Bad student writers: You get what you pay for |
Bad student writers: You get what you pay for


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Bad student writers: You get what you pay for

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University of Georgia professor and frequent AJC Get Schooled contributor Peter Smagorinsky had a strong and immediate reaction to fellow academic Rick Diguette’s blog essay today on how ill prepared college freshmen are in writing.

And Smagorinsky put that reaction into a column. His piece will only make sense if you read Diguette’s essay as well.

By Peter Smagorinsky

 In "Has freshman year in college become grade 12½?" Georgia Perimeter College English instructor Rick Diguette explains his dissatisfaction with his community college student writers. His theme is that the Complete College Georgia initiative puts too many underprepared students in remedial courses, students who have been subjected to “The subpar job our public schools do of preparing students for college.”

As a result, he teaches students whose papers are a grammatical mess, one that he has become frustrated with trying to fix; and students whose retention and graduation rates are factors that reflect on his teaching abilities, and unfairly so.

As I write this response, 62 comments have been submitted on the Get Schooled blog. Most readers agree with Professor Diguette’s premise that kids these days can’t write, and offer a host of reasons. Like Diguette, some believe that “public education is a joke,” with standards too low and teachers making too few academic demands on students, especially when it comes to emphasizing “the basics” of grammar and syntax. Some say that, given that community colleges tend to get the least prepared of these poorly prepared students, Diguette should not be surprised that his students struggle with writing.

Others explain his problem in terms of the tendency to permit social promotion, the misplaced belief that everyone is college material, the problem that kids are lazy and expect instant gratification rather than the rewards of a demanding process, and the concern that parents are inattentive and self-centered.

 Still others make government the culprit, with their imposition of standardized tests instead of authentic learning, their creation of a demand for college that drives up costs, and their refusal to issue vouchers that enable school choice.

I can’t say that I agree with each and every one of these comments, but they do provide quite a mosaic of issues. And that’s part of my point with this response: Education is very complex, and it’s rare that one problem has a single cause.

I’m going to take Professor Diguette at his word, and accept his contention that his students produce incomprehensible writing. I’ll also accept the likelihood that there’s at least a kernel of truth in many of the causes offered by readers. Some kids are lazy, some teachers are lousy, some parents are laissez-faire, and some kids are less than “college material.”

Every one of us knows at least a few examples that would support each of these contentions. In the aggregate, perhaps they help to explain Professor Diguette’s exasperation, although each cause cannot possibly explain the whole of the effect.

I would like to offer some systemic challenges that make the teaching of writing a challenge for today’s teachers of English and Language Arts. One reader believes that “small class size is a benefit in writing classes.” I wish that Bill Gates were so insightful; Gates believes class size isn’t an issue in student learning because test scores don’t change when you go from teaching 20 to teaching 40 at a time. Since he’s immensely wealthy, his opinion, no matter how ridiculous, affects policy.

I know teachers whose student load approaches 200 students. Let’s go back to those good old days when people had teachers who wrote careful, thoughtful comments on their weekly-assigned essays, as some commenters on Diguette’s essay recall. Try that with 200 students every week. Give a teacher a modest 10 minutes to spend on each of 200 students’ essays, and you’ve got 2,000 minutes a week just spent grading essays.

That’s 33 hours spent each week outside class grading papers. This figure does not take into account additional time spent on daily record-keeping, helping kids before and after school, doing lunch duty, addressing discipline problems, and doing other things that conscientious teachers do.

Nor does it take into account the new demands placed on teachers for collecting data that may or may not serve a purpose. Finally, it assumes that the teacher does not coach or otherwise contribute to the extracurricular programs in what I can personally attest to be extraordinary time commitments.

If you find 33 hours a week dedicated solely to grading essays to be a bit daunting, then vote to increase your taxes to expand the size of the faculty and reduce class sizes. Or vote against the “standards” movements that divert money from classrooms and lavish it instead on consultants and corporations, to the detriment of student learning.

Another factor affecting students’ writing skills is the role of standardized testing on teachers’ instruction. In a major study now underway by Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer of SUNY-Albany,  early results have led the authors to conclude that:

 “Unfortunately, the importance placed on these exams does not augur well for the teaching of writing. . . . [H]igh-stakes tests are having a very direct and limiting effect on classroom emphases. And given the dearth of writing required on most tests, this creates a powerful momentum away from the teaching of writing. . . . Given the constraints imposed by high-stakes tests, writing as a way to study, learn, and go beyond—as a way to construct knowledge or generate new networks of understandings . . . is rare.”

I view this problem as related to the first. Both involve taking money out of classrooms and putting it by the millions into the hands of people far removed from the real demands of teaching.

Teacher education programs also contribute to problems with student writing. English Education, my field, has historically paid far more attention to literature than to composition or grammar. Programs that are under-resourced tend to offer essentials, and literature is, for the most part, considered the most essential piece of the English curriculum. Unless programs have sufficient staffing, they cannot provide even the minimum preparation for enabling their students to learn to teach effectively.

Teacher education programs, contrary to popular belief, require more content-area courses than education courses. In Departments of English, students are assigned writing, but writing pedagogy is not considered to be the province of English professors, except rarely. The assumption tends to be that college students should know how to write, so teaching them how to teach writing is not their concern.

Rightfully so, I should add. My point is not to add college English professors to the list of bad guys, but to specify what they tend to see their job as involving. What preservice teachers learn from this model, however — one to which they are exposed far more than they are to pedagogy courses in education — is that writing is to be assigned and corrected rather than explicitly taught in terms of procedures, conventions, and other strategies. Without writing pedagogy courses that give them methods for teaching young writers how to produce effectively communicative texts, that’s about all a preservice teacher has got to go on.

If you want kids to learn how to write, then put your money to work to provide teachers the kinds of conditions that enable the time to plan effective instruction, guide students through the process, and assess their work thoughtfully and considerately.

Otherwise, you may as well add yourself to the list of reasons that kids these days can’t write.