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April 9th, 2008

America's writing "report card"

by Barbara Wallraff

America’s eighth-graders and high-school seniors got their writing “report cards” the other day -- the results for the writing part of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress were announced. Just a third of eighth-grade students and a quarter of high-school seniors are “proficient” in writing. Oh, dear! And yet federal authorities consider this encouraging news -- that’s how bad the situation is.

Granted, the average scores are a few points higher than they were five years ago. And the improvement is almost across the board, at least among the eighth-graders. Students in every ethnic group except Native Americans are doing better, and the gap between white and black eighth-graders is narrowing. Also granted, better is better -- and mountains of behavior-modification research demonstrate that praising successes is a more effective way to bring about change than criticizing failures.

But still, isn’t cheering because a third of the kids are doing well like congratulating ourselves that we made it a third of the way to the finish line in a race? Or that we managed to pay a third of our bills? Speaking of thirds, a 2003 survey by the College Board concluded that a third of employees at America’s blue-chip corporations are pretty bad at writing and need remedial training. And speaking of writing, can everybody see the handwriting on the wall? The message is terribly disheartening. Writing isn’t just a skill that people tend to need to earn a good living -- it’s one of our basic means of communication.

The question is what to do about the two-thirds or three-quarters of our young people who are less than proficient. Keeping on doing whatever we’ve been doing isn’t suddenly going to start yielding different results. Admittedly, the sorry state of America's writing skills is a vast, long-term problem to which experts have devoted whole careers. So who am I to propose a solution? Well, OK, maybe not a solution, but at least something we can do to stop feeling helpless and hopeless.

Writing is different from other skills. In math, you either get the concept or you don’t. In history, you either know who did what when or you don’t. But writing isn’t right or wrong, just better or worse. Learning to write is something each of us does individually, in our own way -- which makes me suspect that sweeping initiatives, no matter how brilliant and well-funded (hah!), aren’t what’s needed.

May I suggest, instead, that anybody who has the time, energy and interest in young people encourage them, one at a time, to write -- and read? (Reading skills and writing skills go hand in hand.) Ask kids to write you e-mails. Lend them a favorite book, and tell them what the book has meant to you. Ask them about what they’ve been reading.

If you’re a parent, you’re probably already doing this for your own kids, and you probably know the statistics about what a huge advantage it gives kids if their parents take an interest in their education. If you’re only, or also, a concerned citizen -- well, there are plenty of kids who aren’t lucky enough to be growing up in your family. Wouldn’t it make you proud to help a few of them?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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