Monday, November 25, 2002


Environmentalists often study frogs to see if they show any signs that pollution is running rampant in a given habitat. Amphibians are an early-warning system of trouble because they’re extra-sensitive to stimuli.

Well, writing is my habitat, and when it comes to evaluating writing instruction in public schools, I say: Ribbet! Warp!

As a writer, an education activist and a parent, I’ve sprouted three heads and five legs in recent years trying to get educators, administrators and parents to see what is going wrong with the way we’re teaching writing . . . or should I say, not teaching it.

Over the years, I’ve watched schools mutate their writing instruction with invented spelling, collaborative group writing, an emphasis on creativity over accuracy, “correction” by classmates instead of teachers, the abandonment of penmanship, and other well-intentioned but boneheaded “innovations” that are making student writing worse, not better.

The current fad, Six-Traits Writing, takes a process that should be a wonderful balance of perspiration and inspiration, and dumbs it down into a mechanized, standardized pile of goo.

Schools list the six things they’re teaching as:

1) ideas
2) organization
3) word choice
4) sentence fluency
5) voice
6) conventions

I list them as:

1) no spelling
2) no grammar
3) no punctuation
4) no sentence diagramming
5) no research techniques
6) no way can these kids write a decent paragraph, much less a cogent, solid, expository report

I should know. I’ve taught writing on the college level. I’ve seen the near-illiteracy of students upon whom we’ve spent nearly $100,000 apiece in 13 grades in public schools. All I can say is: oy.

The furor over the recently-released writing “assessments” from across the state here in Nebraska, as well as nationwide, exposes the controversy over writing assessments, and how silly and counter-productive they can be. But we can fix things.

Here’s a look at “Six Traits of Effective Writing Instruction” that I wish our schools would adopt:

1. School boards should pass new mission statements that direct a return to traditional academics instead of Outcome-Based Education. When educators caved in to OBE a few years ago, they took the focus off the “inputs,” or how and what students are to be taught, and onto the “outputs,” or how students should perform on various tasks as measured by costly, hard-to-score, subjective “assessments.” This had drastic implications for the quality of writing instruction, K-12.

2. School boards should get rid of “Total Quality Management” or “Continuous Progress” systems thinking from the classroom, and restore traditional concepts of teaching and assessment. TQM is fine for manufacturing but lousy for education because the “products”
are human beings. Just as widgets are continuously taken off an assembly line to be benchmarked and inspected for quality, student “progress” is being constantly checked and tweaked and measured . . . producing the educational equivalent of “analysis paralysis” that plagues many businesses. That’s what makes the new forms of subjective assessments such an expensive, time-consuming pain for educators now. They have unfortunately taken the emphasis off meeting kids’ needs and put it onto the educational process. It’s wrong, and it shows.

3. Schools should dump Six Traits Writing and put teachers back in charge of writing instruction. Right now, systems and numbers rule instead of teachers. With Six Traits Writing, a student’s score on the rubric, or scoring system, is the only thing that matters, not whether the writing is well-composed, reveals truth, touches the soul, or shows imagination and compassion and ingenuity and critical reasoning. Young writers need to be taught, not scored. Let teachers teach.

4. Principals should insist that each teacher in each subject, K-12, circle errors and demand that students rewrite their papers until they’re perfect, or darn near.

5. Teachers should insist that they be given the tools of the teaching trade, if the public expects them to turn out competent writers. That means an end to whole-language philosophies in the early grades and a return to systematic, intensive, explicit, multisensory phonics. Why? Because the best way to teach reading is with writing, and vice versa. The way most schools operate now, kids learn neither very well.

And last, but certainly not least:

6. The State Education Department should scrap these goofy, scatter-shot assessments. Then it should coordinate a sensible approach: Nebraska schools should all go back to giving their kids the same single, simple, familiar standardized test each year. It doesn’t matter if they want to switch from year to year and give the Iowa Basics, the Stanford, the CAT, whatever. As long as all Nebraska kids take the same test, it’ll be useful. Not a nationalized, government test such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress . . . but a solid, commercial, machine-scored, objective, inexpensive, truly standardized test.

The frog has roared. Ribbet! Warp!

We all want writing instruction that works. C’mon, schools. Hop to it.

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