Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era

No, it’s all nonsense, believe me.  I had no idea how much nonsense it was, but nonsense it all is.

Anna Scott, Notting Hill

Everything that is wrong with edujournalism and the teaching of writing in the accountability era can be found in Education Week: the anemic examination of the five-paragraph essay (or when edujournalists discover a field in the same way Columbus discovered America) and Lucy Calkin’s interview about the state of teaching writing (or when edugurus package and promote educommerce).

Both of these pieces frame how the teaching of writing now faces greater demands from (you guessed it) the Common Core. But neither piece admits that the Common Core is at best on life support or that this puts the cart before the horse.

You see, the teaching of writing should be driven by the field of composition—the decades of expertise that can be found in the scholarship of writers and teachers of writing as well as foundational and powerful organizations such as the National Writing Project and the National Council of Teachers of English.

The Common Core is no more than bureaucratic nonsense; these standards serve the needs of educommerce, but do not reflect the field of literacy, do not meet the needs of teachers or students.

And thus, these standards, the high-stakes tests inevitably linked to all standards, and the coverage of writing in EdWeek, as Anna Scott opined, it’s all nonsense.

A little history here: Zip back to 2005 when Thomas Newkirk detailed in English Journal that the “new” SAT writing section had already resulted in “students [being] coached to invent evidence if they were stuck.”

In other words, writing was reduced to conforming to the 25-minute, one-draft prompted assessment in one high-stakes test.

Newkirk confirmed what George Hillocks found about the accountability movement’s negative impact on writing:

[W]hen students have been subjected to this instruction for eight to ten years, they come to see the five paragraph theme and the shoddy thinking that goes with it as the solution to any writing problem. Directors of freshman English at three Illinois state universities have complained about the extent of the problem. The English department at Illinois State University publishes a manual advising their incoming freshmen that while the five para- graph essay may have been appropriate in high school, it is not appropriate in college and should be studiously avoided. It shuts down thinking.

This is a crucial time in American democracy. We are faced with problems that demand critical thinking of all citizens. We need to help students examine specious arguments and know them for what they are. Our tests encourage the opposite. They encourage blurry thinking and obfuscation. As a society, we cannot afford to spend valuable classroom time on vacuous thinking and writing. (p. 70)

So let’s consider the state of writing instruction in K-12 public schools—and let’s try looking at the overwhelming evidence as detailed by Applebee and Langer’s 2013 Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms.

In my review of this research, I detail both what we know about the state of teaching writing and what the roadblocks are to effective writing pedagogy:

In Chapter Two (Writing Instruction in Schools Today), Applebee and Langer (2013) lay the foundation for what becomes the refrain of the book:

“Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face” (pp. 15-17)….

And those concerned about or in charge of education reform policy should use this study and analysis as a cautionary tale about the unintended and negative consequences of the current thirty-year accountability era that has failed No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and its call for scientifically based education policy (Thomas, 2013). Since the central message about the gap between best practice and the day-to-day reality of writing in U.S. middle and high schools is consistent in Applebee and Langer’s work, I want to highlight several key points and then conclude with a couple caveats that help inform teachers and policy makers:

  • Across disciplines, students are being asked to write briefly and rarely, with most writing falling within narrow templates that are unlike discipline-based or real-world writing.
  • Teachers tend to know about and embrace the value of writing to learn content, but rarely implement writing to achieve rich and complex examinations of prior or new learning.
  • Student technology savvy is high (notably related to social media), while teacher technology savvy remains low. Technology’s role in teaching and learning is detailed as, again, narrowed by high-stakes testing demands and “primarily…used to reinforce a presentational mode of teaching” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 116). These findings call into question advocacy for greater investments in technology absent concern for how it is implemented as well as raising yet another caution about ignoring research showing that technology (especially word processing) has the potential to impact writing positively if implemented well.
  • While English language learners (ELLs) tend to be one category of students targeted by education reform and efforts to close achievement gaps, high-stakes testing and accountability stand between those students and the potential effectiveness of extended process writing in writing workshop experiences.
  • Like ELL students, students in poverty suffer the same fate of disproportionately experiencing narrow learning experiences that focus on test-prep and not best practice in writing instruction:

“By far the greatest difference between the high poverty and lower poverty schools we studied stemmed from the importance that teachers placed and administrators placed on high-stakes tests that students faced. In the higher poverty schools, fully 83% of teachers across subject areas reported state exams were important in shaping curriculum and instruction, compared with 64% of their colleagues in lower poverty schools” (Applebee & Langer, 2013, p. 149).

