Monday, September 24, 2012

Education: Comprehension and the Lost Art of Writing

Peg Tyre has produced an eye-opening article exposing one of the ways in which education in this country has been following an unproductive path. Her work appeared in The Atlantic under the title The Writing Revolution. Tyre uses the experience of one Staten Island high school as the core around which to construct her essay.
"For years, nothing seemed capable of turning around New Dorp High School’s dismal performance—not firing bad teachers, not flashy education technology, not after-school programs. So, faced with closure, the school’s principal went all-in on a very specific curriculum reform, placing an overwhelming focus on teaching the basics of analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class. What followed was an extraordinary blossoming of student potential, across nearly every subject—one that has made New Dorp a model for educational reform."

What the teachers at New Dorp discovered was that their students’ language skills were so meager that they had trouble expressing what they might know about a subject; and if they could not express knowledge, how could one know if they possessed knowledge.

The lack of language skills is a hindrance at a fundamental level. If one is presented with a concept, one has to be capable of describing that concept in one’s own words. If that is not possible, can it be claimed that that the concept is understood? It is this act of expression that leads to knowledge being imprinted. Another way to express this thought is to state that one never truly understands a subject until one tries to explain it to someone. Being compelled to write coherently about the subjects that are being studied is a good way to go through that exercise. Comprehension and linguistic expression work together. It is not surprising that the New Dorp students improved. What is astonishing is that teachers, of all people, did not understand the connection.

New Dorp’s faculty reverted to traditional methods and sought the aid of Judith Hochman who had established a reputation for instilling writing skills in even the most language-challenged of students. Her method was referred to as the Hochman Program.

"[Students] are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so. They are instructed on how to use appositive clauses to vary the way their sentences begin. Later on, they are taught how to recognize sentence fragments, how to pull the main idea from a paragraph, and how to form a main idea on their own. It is, at least initially, a rigid, unswerving formula. ‘I prefer recipe,’ Hochman says, ‘but formula? Yes! Okay’!"

Hochman expresses her philosophy with this quote:

"The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them."

Hochman accepted the New Dorp challenge.

"Under her supervision, the teachers at New Dorp began revamping their curriculum. By fall 2009, nearly every instructional hour except for math class was dedicated to teaching essay writing along with a particular subject."

"New Dorp, once the black sheep of the borough, is being held up as a model of successful school turnaround. ‘To be able to think critically and express that thinking, it’s where we are going,’ says Dennis Walcott, New York City’s schools chancellor. ‘We are thrilled with what has happened there’."

At first thought, this result is quite exciting. Here we have a dramatic improvement in student performance by the simple mechanism of reverting to a more traditional and more direct form of instruction. On second thought, one has to pose the question: "How did we lose our way?"

Tyre explains:

"But the truth is, the problems affecting New Dorp students are common to a large subset of students nationally. Fifty years ago, elementary-school teachers taught the general rules of spelling and the structure of sentences. Later instruction focused on building solid paragraphs into full-blown essays. Some kids mastered it, but many did not. About 25 years ago, in an effort to enliven instruction and get more kids writing, schools of education began promoting a different approach....Roughly, it was supposed to work like this: Give students interesting creative-writing assignments; put that writing in a fun, social context in which kids share their work. Kids, the theory goes, will "catch" what they need in order to be successful writers. Formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure, and essay-writing took a back seat to creative expression."

This method seemed to work quite well for some students, but left many with little if any skills. The trend away from formal writing classes was accentuated when emphasis came to be placed on mandated standardized tests in reading and math.

"Then, in 2001, came No Child Left Behind. The program’s federally mandated tests assess two subjects—math and reading—and the familiar adage ‘What gets tested gets taught’ has turned out to be true. Literacy, which once consisted of the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and express complex thoughts about the written word, has become synonymous with reading. Formal writing instruction has become even more of an afterthought."

What is the result of this neglect?

"According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly.’

Tyre tells us that there is hope for the future because change is coming.

"Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-school students—who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well."

"Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-expression and emotion over lucid communication."

Tyre then includes a quote by Coleman that strikes awfully close to home.

"’As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,’ he famously told a group of educators last year in New York."

Evidence is already emerging that this new emphasis on writing skills will make a difference.

"Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year."

Can it be called a revolution when what is happening is throwing out the new and reverting to the old? Is there a better word?

Let’s hope it works.

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