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CEPEDA: The writing is on the wall

Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

In Mike Judge's brilliant 2006 satirical science fiction comedy, "Idiocracy," viewers are subjected to a terrifying dystopia: America, circa 2505, after the intelligent people have become extinct.

In this post-apocalyptic society, our accidental time-traveler protagonist finds himself the smartest man in America and eventually delivers a frightening-yet-moving speech to the World Wrestling Federation-like U.S. Congress in which he laments that once upon a time, reading and writing were common. "People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared ... and I believe that time can come again!"

Anyone who loved this movie because they fear it could be a prediction of our dark future had to cringe last week when the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its 2011 Nation's Report Card on writing.

Just 24 percent of students in the eighth and 12th grades performed at the proficient level in writing, meaning that they demonstrated a clear understanding of the writing task they'd been assigned, organized their thoughts effectively, and provided details and elaboration that supported and developed the main idea of their piece.

But take this with a grain of salt. Though it is expected that proficient student work contains few errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization and sentence structure, note that, for the first time, the students were taking the test on a computer and so had access to a word processor's thesaurus and spell-check function in addition to cut-and-paste editing tools.

In other words, we can't really compare these test scores to the last writing report card in 2007 when 33 percent of eighth-grade students and 24 percent of 12th-graders scored at the proficient level using only a pencil and paper. But feel free to put two and two together.

On the bright side, I suppose, the majority of students tested fell into the basic category -- 54 percent of eighth-graders and 52 percent of 12th-graders -- which means they were able to persuade, explain or convey experience coherently and with substantial knowledge of the basic mechanics of writing, though with errors that don't generally impede meaning.

I don't have enough space to bore you with a laundry list of the many ways society in general (rampant misspellings in product names and advertisements), families (who inadvertently provide children with language-poor environments) and schools (which let instructors teach writing in many different ways) keep students from learning to write effectively.

But I think it comes down to much the same reason we have a nation of poor readers, and underperforming math, science and history students: These subjects are hard and no one likes hard work anymore. Though we pay lip service to working hard, most students are subtlety taught to avoid it.

We drill kids with the idea that learning should be fun and show them videos so that they don't have to trudge through texts to understand meanings of challenging concepts. We teach them the language of inability by assuring them that if they are being challenged by a difficult reading passage, it must be because they are "visual learners," or if they don't like tackling tasks on their own they must be "social learners" -- and everyone knows that if we push kids, parents will have no qualms about pushing back.

Let's face it, education today is a perfect reflection of our modern lives, which are predicated on convenience and optimized for entertainment. Teacher preparation programs spend more time showing future teachers how to nurture and accommodate than how to make students into high performers.

But though I already fear for a country where the most important thing in the average person's life is to interact with electronic gadgets that emphasize images and make it nearly impossible to type words -- much less sentences -- correctly, there is a sliver of hope.

The 24 percent of eighth- and 12th-graders who can write proficiently -- plus the 3 percent who are "advanced" -- will be the rock stars of their generation. Their hard-earned mastery of the arduous written communication of English will be rewarded as they become as sought out and well-compensated as doctors, computer gurus and scientists are today.

In this utopia, they'll somehow inspire future generations to work hard to write well, too.

Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Comments

notblind 2 years ago

Contrary to what education bureaucrats tell us, expensive technology is not making our students smarter in the real meaning of the term. I just finished reading [ a book no less !! ] " The Dumbest Generation " by Mark Bauerlein. The GPL has it. The book has a lot of interesting stats. In a nut shell, most of the money we have spent on laptops and other high tech classroom toys is totally wasted.

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kevin 2 years ago

Our public school system is broken and it can't get up! Without digital devices, kids can't ever do calculations in their heads anymore. This of course is assuming the kids learn how to use these digital devices! A nation of poor readers translates into a nation of poor voters. Isn't this ironic in today's elections. No wonder there are many open jobs but no Americans that qualify to fill those positions. Put the blame where is belongs: parents first, then comes the politicians and the public school system as a whole.

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Say_that_again 2 years ago

I do like how you recognize one correlation but ignore another! True, poor readers are poor voters because they do not get facts. Thus, the states with poorer education would have more poor readers. Check it out. These are more likely to be solid behind Romney! So poor readers vote Romney. Sure implies that Democrats are better at supporting education! http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/2012_elections_electoral_college_map.html

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R 2 years ago

Actually by that logic, it just shows that DEMS are so collectively defective that the only thing that they can reliably create is future Republicans... (Smiles)

And the proof of that theory resides under the DOME right now!

Notice I said create Republicans, I didn't claim they were all GOOD Republicans...

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FordGalaxy 2 years ago

I have a good friend in his doctoral program at UT-Knoxville. He's a teaching assistant and one of his tasks is to grade undergraduate papers. He has told me on several occasions that even collegiate undergraduate students are using "text-speak" in their papers. Examples include "U R" instead of "you are," or '2nite" instead of 'tonight."

These are college students writing this poorly. And the middle and high school students do not fare any better. Although, in the public schools, I've seen a serious drop off in ability to process information. It is almost as thought students are taught to memorize, regurgitate, and then purge so they can move on to the next set of information instead of building upon previously learned principles.

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Mack711 2 years ago

Kids in school today do not know how to do basic Math skills with out the use of a calculator or a computer. You try to give them long division. square root or tell them to multiply numbers with more than 5 numbers some can not. One parent went so far as to call the school system of today 'nothing more than a taxpayer supported social club'. Now that may be the wrong thing to say but understood what she meant. Some Colleges are more interested in what the football team is doing than what is happening in the class room.

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Say_that_again 2 years ago

" It is almost as thought (sic) students are taught to memorize, regurgitate, and then purge so they can move on to the next set of information instead of building upon previously learned principles."

Unfortunately you are right. This is a result of emphasis on tests instead of emphasis on education. To keep the cost of testing down, they are almost exclusively multiple choice which almost never test true thinking and emphasize regurgitating data.

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FordGalaxy 2 years ago

Apologies for the typo; I'll admit to fat-fingering that sentence. In college I despised multiple choice tests, which thankfully went away after freshman year. Then again, I was graced to have parents that actually gave a crap about the kind of education I received, and went so far as to push me even outside of the classroom. Sadly, I don't really see that happening as often any longer.

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GwinnettFan 2 years ago

My children, now college grads, can read because I made sure they could. As native Georgians, education has always been a priority for our family regardless of socioeconomic status - irrelevant whether one room school or high tech building. I made it a priority for my children just as my parents did for me (first generation to go to college), and grandparents for them (sharecroppers). Like many today, my great-grandparents did not speak English and came here with next to nothing, but their children understood expectations clearly. Don't underestimate the responsibility of parents. Educators private or public cannot and should not vilified, in fact should be applauded for outstanding work in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

Fantastic job GCPS educators and keep up the good work!

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