  • One important counter-narrative to the education reform focus on identifying top teachers is that Applebee and Langer (2013) note that when teachers have autonomy and implement best practice, high-poverty students outperform comparable high-poverty students in classrooms “with more traditional approaches to curriculum and instruction,” driven by test-prep (p. 148).

The problem with teaching writing is not that teachers lack knowledge of good writing pedagogy (although that certainly is a concern), but that accountability and high-stakes testing (read: Common Core and whatever the next wave is) have supplanted teacher autonomy and the expertise in the field of teaching writing.

The five-paragraph essay was never good writing pedagogy, and abdicating the field of composition to Common Core, any set of standards, any high-stakes testing, and the concurrent educommerce all that nonsense feeds is the problem with teaching writing.


10 thoughts on “Adventures in Nonsense: Teaching Writing in the Accountability Era”

  1. It would serve us well if teachers were writers. There is a difference between talking teacher to student and writer to writer. It may have been Donald Graves who asked, “Would you send your child for piano lessons from someone who didn’t play?”

    1. But can we expect teachers to be everything we want all teachers to be?

      For instance, most English teachers are avid readers and lovers of literature and not dedicated writers—even though they probably all dream of writing a book—and to teach English in middle and high school, at least in California, they have to have a BA in English.

      There is no requirement for any teachers to earn a BA in journalism or an MFA in writing, the two degrees I had when I was teaching English for 27 of the 30 years I was a public school teacher, but because I didn’t have a BA in English, the state of California, in the early 1990s, made me take a test to prove I could read and write in addition to earning credit for a year’s worth of graduate classes after teaching all day from a local university in spite of the fact that my students improved their writing skills dramatically year after year by wide margins compared to every other English teacher in the district. The law is still the law and California’s legislature said I had to prove I could teach English because I didn’t have a BA in English. instead I had a BA in journalism and an MFA in writing and those college degrees did not count. The legislation did not include looking at what the students learned in my classes and if they had improved their writing skills. I had almost twenty years of teaching under my belt by then, and the evidence was there to show if I could teach English, but to the legislature that didn’t count.

      1. I have no idea what your are talking about.

        Before NCLB, before RTTT, before the Common Core crap and its high stakes rank and punish tests, that’s one of the things English teachers did. As teachers, we showed students how to approach a task such as finding the main idea of a story, recognizing how to recognize character traits through a character’s interaction with conflict, etc. The elements of literature that are used to construct a story are many and they link with each other. Teaching those elements were on the California state standards long before NCLB came along with all the other corporate shit that derailed real teaching.

        I did it for the 27 years I taught English after my first three years in education as a teacher, and almost every English teacher I knew did it too. In addition, because I’m also a writer, I taught my students how to use the skills they learned to write literature on their own and other styles of writing.

        But once there were those Common Core standards and the high stakes tests that ranked schools/teachers and closed/fired them, teaching to the test became the norm because of fear people like Donald Trump enjoy causing to others.

        I was fortunate I left teaching just as the corporations were moving in to rape and pillage the community based, democratic, transparent, non-profit public schools. I was still there when it all started.

      2. Lloyd, you do know what I am talking about. You live(d) it: “…because I’m also a writer, I taught my students how to use the skills they learned to write literature on their own and other styles of writing.”

        My hope is that more teachers ground themselves in this very model and practice of writing. Not a new concept. Decades of teachers (and research: Graves, Emig, Shaughnessy, Britton, et al.) have demonstrated its value in spite of political interference. I speak to students coming out of education programs and the value of being a writer (if we are going to teach it) is something they struggle with. Call it lack of confidence. Maybe no one ever encouraged them.

        My initial point was born from good intentions and good models–as you described yourself. Irrespective of the political damage, we still have an obligation to help one another. Bitching and moaning never changed anything.

        Don’t grind your axe on me.

      3. It would be nice if more teachers would teach children to write with an emphasis on literature, but every teacher is not a dedicated writer. I refuse to judge other teachers based on the teacher I was. Each teacher is unique and if all teachers were supported properly, then most if not all teachers would be free to learn and try new methods in their classrooms instead of being stuck to teaching to the Common Core Crap and the high stakes tests linked to those profit motivated, national standards that are then used to rank and fire teachers and/or close public schools but not publicly funded, private sector corporate charters, even the virtual charters that are horrible places to learn that have demonstrated little or no success at improving anything except at making some frauds wealthier.

        There this old song about another brick in the wall, and that song is more true than ever when it is applied to schools like KIPP and Eva’s Success Academies.

        What is depicted in that YouTube Video with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” song doesn’t look like any community based, democratic, transparent, public school where I taught, but it sure looks like Eva’s Success Academy and many of the other publicly funded private sector corporate charters.

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