Dana Goldstein in The New York Times on Wednesday wrote an article entitled “Why Kids Can’t Write.”
Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. But the Common Core State Standards, now in use in more than two-thirds of the states, were supposed to change all this. By requiring students to learn three types of essay writing — argumentative, informational and narrative — the Core staked a claim for writing as central to the American curriculum. It represented a sea change after the era of No Child Left Behind, the 2002 federal law that largely overlooked writing in favor of reading comprehension assessed by standardized multiple-choice tests.
So far, however, six years after its rollout, the Core hasn’t led to much measurable improvement on the page. Students continue to arrive on college campuses needing remediation in basic writing skills.
This revelation comes as no surprise to many of us for a couple of reasons.
First, the writing benchmarks within the Common Core’s ELA standards are poorly written.
Sandra Stotsky, who served on Common Core’s ELA validation committee, pointed out that while the Common Core stresses writing the standards are developmentally inappropriate.
Adults have a much better idea of what “claims,” “relevant evidence,” and academic “arguments” are. Most elementary children have a limited understanding of these concepts and find it difficult to compose an argument with claims and evidence. It would be difficult for children to do so even if Common Core’s writing standards were linked to appropriate reading standards and prose models. But they are not. Nor does the document clarify the difference between an academic argument (explanatory writing) and opinion-based writing or persuasive writing, confusing teachers and students alike. Worse yet, Common Core’s writing standards stress emotion-laden, opinion-based writing in the elementary grades. This kind of writing does not help to develop critical or analytical thinking, and it establishes a very bad habit in very young children. There is no research evidence to support this kind of pedagogy.
Second, the Common Core’s emphasis on informational text has an effect that undermines what they hoped to achieve through the writing standards.
You learn to write well by reading good writing. Stotsky also notes that the standards placed more emphasis on writing over reading which is a mistake.
There are more writing than reading standards at almost every grade level in Common Core, a serious imbalance. This is the opposite of what an academically sound reading/English curriculum should contain, as suggested by a large and old body of research on the development of reading and writing skills. The foundation for good writing is good reading. Students should spend far more time in and outside of school on reading than on writing to improve reading (and writing) in every subject of the curriculum.
Stotsky also addresses how Common Core’s focus on informational text impacts critical thinking which is necessary to be a good writer.
A diminished emphasis on literature in the secondary grades makes it unlikely that American students will study a meaningful range of culturally and historically significant literary works before graduation. It also prevents students from acquiring a rich understanding and use of the English language. Perhaps of greatest concern, it may lead to a decreased capacity for analytical thinking.
Indeed, it is more than likely that college readiness will decrease when secondary English teachers begin to reduce the study of complex literary texts and literary traditions in order to prioritize informational or nonfiction texts. This is because, as ACT (a college entrance exam) found, complexity is laden with literary features: It involves characters, literary devices, tone, ambiguity, elaboration, structure, intricate language, and unclear intentions. By reducing literary study, Common Core decreases students’ opportunity to develop the analytical thinking once developed in just an elite group by the vocabulary, structure, style, ambiguity, point of view, figurative language, and irony in classic literary texts.
It will be hard to find informational texts with similar textual challenges (whether or not literary nonfiction).
Goldstein believes the root of the problem is a lack of quality teacher training.
The root of the problem, educators agree, is that teachers have little training in how to teach writing and are often weak or unconfident writers themselves. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a scan of course syllabuses from 2,400 teacher preparation programs turned up little evidence that the teaching of writing was being covered in a widespread or systematic way.
A separate 2016 study of nearly 500 teachers in grades three through eight across the country, conducted by Gary Troia of Michigan State University and Steve Graham of Arizona State University, found that fewer than half had taken a college class that devoted significant time to the teaching of writing, while fewer than a third had taken a class solely devoted to how children learn to write. Unsurprisingly, given their lack of preparation, only 55 percent of respondents said they enjoyed teaching the subject.
“Most teachers are great readers,” Dr. Troia said. “They’ve been successful in college, maybe even graduate school. But when you ask most teachers about their comfort with writing and their writing experiences, they don’t do very much or feel comfortable with it.”
I don’t doubt there is truth to this. Even if you have quality training if ELA standards prevent you from teaching what is necessary to cultivate excellent writing it won’t matter. It will help, but it isn’t the silver bullet to solve this problem. There are none.
I submit that if we want to see student writing improve then, states and schools will have to transition back to a curriculum that will help them achieve that result. It isn’t Common Core or other reforms and trends brought into teaching English language arts.