Education: A Miracle-Working Writing Revolution

Posted on October 26, 2012


Once in a while, there is a nugget of really great news out there.  I am a big advocate of good education and have long mourned what I see as a decline in our educational system:  a long-running 25% high school dropout rate, young graduates who can’t even fill out a job application, a system that careens between too much coddling and not enough expectation, or depends too much on rote learning and “teaching to the test” as opposed to actual critical thinking skills.  I still fear for the future of this country, and education is perhaps my number one worry.

And then there is this ray of hope, in the form of an effective teaching method that can be replicated anywhere.  Peg Tyre, writing for The Atlantic, tells the story of one of the 2000 worst schools in the entire nation:  New Dorp, on Staten Island, full of incapable students and tired teachers, astronomical dropout and failure rates.  Until 2009, when it all started to turn around.

In 2009, Tyre writes, the school administration arrived at an epiphany:  the students were being derailed in all of their subjects just because of bad writing skills.  The difference between successful students and failing ones is simply the ability to get one’s ideas down on paper, coherently and sensibly; this is a manifestation of the ability to organize one’s thoughts internally, and even to think critically.  Most of the students were completely incapable in this regard, and it impacted everything – not just English Lit.

The next step was to figure out why these kids’ writing skills were so awful, and it was not obvious.  I have to applaud these teachers, because they really dug into the issue:

A few teachers administered informal diagnostic tests… The students who couldn’t write well seemed capable, at the very least, of decoding simple sentences. A history teacher… pointed out that the students’ sentences were short and disjointed.  Good essay writers, the history teacher noted, used coordinating conjunctions to link and expand on simple ideas—words like for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. Another teacher devised a quick quiz that required students to use those conjunctions. To the astonishment of the staff, she reported that a sizable group of students could not use those simple words effectively…

These 14- and 15-year-olds didn’t know how to use some basic parts of speech… they could read simple sentences, but works like the Gettysburg Address were beyond them… because “they were missing a crucial understanding of how language works. They didn’t understand that the key information in a sentence doesn’t always come at the beginning of that sentence.”  … How could they get passed along and end up in high school without understanding how to use the word although?

The school sought out the help of Judith Hochman, who runs a near-legendary writing program at a private school.  This writing program is very clear, very explicit, teaches students exactly what basic words are needed for comparing and contrasting ideas, and – most important of all for the kids at New Dorp – it was applied in every subject except math.  Tyre gives us an example from chemistry class, where students had to apply their writing skills to summarize their chemistry lesson:  “Although … hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion, a compound of them puts out fires.”   In subjects like history, students are now required to write expository essays, something far beyond their abilities before 2009.  The new writing requirements enabled the students to organize their thoughts in all of their other subjects, improved their comprehension, and improved their grades.  Graduation rates went from 63% in 2009 to 80% in 2012 – pretty great results for a pretty new program, I’d say.

There will always be some naysayers, even in the face of obvious success like New Dorp’s.

Some writing experts caution that championing expository and analytic writing at the expense of creative expression is shortsighted. “The secret weapon of our economy is that we foster creativity,” says Kelly Gallagher, a high-school writing teacher who has written several books on adolescent literacy. And formulaic instruction will cause some students to tune out, cautions Lucy Calkins, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

I hear the argument, but – come on, look around.  Does it seem like we have a bunch of free-range, creative souls turning the US into an economic powerhouse?  No.  It seems like we have an awful lot of people who can’t compete with third-world kids.   Better to have a few kids “tune out,” than to flush an entire generation’s education down the toilet in the name of fluffy “creativity.”

I also hear something from far back in my murky past:  one of my own high-school English teachers.  “You can be e.e. cummings on your own time,”  she said.  “Here, your writing has to be correct.”  It was no accident that at that school, we routinely produced 10-page and 15-page term papers complete with footnotes – all in the age before word processors, mind.  The military has a saying, “Hard in training, easy in battle.”  College papers and essays were not difficult, and I owed that to my rigid high-school instruction.  Now we owe the same to our current crop of high-school students, and New Dorp has the formula.