A parents' advisory committee report coupled with widespread faculty concern about a progressive decline in skills has led to a new program in the Arlington County Schools to teach students the second of the traditional "three Rs": writing.
Arlington's federally-funded Expository Writing Program is part of a movement in education away from the emphasis on "relevance" of the '60s toward a "back to basics" philosophy.
Steadily decreasing college board scores, complaints from colleges that incoming students can't write clearly and concisely and observations by elementary and secondary school teachers of a progressive decline in writing skills have prompted local school systems, including Alexandria and Fairfax County, to institute writing programs.
"Back in the '60s something happened. Students' attitudes toward learning changed and it was mor and more difficult to teach any thing," said Fred Carpenter, English curriculum specialist and director of the program.
"Over the last three or four years attitudes have been better. There's been a gradual change. Students are more serious about learning, but you've got to remember that schools are just part of the total community," Carpenter said.
Carpenter is quick to note that the decline in writing ability is not just a product of the prevailing political climate. "We haven't been doing as good as job teaching writing. Why? Because teachers don't want to spend all weekend grading papers," he said.
Arlington's writing program is incorporated into the English curriculum. Its forerunner, according to Carpenter, was last year's pilot project at seven schools under which papers were graded by a committee of teachers and parent volunteers, many of whom had professional writing experience.
That project laid the groundwork for the current program by hammering out a detailed lis of criteria for judging student papers, including instances of "padding," run-on sentences, level of thought and logical development, the last identified as a quality seriously lacking in most papers. The Expository Writing Project also outlines specific skills for students at each grade level.
Kindergarten students, for example, should be able to speak in complete sentences and needs" while high school seniors should be capable of writing "unified, coherent paragraphs" characterized by "cause and effect", analysis and "comparison and/or contrast." All students from grade four and up are required to write at least one paragraph a week, generally as part of regular class assignments.
"We graded over 400 papers last year and found obvious errors in mechanics, things like spelling and grammar, but we also found that students tended not to have unified paragraphs. There were problems of logical development. Sentences didn't follow," Carpenter said.
To ease the teachers' workloads, 45 parents have been recruited as readers who will work with teachers to grade papers. The project also has two full-time teachers, Gerard Shelton and Margaret McCourt, who visit schools and assist teachers in administering the program. Carpenter noted that some teachers were initially concerned that new program would cut into existing courses. "We don't urge any teacher to drop a good program. We just want students to write one paragraph a week."
This month and again in April all students in grades 5, 8 and 12 will take multiple choice tests to measure their writing skills. "If we don't see any essential differences (in April) we'd better quit," Carpenter said. He added that it will probably take three or four years before "a real differences" can detected.
Carpenter said he thinks that the decline in writing ability is linked to the phenomenal popularity of television and the general disinclination of students to read for fun. "Teachers tell me all the time about kids who watch television four and six hours a day and won't pick up a book for 30 minutes. I suspect we're fighting an historial trend away from the written word, but it'll be years before we can see that conclusively," he said, citing critic Marshall McLuhan's theory that the written word has been supplanted by visual media.
Carpenter, McCourt and Shelton are attending PTA meetings to enlist parental cooperation in the new writing progam. Carpenter said he expects that by 1980, when the three-year grant expires, a writing program will be an established part of the Arlington school curriculum.