Wednesday, December 01, 2004

What happened to the "third R"?

Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic. The three R's. For most of the last century they have been the backbone of curriculum. But NCLB tests for only 2 of the 3 (reading and math) -- so what happened to writing?

An article in yesterday's USA Today tackles that question:


As high school seniors race to meet December college-application deadlines, most face the oft-required "personal statement" with understandable dread. Only a quarter of America's 12th-graders, the 2002 National Assessment of Educational Progress found, can write tolerable essays. Only about 2% create the kind of zesty prose that makes reading worthwhile.

... A recent survey of corporate America by the National Commission on Writing found clear prose is a résumé must. "In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in or it could be your ticket out," one human resources (HR) director notes. Yet, "people's writing skills are not where they need to be," another says. Cover letters sag with needless words, fuzzy logic and grammatical mistakes. Ask college admissions counselors about application essays, and they list the same sins.

With teachers forced to focus on reading and math to keep their schools off the failing list, writing -- like most other subjects -- is pushed further to the margins than it already was.

The article goes on to point out that a public school teacher sees at least 100 students per day. If a teacher takes just five minutes to focus on each student's prose, it would require an extra eight-hour day. It's easy to see why most teachers don't focus on writing.

The best writing class I ever took required each student to write a four-page paper each week and edit the papers of everyone else in the class. It saved the teacher the impossible task of grading nearly 100 pages per week while requiring each student to learn to recognize common writing mistakes -- in their own prose and in others'.

Programs like that could work in junior high and high schools, but if the mandatory tests don't cover writing, there will be little incentive to institute them any time soon.

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