federal law, we hold our teachers accountable for student performance in English, mathematics and, to a minor degree, science.  But the tests we use to hold them accountable for student performance in English typically do not require them to write anything, and, when they do, it is rarely more than a paragraph.  And why is that?  There is only one way to find out if a student can write a well-crafted 15-page essay and that is to ask them to write one.  And, if they are required to write one, someone has to read it.  To make sure that the scores given on the essay are reliable, it may be necessary to have more than one person read it.  That is time-consuming and expensive.  So we talk about English tests, but they do not really test speaking, listening or writing skills. They test reading skills.  The teachers know this, so they don't waste their time teaching writing, probably the single most important skill we can teach.

It is unclear whether they could if they wanted to.  They could certainly ask students to write more, but most teachers of English do not have the time to do more than skim student written work and give it a global grade and maybe a comment or two.  But that is not going to help a developing writer very much.  Extended coaching is needed, at the hands of a good writer and editor.  And, by the way, we have no idea whether our teachers are themselves good writers, never mind good editors.  Many come from the lower ranks of high school graduates, and those are the same young people whose low writing skills I described at the beginning of this essay.

I have a cognitive dissonance problem.  There is a lot of talk about implementing the Common Core State Standards.  The Common Core calls for much deeper understanding of the core subjects in the curriculum, the ability to reason well, and to make a logical, compelling argument based on good evidence, which in turn requires the student to be able to marshal that evidence in an effective way.  Sounds like good writing to me.

But we talk about implementation of the Common Core as if it can be accomplished by giving teachers a workshop lasting several days and handing them a manual.  I don't think so.  I would argue that there is no single skill more important to our students than the ability to write well.  Is there anyone who believes that students whose college instructors have discovered that they cannot write will somehow now emerge from high school as accomplished writers because their teacher got a manual and attended a three-day workshop on the Common Core State Standards?  That would qualify as a miracle.

If my analysis is anywhere near right, making sure our students have the single most important skill they will ever need requires us to 1) make sure that our teachers read extensively, write well and have the skills needed to coach others to be good writers; 2) organize our schools so that teachers have the time to teach writing, give students extended writing assignments, read carefully what the students have written and provide extensive and helpful feedback on it (all of which would required major adjustments in teacher load and school master schedules); and 3) change the incentives facing teachers, so that those incentives are based to a significant degree on the ability of students to write high quality extended essays.  If we don't do that, we are just whistling Dixie.

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