Several years ago, I stopped reading the reports I frequently receive on “the future of education research” from many fine universities. Most education research has little or no relationship to important developments in schools, and it never will.
Thankfully, there are exceptions. The Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for students from low-income households, has been peeking recently at what is happening inside classrooms, an intrusion rarely done because it is expensive and tends to expose unattractive realities.
The organization collected 1,876 school assignments from six middle schools in two large urban districts in two states. The idea was to see how well English, humanities, social studies and science were being taught in the new era of the Common Core State Standards. The results are distressing and show that the instruction students are getting — particularly in writing — is deeply inadequate.
“Only four percent of all assignments reviewed pushed student thinking to higher levels,” one report said. “About 85 percent of assignments asked students to either recall information or apply basic skills and concepts as opposed to prompting for inferences or structural analysis, or doing author critiques. Many assignments show an attempt at rigor, but these are largely surface level.”
“Relevance and choice — powerful levers to engage early adolescents — are mostly missing in action,” it said. “Only two percent of assignments meet both indicators of engagement.”
Here are even more depressing numbers: 18 percent of the assignments required no writing at all. Sixty percent demanded just some note-taking, short responses or a sentence or two. Fourteen percent required students to write a single paragraph — whoopee. Only 9 percent went beyond that.
I have been complaining about the hideous condition of writing instruction for a long time. I am not a teacher, but I am a writer. I know how I — and many of my colleagues — came to love writing and learned to do it well enough to make a living from it. What happened to us is very different from the furniture-assembly approach taken by school curriculums, including those the Common Core has inspired.
Here is a bit of the lengthy Common Core recommendations for what ninth- and 10th-graders should do to produce a persuasive argument: “Use words, phrases and clauses to link the major sections of the text, create cohesion, and clarify the relationships between claim(s) and reasons, between reasons and evidence, and between claim(s) and counterclaims.”
The best teachers know how dull and off-putting this is.
Paula Stacey, who has taught every level of writing instruction, has suggested shelving “the narrow models, the graphic organizers, the formats and steps” and just do this: “Ask students questions, read their answers, and ask more questions.”
The professional writers I know learned the joy and power of words not by doing their grammar homework but by writing diaries, poems, songs, letters to friends, long essays or working for a student newspaper. They benefitted from heavy editing, an experience schools rarely provide.
I was sad to see that the Education Trust reports did not denounce the thin paint-by-the-numbers approach, even as they exposed its awful results. Instead, they presented some models that seem dreary to me.
There is, for instance, a writing assignment for a unit on the popular book “I Am Malala,” written by the youngest-ever Nobel laureate, Malala Yousafzai, with Patricia McCormick. It emphasizes the basics, such as citing evidence, providing the correct linking words and restating the thesis statement in the conclusion. There is no mention of enriching the prose with similes and metaphors or experimenting with contrarian arguments that might excite students but offend their teachers.
But I found a ray of hope. The author of one of the reports is former Education Trust vice president Sonja Brookins Santelises, who has just become chief executive of Baltimore City Public Schools. She knows how bad writing instruction is. She could use her powers to shred the old playbook and try something new.