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Educating for Democracy: Good Writing -- The Way It Used to Be?

As a teacher of good writing practices for over forty years, I have noticed that the quality of the writing in my classes seemed to be declining. I felt that the writing was barely of junior high school quality.
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As a teacher of good writing practices for over forty years, I have noticed that the quality of the writing in my classes seemed to be declining. I wrote a book about this with a colleague, T. Ellen Hill, called The Thinking Crisis (Authors Choice Press, 2001) in which I compared the in-class writing of one of my literature courses to that of a comparable course twenty years later. The comparison was to us alarming. The vocabulary and sentence length, two indices of developed writing, shrank; the references to other works and ideas to help support the students' essays almost disappeared; and instead of getting the sense that I was reading a college-level essay as I had in the writing of twenty years before, I felt that the writing was barely of junior high school quality. Did that, in fact happen? Has student writing seriously declined in quality?

Robert Connors and Andrea Lunsford, two leading writing-studies researchers, decided to find the answer to that question. They collected more than 20,000 college-level papers from across the United States and analyzed 3,000 of those papers to determine the most common error patterns in students' writing. They compared those results to professors' perceptions of common and important errors and to error pattern research done throughout the 20th century. Their results: "College students are not making more formal errors in writing than they used to." Depaul Magazine (Spring-Summer 2009).

I still remained unconvinced based on my direct experiences with college-level writing I have been evaluating since the mid- 1960's. I wouldn't argue that the number of errors that were made has increased, especially now with such writing aids as spell-check. But to illustrate just where we are now from where we were, I found these samples from old school magazines I had kept from when I was in grade school and from when my late wife taught a decade later.

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple... With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact. . . . Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights." -- Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

The drab clothing and scenery helped to set an unpleasant, solemn atmosphere and helped to annoy the captive audience a little bit more. Annoying the audience was probably what made this such a compelling moment in theater. With the lights, the sharp, harsh pounding of the gavel, and the drab atmosphere I began to realize I wasn't being entertained and I wasn't having a happy time of it, but rather I was being told the truth, the cold, blunt, horrifying truth."-- Review of "The Investigation," Ninth grader, Inwood Chatter, Inwood JHS, 1967

At present I am learning the mechanics of the devices that handle the communications of this day and age. Later on the class will delve into a subject of much importance today, and in which I am especially interested -- the atom. I hope to learn much in this unit. After that the class will go on to another topic that holds my interest, the prolongation of life or the conquest of disease. -- Creston JHS, Ninth-grader (Regular class)

Admittedly, these writings have probably been edited, but still, they represent the work of public school children who went to an "average" public school in New York City fifty years ago. Can we say that this is typical of the kind of writing students, even in the more "specialized" high schools, do today?

As Mary Kennedy, a nationally known expert in student writing and former colleague at SUNY, Cortland said in a recent phone interview, "There is no definitive study that has proven conclusively that student writing has declined although many writing teachers complain that they've noticed it." However, she added that there is increasing evidence that students "don't read" and that their vocabularies and, as a result, depth of comprehension of texts that have a college-level vocabulary is also declining. The percentage of "proficient readers" in the adult population in this country is at 13%. There is certainly a significant connection with good writing and good reading.

Nancie Atwell, a noted writing specialist, recently stated:

In 2007, fully 70 percent of U.S. 8th graders read below the proficient level on the NAEP exam. Our 13-year-olds aren't reading well because they're not reading enough: The National Endowment for the Arts has reported that only 30 percent of students in this age group read every day. And that's where literature comes in -- or should.

"The Case For Literature," Education Week (2/08/10) Atwell goes on to warn educators:

Apparently, the worth of book reading had become an issue among the work groups that, behind closed doors, were writing the K-12 'common-core standards' that promise to shape curriculum in U.S. classrooms. Given that the Common Core State Standards Initiative is dominated by test-makers and politicians -- representatives from the College Board, ACT, Achieve, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Governors Association -- I was dismayed, but not surprised, that the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) was finding it necessary to lobby on behalf of literature... Giving corporate interests a role in setting education policy is like letting foxes supervise the henhouse. These foxes are not vested in children's reading books. They are interested in profit making -- in selling prefab curricula, standards, and the diagnostic, formative, and summative tests that measure them.

Educational quality in a healthy democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, even among students who are fortunate enough to be in a "good" school whether measured by standardized tests, graduation rates, or even the rankings of the colleges such students attend. If you have doubts that the "dumbing down" of America is a serious problem, just compare the writing I've cited from fifty years ago of public junior high school students with those today. I hope any readers who wish to comment on this column can prove me wrong.