Literacy in Schools: Writing in Trouble

Surely if we can raise our academic standards for math and science, then, with a little attention and effort, we can restore the importance of literacy in our public high schools. Reading is the path to knowledge and writing is the way to make knowledge one’s own.
17 September 2009
by Will Fitzhugh
Source: Member Contribution
Topics: Writing Conventions
[originally published in the New Mexico Journal of Reading, Spring 2009]
For many years, Lucy Calkins, described once in Education Week as “the Moses of reading and writing in American education” has made her major contributions to the dumbing down of writing in our schools. She once wrote to me that: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” This dedication to contentless writing has spread, in part through her influence, into thousands and thousands of classrooms, where “personal” writing has been blended with images, photos, and emails to become one of the very most anti-academic and anti-intellectual elements of the education we now offer our children, K-12.
In 2004, the College Board’s National Commission on Writing in the Schools issued a call for more attention to writing in the schools, and it offered an example of the sort of high school writing “that shows how powerfully our students can express their emotions”:
“The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.”
Or look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the supposed gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in U.S. schools, as measured and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In its 2002 writing assessment, in which 77 percent of 12th graders scored “Basic” or “Below Basic,” NAEP scored the following student response “Excellent.” The prompt called for a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, in which the main character grows up, the student wrote,

“High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.”

It is obvious that this “Excellent” high school writer is expressing more of his views on his own high school experience than on anything Herman Hesse might have had in mind, but that still allows this American student writer to score very high on the NAEP assessment of writing.
This year, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has released a breakthrough report on writing called “Writing in the 21st Century,” which informs us, among other things, that:

“Writing has never been accorded the cultural respect or the support that reading has enjoyed, in part because through reading, society could control its citizens, whereas through writing, citizens might exercise their own control.”
So it has become clear to NCTE that Milton’s Areopagitica, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and all those other arguments for free speech and free access to information, failed to warn us that, while it is all right for a society to provide protection for writing, reading is only a dangerous means of social control, and should be avoided at all costs. As Houston Baker warned more broadly when he was head of the Modern Language Association, “reading and writing are tools of oppression.”
The 2009 NCTE report goes on to inform us, somewhat inconsistently, that:
“Reading-in part because of its central location in family and church life-tended to produce feelings of intimacy and warmth, while writing, by way of contrast, was associated with unpleasantness-with unsatisfying work and episodes of despair-and thus evoked a good deal of ambivalence.”
So while, on the one hand, reading is a dangerous method for social control, and on the other hand, in contrast with writing, it is said to produce feelings of intimacy and warmth, writing is associated with unpleasantness, which would, naturally, be news to Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, William Makepeace Thackery, George Eliot, and countless other authors who made it their life’s work to provide feelings of intimacy and warmth, among other things, to countless readers over the centuries.
But the NCTE report has more to teach us:
“Writing has historically and inexorably been linked to testing.”
Testing, the way to determine whether one has learned the tasks to be mastered, is, needless to say, not a good thing in the NCTE world. This odd and narrow “link to testing” might seem a bit far-fetched to all the historians and others whose writing has enriched our lives.
So, how does NCTE propose to free writing from its unhappy association with testing, episodes of despair, and so on? By encouraging students to do what they are doing already: texting, twitting, emailing, sending notes, sending photos, and the like-only this time it will be part of the high school “writing” curriculum. In other words, instead of NCTE encouraging educators to lift kids out of the crib, it wants them to jump in with them.
NCTE goes on to lament that: “In school and out, writing required a good deal of labor.” NCTE has no doubt skipped over the advice: Labor Omnia Vincit, and has apparently come to believe that hard work and enjoyment are somehow incompatible.
To relieve our writing students of the necessity of doing the kind of hard work that is essential for success in all other human occupations, “in school and out,” NCTE wants to develop “new models of composing” that will change our students from mere writers to “Citizen Composers.”
This recipe for damage only adds to the harm already done, for example in high school English departments, by a truncated focus on personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, which for most students guarantees that they will move on to college or work unable to write a serious research paper or even a good strong informative memo that makes sense and can be read by others.
Many high school English department focus on preparing their students for the 500-word “essays” about their personal lives that most college admissions departments ask for these days.
According to a survey done by the Chronicle of Higher Education, 90% of college professors think that most high school students who come to them are not well prepared in reading, research or academic writing. That may possibly be because far too few of our high schools challenge their students to do any nonfiction reading or academic expository writing, including the sort of research papers which require, after all, research.
While we do challenge many high school students to take AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP European History, and Calculus, Chinese and Physics, when it comes to the sort of writing controlled by the English department, and recommended as “21st Century Writing” by the National Council for Teachers of English, the standards are as low as they would be if the Math department limited its students to decimals and fractions and never let them try Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, or Calculus.
Even a program for gifted students, for instance the grandaddy of them all, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which has very challenging summer programs in the sciences for students, when it comes to writing, it sponsors a contest for “Creative Nonfiction,” which turns out to be only short diary entries by these very able students. They could challenge students to produce good history or literature research papers, but they don’t.
Writing is the most dumbed-down subject in our public high schools today.
There are some exceptions. Since 1987, I have published 846 [868] exemplary history research papers by high school students from 44 states and 35 other countries. Their average length has been about 5,500 words, although in a recent [Spring 2009] issue (#77), the average length of the papers, including endnotes and bibliography, was 7,927 words.
Many of the American authors come from independent schools like Andover, Atlanta International School, Deerfield, Exeter, Groton, National Cathedral School, Polytechnic, St. Albans, Sidwell Friends School and the like. But many have also come from public high school students. Some of these students have done independent studies, hoping to be published in The Concord Review, but some very good papers have been IB Extended Essays and some have come even from students of AP teachers who do assign serious research papers, even though the College Board has no interest in them.
The Diploma to Nowhere report from Strong American Schools last summer says that more than one million U.S. high school graduates are in remedial courses in colleges each year, and if a student needs a remedial course or two, they are less likely to graduate from college.
The poor academic reading and writing skills of entering freshmen at our colleges and universities are acknowledged to be commonplace, but no one seems to have been able to increase the importance of serious writing or nonfiction reading in the high schools. The English department and the professional organizations are satisfied with preventing high school students from learning how to do research papers, so they continue to graduate students who are incompetent in academic expository writing, and unprepared for college work.
Not one of the new state academic standards asks whether students have read a single nonfiction book in high school or written a single serious research paper. All the attention is on what can be easily tested and quantified, so the skills of academic reading and writing are left out, and our students pay the price for this neglect.
In 1776, Edward Gibbon, in the first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote about the importance of academic reading and writing:

