Why students cant rite good

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I have six words of advice for people who want to develop their writing talents: “Read a lot. Write a lot.”

American students aren’t good writers because they don’t write enough, asserts Andrew Rotherham in U.S. News. That’s because English teachers “see far too many students to be able to assign the quantity of writing students need to do to become skilled.”

So why are we surprised that a 2015 Education Trust analysis of middle school language arts work found that only 9 percent of assignments required writing multiple paragraphs? Almost one in five assignments Ed Trust looked at required no writing at all.

Often, students are asked to “peer review” classmates’ work. I don’t think the average middle or high school student is capable of providing useful feedback.

To give teachers time to help students improve their writing, we’d need smaller English classes — and larger classes for other subjects, writes Rotherham. That’s politically impossible.

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 “We could also deploy assistants for teachers so that math teachers could cover more ground or English teachers could assign more writing,” he writes. However, “the teachers unions hate that idea because it disrupts today’s labor model.”

Common Core won’t help, argues Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews. It encourages a “furniture-assembly approach” to writing, he writes.

Robert Pondiscio proposes persuading selective colleges to “stop asking for personal essays and require instead at least two graded research papers with students’ applications.”

More students would write research papers, which would prepare them to write college research papers.

In addition, teachers are in a better position than admissions officers to tell when a paper was written by Mom rather than the student.

To get into college, fake it

Applying to College Shouldn’t Require Answering Life’s Great Questions, writes Julia Ryan in The Atlantic. Elite colleges’ admissions essay prompts pretty much demand that students “pretend to be something you are not,” she charges.

Brown University is asking applicants for the Class of 2017: French novelist Anatole France wrote: “An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t.” What don’t you know?

The University of Chicago would like high-school seniors to tell them: How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.

Tufts would simply like to know: What makes you happy?

“Applying to college shouldn’t be the intellectual equivalent of dressing up in your mother’s clothes,” writes Ryan.

Many of her commenters liked the prompts. (They made me very glad that all this is behind me.)

Universities have automated admissions, writes a commenter who designs admissions software. An outside service will use “advanced OCR and ICR recognition software plus semantic analysis” to turn the transcript and extracurriculars into a single number. Essays are turn through plagiarism software. “If a university is particularly prestigious they *might* read the essay, but the counselor is reading about 15 to 20 an hour.” The essay reader is probably an untrained graduate student or unemployed graduate making $11 to $13 an hour, he writes.

Hacking the Common App has good advice on writing admissions essays. Here’s part 1 and part 2.

Bard’s new admissions option — submit four research papers instead of grades and scores — is begging to be gamed by the wealthy, writes Jordan Weissmann.

Rather than submit a full battery of grades, teacher recs, SAT scores, and personal essays, Bard applicants will be able to choose to hand in four 2,500 word research papers, which will be graded by faculty. Applicants who earn a B+ or better on their writing will be accepted . . .

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview.

Who’d choose this option? Someone who’s gone to a very good college-prep high school and learned to write a college-quality research paper, but hasn’t earned Bard-worthy grades or test scores. That’s a small group. Or, as Weissmann suggests, someone who can afford to pay a “college consultant” to write the papers.

The cult of success

The new issue of AFT’s American Educator features a cover story by Diana Senechal on The Cult of Success (pdf). “In research studies, newspaper articles, and general education discussions, there is far more talk of achievement than of the actual stuff that gets achieved,” she writes.

In Bipartisan, But Unfounded: The Assault on Teachers’ Unions (pdf), Richard D. Kahlenberg defends unions from attacks on all sides.

The issue also includes Meaningful Work (pdf), by Will Fitzhugh, on how writing history research papers prepares students for college and life.

What Elroy Jetson needs to learn

We can’t predict the future, but we can teach “timeless knowledge and skills that all students must master to succeed in any environment,” writes Kathleen Porter-Magee on Flypaper. She doesn’t think much of Virginia Heffernan’s call for a “digital-age upgrade” to education in the New York Times’ Opinionator blog.

“…fully 65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet…For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it’s high time we redesigned American education.”

For example, teachers and professors should stop asking students to write research papers, Heffernan argues, citing Duke English Professor Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It. Davidson’s students write “witty and incisive” blog posts and terrible term papers. She blames the term papers.

What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” She adds: “What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?”

Old fogies shouldn’t insist that students write if they’d rather make a video, Heffernan believes. It’s the 21st century!

