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Writing in Schools Is Found Both Dismal and Neglected
The New York Times
April 26, 2003
By Tamar Lewin

Most fourth graders spend less than three hours a week writing, which is about 15 percent of the time they spend watching television. Seventy-five percent of high school seniors never get a writing assignment from their history or social studies teachers.

And in most high schools, the extended research paper, once a senior-year rite of passage, has been abandoned because teachers do not have time to grade it anymore.

Those are among the findings of a report issued yesterday by the National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges, an 18-member panel of educators organized by the College Board.

The commission's report asserts that writing is among the most important skills students can learn, that it is the mechanism through which they learn to connect the dots in their knowledge - and that it is now woefully ignored in most American schools.

"Writing, always time-consuming for student and teacher, is today hard-pressed in the American classroom," the report said. "Of the three R's, writing is clearly the most neglected."

The panel, led by C. Peter Magrath, president of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges, is recommending that the amount of time students spend on writing be doubled, that writing be taught in all subjects and at all grade levels and that every school district adopt a writing plan.

"If students are to make knowledge their own, they must struggle with the details, wrestle with the facts and rework raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they can communicate to someone else," the report said. "In short, if students are to learn, they must write."

In two decades of education reform, the teaching of reading and arithmetic has come under intense scrutiny, with increased state regulation and a host of new assessment tests.

But until recently the teaching of writing has been largely overlooked. That seems to be changing now. With everyone from employers to college professors expressing alarm about the dismal writing skills of most American students, there is a new urgency, and new energy, to upgrade the teaching of writing.

Both of the major college-entrance exams, the SAT and the ACT, are being revised to include writing tests, and last year the College Board, which administers the SAT, created the National Commission on Writing to study the issue.

The panel found that only about half of the nation's 12th graders report being regularly assigned papers of three or more pages in English class; about 4 in 10 say they never, or hardly ever, get such assignments. Part of the problem is that many high school teachers have 120 to 200 students,
and so reading and grading even a weekly one-page paper per student would be a substantial task.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, only about one in four students in Grades 4, 8 or 12 scored at the proficient level in writing in 1998, the most recent such results available. And only one in a hundred was graded "advanced."

Further, a 2002 study of California college students found that most freshmen could not analyze arguments, synthesize information or write papers that were reasonably free of language errors.

There are some encouraging signs, though, among them the growth of the National Writing Project, a professional-development effort that began at the University of California at Berkeley almost 30 years ago and has expanded to 175 sites nationwide, where teacher networks are fostered at five-week summer sessions on writing.

The commission's report is to be followed by a five-year campaign to fulfill its recommendations. That campaign, called "A Writing Challenge to the Nation," will be led by former Senator Bob Kerrey, president of the New School University.

"Our spiritual lives, our economic success and our social networks," Mr. Kerrey said, "are all directly affected by our willingness to do the work necessary to acquire the skill of writing."

Just how much national will exists to do that work remains the crucial question, educators and policy experts agree.

"This report is a great beginning," said the executive director of the National Writing Project, Richard Sterling, chairman of the commission's advisory board. "If this is the trigger that allows us to step up to the kind of interest there has been around reading and math, it will make a big difference in children's education.

"But the commission could sink without a trace unless we go forth and say: How does it actually happen? How do we get the recommendations into policy? How do we get enough professional development for teachers? How do we recognize the excellent work that's going on?"

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