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.

Period.