“…But all this well-laboured system of German antiquities is annihilated by a single fact, too well attested to admit of any doubt, and of too decisive a nature to leave room for any reply. The Germans, in the age of Tacitus [56-120AD], were unacquainted with the use of letters; and the use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilised people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge and reflection. Without that artificial help, the human memory soon dissipates or corrupts the ideas intrusted to her charge; and the nobler faculties of mind, no longer supplied with models or with materials, gradually forget their powers; the judgment becomes feeble and lethargic, the imagination languid or irregular. Fully to apprehend this important truth, let us attempt, in an improved society, to calculate the immense distance between the man of learning and the illiterate peasant. The former, by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries; whilst the latter, rooted to a single spot, and confined to a few years of existence, surpasses, but very little, his fellow-labourer the ox in the exercise of his mental faculties. The same, and even a greater difference will be found between nations than between individuals; and we may safely pronounce that, without some species of writing, no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life….”

No doubt he would be as appalled as our college professors are now to see the incompetence of our high school graduates who have not been asked to read and write before college.
Surely if we can raise our academic standards for math and science, then, with a little attention and effort, we can restore the importance of literacy in our public high schools. Reading is the path to knowledge and writing is the way to make knowledge one’s own. If we continue to ignore them as we do now, it will not be good for our economy, or for any of the “useful and agreeable arts of life” for our students.
Will Fitzhugh is Editor of The Concord Review and has written and lectured extensively on the assessment of writing and writing skills. He can be reached at: 730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24, Sudbury, Massachusetts USA, by phone at 978-443-0022; or 800-331-5007, and his website and e-mail are:;

One thought on “Literacy in Schools: Writing in Trouble”

  1. Informative article. Writing is the major aspect to be concentrated more in schools to help most of the teens for better writing. Parents choose various options to help their children to improve their writing skills. As this is a major aspect of children education it needs to treated important and make children come up with better writing.

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