Friday, October 12, 2012

The Writing Counterrevolution

I. "The Writing Revolution"
There's an interesting but insidious article about writing instruction, "The Writing Revolution," in this month's Atlantic.  The article tells the story of a high school on Staten Island that changed the way it taught writing and saw its test scores and graduation rates improve significantly.

The changes in the writing instruction don't seem unreasonable--an increased focus on argument and grammar, along with a heavy use of sentence stubs and frameworks (e.g. "I agree/disgagree that_____, because _____")--and it seems possible that instituting a coherent writing and thinking curriculum as a big part of a schoolwide overhaul could be a big improvement in a bad school. Why, then, does the article so raise my hackles?

I think it's mainly because the article takes this one curricular shift and weaves it, with a lot of dangerously simplistic received ideas, into a standard narrative of recovering a lost golden age--in this case, the golden age of the 1950s. According to the article, the school's shift to "formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure and essay-writing" was a return to the ways that "would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950." This counterrevolution (the article's headline is misleading) was necessary, according to the article's narrative, because misguided educational movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s had led schools away from teaching "the fundamentals" and toward a weak, pointless curriculum of "creative-writing" in a "fun, social context."

This long-term narrative is annoyingly untethered to any hard data.  Were students better writers in the 1950s?  I doubt it very much.  The best data we have on long-term trends comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows little change from 1971 to 2008, but if anything shows a gradual upward trend.  If the story this Atlantic article is telling has much truth to it--if there was a shift in the 70s and 80s to a more fun and creative writing curriculum that ruined academic achievement across the country--then we should see NAEP scores going down.  But they don't go down, they go (slightly) up! Here are the National NAEP reading scores for 13 year olds:

1971       255
1975       256
1980       258
1984       257
1988       257
1990       257
1992       260
1996       258
1999       259
2004       259
2008       260

The reading scores for 9 year olds, who wouldn't have had as much schooling, and 17-year olds, who had more, tell basically the same story.  Students in 1971 had not had much time to be ruined, as the article implies they were, by teachers teaching Paulo Freire in Ed school, and yet they seem to have been no more literate than students in the nineties, or in 2008.

The particular story the Atlantic article tells, about one high school that changed (among other things) its writing instruction, is an interesting anecdote, one whose facts could be probed further (what else was changed at the school?) and whose meaning can be debated (even if the shift in writing curriculum was responsible for a dramatic improvement in academic achievement, is it possible that any coherent writing curriculum, even one that focused on personal or creative writing, could have had the same effect?).  The interesting anecdote, however, is put in the context of a larger narrative that seems to be clearly and demonstrably wrong.  It is simply not true that because misguided 60s and 70s pinkos, in the name of freedom, stopped teaching anything, student achievement plummeted.  Whatever teachers were doing in the 70s, 80s and 90s, student achievement did not plummet.

II. "How Self-Expression Damaged My Students"
The main Atlantic article is accompanied by a shorter piece by a former "teacher" (the guy seems to have used a brief stint in the New York public schools as a stepping stone from a career in magazine publishing to a career in the Ed Reform industry), entitled "How Self-Expression Damaged My Students." This bizarre article likens the "Reader's and Writer's Workshop" approach (one that this guy used in his classroom) to a "cargo cult."  In other words, the reading and writing his students did was, as he sees it, as totally pointless as the building of runways by primitive peoples who hoped that by imitating the form of an airfield they could bring back the airdrops of supplies and food that had come during the war.  This comparison is so insane on so many levels that I am not going to take the time to analyze it.

Later in his article, apparently realizing that he has gone off the deep end, the author tries to reel himself back, writing, "Let me hasten to add that there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics," but he goes on to argue that "at present, we expend too much effort trying to get children to 'live the writerly life' and 'develop a lifelong love of reading.'" And he concludes by implying that it is ten times more important to teach grammar and mechanics than to try to get kids to love reading and writing by having them actually do it.

These people are all about data, but where is the data that shows that grammar and mechanics "instruction" works better than just reading a lot? It sounds like the author of the Atlantic article had his students spend way too much time on the writing process and not nearly enough time reading, but just because he was bad at it does not mean that getting kids to develop a lifelong love of reading won't help them read and write better.  It almost certainly will.  Grammar and mechanics instruction, on the other hand, should be a small part of the curriculum.

III. What, then, to think? (Besides that the Atlantic is owned by right-wing crazies...)
I'm not sure what my own overarching narrative is (maybe that we're in the middle of a decades-long counterrevolution in which we are making the poor poorer, blaming them for the results of their poverty, and then telling them they ought to act more like they did in the 50s, when people respected their betters?), but I am pretty sure that these people in the Atlantic don't have the right one.


  1. Hey, EC,

    You make good points here. Two points seem most important: 1. It is plausible that ANY writing instruction done with intensity and commitment would improve the skill, and 2. This is not the point of the propaganda on offer. The point, not spoken but clearly heard, is that LEADERS and Centers for Leadership made these schools what they are! Hail the leader!

    You also nailed another of our constant confusions--that fallacious "because" always works so hard in authoritarian narratives of control!

    1. Yes, I should have stressed that second point: that these reformers don't believe that anything can be learned, especially not by the lower classes, unless it is taught. A little bit of teaching can be helpful, but the most important thing a teacher can do is to create a classroom climate and structures in which the students can learn. The author of the cargo cult article (who could himself be described as a member of a cargo cult) seems to have tried, in his reader's and writer's workshop, to facilitate student learning--but he just didn't do it very well. That's okay; it's hard to be a good teacher. I just wish that he hadn't taken his own failure as a reason to start telling other teachers how to do their jobs. Failure is not a credential.