Heffernan misses her own point, responds Porter-Magee. We can’t predict what today’s elementary students will be doing in 20 years. Therefore, “our job as educators is not hitch our wagons to the latest education fad in response to changing—and often fleeting—technology.”

After all, that students can produce “witty and incisive” blog posts for their peers on topics of their choosing says nothing about their ability to write and speak to multiple audiences or about a variety of topics. (Most multimedia products are necessarily limited and we need to ask more of our students.) And the ability to synthesize complicated information in a persuasive way—grounded in facts, research and reading—is critical and timeless.

Students need to learn to write about more than their personal feelings, Porter-Magee writes.


Research papers went out of fashion long ago in high schools, points out Robert Pondiscio, who quotes Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review. He also links to a thoughtful post on All Things Education by Cedar Riener, a college psychology professor, who assigns both long research papers and short responses.

Hanna Barbera thought that Elroy Jetson, age six, would study space history, astrophysics, star geometry and math at the Little Dipper School. No reading or writing in the future?

College students help design classes

Students are helping design classes at McDaniel College in Maryland, reports the Baltimore Sun.

“I think we learned how much they crave structure,” says Gretchen McKay, an art history professor.

“If you just said, ‘Do a 20-page paper and turn it in at the end of the semester,’ they’d be out to sea.”

In response, McKay and her students added checkpoints throughout the semester. Students had to propose ideas for their final papers before spring break. Last week, they had to deliver presentations on their research. They will next turn in drafts several weeks before the finished papers are due.

“I had dropped research papers from some of my classes altogether,” McKay says. “But now, I realize that I just wasn’t doing it in a structured enough way.”

Worried about students who are “academically adrift,” professors are trying to engage students in their own learning.

Writing about history

Will Fitzhugh’s crusade to get high school history teachers to assign research papers to allegedly college-prep students made the New York Times.

“Most kids don’t know how to write, don’t know any history, and that’s a disgrace,” Mr. Fitzhugh said. “Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our schools.”

His mood brightens, however, when talk turns to the occasionally brilliant work of the students whose heavily footnoted history papers appear in his quarterly, The Concord Review.  Over 23 years, the review has printed 924 essays by teenagers from 44 states and 39 nations.

Publishing in the Concord Review is the equivalent of winning a national math competition, says William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions.  

In the most recent issue, a senior from Montclair, N.J., writes of Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure as a New York police commissioner; a New Orleans student profiles a 19th-century transcendentalist philosopher; and a senior from Seoul documents the oppression of Korean residents on a North Pacific island.

Fitzhugh started teaching history at a Massachusetts high school in 1977.  Already, the long research paper was out of fashion. But a sophomore’s well-researched, 28-page paper on America’s strategic nuclear balance with the Soviet Union persuaded him he hadn’t been asking students to work hard enough. In 1987, he started the review.  it’s won praise but little financing.

Most essays come from students at private schools. Few public school history teachers assign long research papers, Fitzhugh says.

He recently asked the head of a history department at a New Jersey high school if he assigned research papers.

“Not anymore,” Mr. Fitzhugh quoted the teacher as saying. “I have my kids do PowerPoint presentations.” Mr. Fitzhugh said he scoffs when some educators argue that research papers have lost relevance because Google has put so much knowledge just keystrokes away.

Researching a history paper, he said, is not just about accumulating facts, but about developing a sense of historical context, synthesizing findings into new ideas, and wrestling with how to communicate them clearly — a challenge for many students, now that many schools do not require students to write more than five-paragraph essays.

In 2002, the Shanker Institute, a research group associated with the American Federation of Teachers, funded a nationwide survey of public school history teachers. While 95 percent  said assigning long research papers was important, 80 percent said they never did because they had too little time to read and grade them.

Literacy kudzu chokes learning

Educrat professors and psychologists are pushing “guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, processes and the like” in place of getting teens to read books and write analytically, complains Will Fitzhugh on the Concord Review. This literacy kudzu is spreading, fertilized by foundation funding and federal grants.

E.D. Hirsch has called this “technique” philosophy of literacy instruction, “How-To-Ism” and says that it quite uselessly tries to substitute methods and skills for the knowledge that students must have in order to read well and often, and to write on academic subjects in school.

Fitzhugh believes students must read complete books — not just carefully selected snippets — and write research papers — not just personal reflections.