Monday, April 7, 2008

Is the cup half-empty or half-full?

On April 4th The Charlotte Observer ran an article with the headline, "Students score well in writing" reporting better than average scores for local eighth graders on the 2007 national writing test. When you look closely, the statistics aren't as exciting as the headline indicates. At closer inspection, you'll find that if all races and income levels are included, only 31% of local eighth-graders were rated proficient on the exam —this matches the national rate. Although 52 % of white students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were rated proficient as compared to less than 40% of their white public-school peers nationwide and in the Carolinas, I'm not celebrating. (For the full report, go to The Nation's Report Card.)

Perhaps this is (relatively) good news for our local school district, but I'm sorry, I don't find these statistics anything to be jumping for joy about. What about the 69% of eighth grade students across the country who aren't meeting this level of proficiency? What about the remaining 48% in Charlotte Mecklenburg?

The "basic" rating, earned by a solid majority of students regardless of location, race, or income, indicates only a partial mastery of grade-level writing. As the Observer reported and the statistics indicate, "proficient writing, defined as solid performance and competency on challenging subjects, was much rarer."

What's the problem here? As an educator involved in teaching writing skills, I speak with lots of teachers around the country. I think there are several weak links in the educational chain. First, I find that almost all teachers feel a great pressure to "teach to the test." So although an argument can be made that at least class time is being devoted to writing, I wonder how much of this preparation (with its concomitant pressure on teachers whose salaries can be tied to their students' performance), is rote or truly teaches the craft of writing. (See the International Reading Association's position paper for more information.)

I believe that writing skills should be developed from a strong foundation of reading and from analytical thinking. Reading has been replaced with playing video games, surfing the Internet (which at least involves more reading skills than video games) watching movies and TV, or competing in sports, than they do reading. Reading MUST be encouraged, supported, and reinforced by parents and educators. Second, I think we don't adequately challenge kids to think critically. Writing involves thinking. Whether fiction or nonfiction, every piece of solid writing requires the author to generate original thoughts. As much as possible, teachers need to be supported in encouraging students of all ages to think for themselves. This doesn't need to be fancy. An author friend of mine, who is a former teacher, said that when students brought a paper for her to read and asked, "What do you think of this?" she'd turn the question around and ask, "What do you think about it?" Critical thinking isn't an educational quick fix; it starts with engaging students mind's rather than being satisfied with rote responses.

Here's my word for the day: metacognition- the ability to reflect on one's own learning experience. Let's teach it. Let's model it. Let's do it ourselves.

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