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Our Students Can't Write Very Well—It's No Mystery Why

My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants. Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked them to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.

We were lucky this time.  We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization.  Many applicants are from very good colleges.  Many have graduate degrees.  Many are very poor writers.

Their lack of writing ability does not augur well.  When we look at what they have written, the logic of the narrative is often very hard to find. It would appear that their lack of writing ability stands as mute testimony to their lack of thinking ability.

How, we ask, could this have happened?  The answers are not hard to find.  My friend Will Fitzhugh points out that high school students are rarely required to read entire works of fiction and are almost never asked to read entire works of non-fiction.  I know of no good writers who are not also good readers.

More directly to the point, high school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length.  Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. 

This point is critically important.  There is only one way that we can find out whether a student can write a substantial research paper—by asking them to write a substantial research paper and looking carefully at the result.  If we do not ask them to produce this product—over and over again, as they get better and better at it—then they will not be able to do it well.  If they have not done the work, then neither their teacher nor the engines of the accountability system can assess it.  If this sort of serious writing is not done and—in our accountability-oriented environment—is not assessed, then it will not be learned.  End of argument.

Oh, sure, we have tests of writing ability for college-bound students, but they do not ask the student to produce anything like what we asked our candidates to produce.  They ask a student to choose one word or phrase from a list to fill in the blank in a passage.  That is not writing.  It is something else. PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments have made progress in more effectively evaluating the writing skills of our students, but many states are actively taking steps away from these types of assessment tasks.  And it is of course true that asking a student to write a one-page summary of a longer piece is no test of their ability to write a well-argued, fact-based, 10- or 20-page research paper.

We are fond of producing long lists of things we want 21st century students to be able to do.  But the ability to write well and think critically always tops the list, both because so much work requires these skills and because they are so fundamental to so many other kinds of cognitive activity we value.  What could be more central to a good education?

So it is simply unbelievable that we do not build our curriculum around the assumption that we will be asking students to read demanding books—not just parts of books, but whole books—and then asking them to write, at length and in detail, about what they have read, explicating, analyzing, synthesizing and summarizing it, with insight and narrative skill that demonstrates their ability to think clearly.  Isn't that the heart of the matter?

Writing is a craft.  Like any other craft, it is learned only by doing it, over and over and over, at increasing levels of challenge, under the watchful eye of an expert.  How on earth are our students to learn to write if we do not ask them to write, and write a lot, and write well?  The reason, of course, that they are not asked to write much is because their ability to write a substantial paper is not tested.  And why, in this age of accountability, when we judge teachers by how well their students do on the test, would we expect their students to write well when we do not test their ability to write a good paper, 10 to 20 pages in length?

Our own research tells us that a large fraction of community college professors do not assign writing to their students because their students cannot write and the professors do not consider themselves to be writing teachers. It is no wonder that employers like us find it so hard to find candidates with serviceable writing skills. 

What do you suppose would happen if a state announced one day that it was redesigning its accountability system and half of a teachers' rating would henceforth depend on their students' grades on long research papers in the subject taught by that teacher—papers, say, at least 15 pages long at the high school level?  They might be told that that grade would depend on the way evidence was presented and marshaled, the range of the evidence presented, the depth of the analytical ability displayed in the essay, the logic and persuasiveness of the argument made, and so on. 

I am not arguing that we should do this, but simply making the point that if we really cared about the ability of our students to think and write well, we would assign substantial papers frequently, critique those papers effectively, and expect students to write well long before they left high school.  It is hard to reach any conclusion on this point other than that we simply don't care whether or not our students can write effectively, if we judge by what is assigned to students, what is expected of students, the instruction we offer students, the way we evaluate their work, the design of our accountability systems or our criteria for graduating students from high school. 

But assume for the moment that all these issues were addressed.  Can we then assume that our students would be graduating high schools able to think clearly and write well?  I don't think so. 

I said in passing above that writing is a craft and crafts are best learned by apprenticing oneself to an expert, in this case an expert writer.  This suggests that if our students are to become good writers, they will have to get their work critiqued in detail by teachers who are themselves good writers. 

But I also said at the beginning of this blog that we and many other employers are having a very hard time hiring anyone who is a good writer, even graduates of leading universities and graduate schools.  We know that most of our teachers come not from our leading universities but from institutions that get their students from the lower half of the distribution of high school graduates going to college.  If there is no reason to assume that the graduates of the leading institutions are themselves good writers, what would make us assume that the graduates of less demanding institutions are better writers? 

It is true that many universities require applicants to submit a short essay as part of their application.  But I am willing to bet that few, if any, require their applicants to do something as straightforward as our request to our job applicants to summarize a complex research paper in one page, on demand, in a short time, capturing all the key points and creating a narrative that makes sense of it all for the reader.

If we do not demand that those who want to become teachers are themselves very good writers, why would we expect our teachers to be good teachers of writing?  We should, in fact, be requiring our candidates for teaching positions to write 20-page papers of their own which analyze and summarize a topic from the literature in their field. We should be asking them to produce, on demand, a one-page summary of something they are given to read that is complicated and difficult. 

But we don't do any of these things.  So, once again, I conclude that we are not serious.  We are not serious about teaching students to reason and write well and we are not serious about hiring teachers who have the skills needed to teach our students how to reason and write well.  We are no doubt lucky to have many teachers who know how to read and write critically and care enough to pass those skills on to their students. But if these core skills were really important to us, we would be making very large changes in curriculum, demanding much more reading of complete novels and non-fiction, asking our students to write much longer papers much more frequently, providing expert and copious commentary on what they had written, changing our accountability systems to reflect these priorities and, not least, we would be making sure that our teachers are themselves very good writers.

I very much doubt that our high school graduates write less well than high school graduates used to write.  But jobs for truck drivers, hamburger flippers and grocery store check out clerks are disappearing fast. This is just one more—but crucially important—arena in which our education system is failing to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

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