Tuesday, June 8

Writing Skills: Public Trust In Education Falls Short


Harris Interactive, one of the world's leading custom market research firms, recently conducted a poll to determine how Americans feel about 16 quality of life issues across the country. What was especially striking to me was that colleges and universities ranked high (65 percent), but the public school systems ranked low (32 percent).

Keeping in mind that SAT and ACT scores are not meant to test for achievement and are generally taken only by students considering college, the public might have a case. We took a look to see how well the brightest students were performing.

Between 1990-91 and 2008-09, SAT test scores peaked between 2003-05 and then began to decline. Writing has steadily declined since 2006 across the board. Contrary, ACT scores peaked sharply in 2007, before declining again in 2008.

2009 SAT Test Scores

• National Critical Reading Average 501
• Nevada Critical Reading Average 501

• National Mathematics Average 515
• Nevada Mathematics Average 505

• National Writing Average 493
• Nevada Writing Average 479

2009 ACT Test Scores

• National English 20.6
• Nevada English 20.5

• National Math 21.0
• Nevada Math 21.4

• National Reading 21.4
• Nevada Reading 22.0

• National Science 20.9
• Nevada Science 21

Specific to my state, Nevada has consistently dropped in SAT performance, with 42 percent of the students taking the test last year. And while it scored 21.5 on the ACT, only 30 percent of students took the test. This represents a relatively low percentage of college bound students, especially when compared to some states where up to 70 of students test.

Is The State by State Public School System Broken?

Some people think so. In fact, the public school systems rank low enough in public opinion that national initiatives, such as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, are working toward standardizing the educational system on a national level on a voluntary state-by-state basis. I'm not writing about this in depth today. It's a complex issue. At a glance, I can say I had no issues with the recommended literature.

More to the point, people in Nevada clearly feel the school system is broken, particularly in Clark County. And from my own perspective as a parent with a child in the public school system, I've noticed the best teachers tend to deviate from the system that is currently in place. The least effective tend to adhere rigidly to the system. So do systems really work?

In addition to being a parent, I also teach a few educational outreach classes part time at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In most university settings, teachers are generally free to teach the subject matter any way they would like. And from what the students tell me, the educational process is hit and miss as a result. Some teachers lend nothing to the experience. So maybe the real problem is the teachers?

Modern Solutions For Teaching Education.

It seems to me, much like any communication program, you need to balance educational goals and needs. You need a solid system; but you also need teachers that know when to deviate or supplement that system based on the needs of each class.

This Saturday, I will be teaching a half-day program on "Editing and Proofreading Your Work." The class is designed to improve clarity, consistency, and correct usage in your personal, literary, commercial, or business writing. The class was constructed from scratch, but I deviate from the material every year based on in-class feedback. The result is a program that never repeats.

It seems to me that the structure of the class works much the same way modern education works best. While much of the foundation is built upon grammar basics, the class is adapted toward communication, integrating the Associated Press Stylebook and The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (among others).

For example, given the limited time I have with students, I might mention subordinate clauses, independent clauses, antecedents, etc. in passing. But that is not the focus of the class. I really want students to be able to apply the instruction on a daily basis by thinking about the sentences they write. Memorizing terminology or rote memorizing rules tends to be less effective than learning to analyze a single sentence for clarity and by exercising critical thinking skills.

Over the years, however, I found something else. Students that learn to apply the examples tend to learn the grammatical terms anyway. So, it allows the students, especially those that lack proficiency in writing, to learn by application as opposed to memorization.

In other words, if this was a class in a public school system, they would first learn to write better essays and then learn what an antecedent is through the application. The problem with many systems today is they attempt to do it backward, stressing the importance of the antecedent first.

Think of what we're asking student brains to do with traditional instruction. It requires us to strip a sentence of comprehension, overlay unrelated semi-memorized terminology, reconstruct it, double-check with comprehension, and then repeat. Instead, I like to teach students to recognize when a sentence lacks clarity, pinpoint the problem, and correct it based on style suggestions. In the process, they learn the terms anyway.

Anyone interested in the class can register online or call 702.895.3394. You can also contact Michelle Baker if you have any questions (check the class listing for her contact information).

But, in closing, I'd rather leave people with a different thought. Public education is failing if the majority of high school students score just better than 1,000 on an SAT, and 21 on the ACT. Most colleges won't accept those scores. So we might prize our universities, but what good are they if only about 20 percent of all students can be admitted without an educational handicap? Your guess is as good as mine.

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