Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for March 29th, 2007

Show me the money

Posted by metaphorical on 29 March 2007

If we want better educated young people, a generation who can read well and write well and and find Iowa and Iraq on a map, we may have to—I know this will come as a shock, so brace yourself—pay for it.

There’s been a big trend toward teaching writing skills in colleges, both in separate writing courses and labs, and while teaching the subject matter of individual disciplines, a phenomenon known by various names such as “Writing Across the Curriculum.”

Lord knows it’s needed. I remember grading test papers 30 years ago and seeing students who could fill a bluebook with things that started with capital letters and ended with periods, but didn’t contain grammatically well-formed sentences in between—sometimes not a single one in an entire exam. According to my nephews, things have not greatly improved in the intevening time.

Yet teaching writing, both in its own right and across the curriculum, takes instructors and other resources. In other words, it takes money.

Inside Higher Education reports that the average workload of the instructors on the front lines of the fight for a literate generation coming out of school— community college composition instructors— is 50 percent above what it should be. And for almost 30 percent of all such instructors, it’s double what it should be. Here are the numbers.

Results of a national survey – released at a session during last week’s annual meeting of the Conference on College Composition and Communication—found that those who teach writing at community colleges have a mean of 94 students a semester. The conference – a division of the National Council of Teachers of English—has guidelines that state that no faculty member should be teaching more than 60 writing students a semester – and fewer if the students have remedial or other special needs.

Not only has the norm started to greatly exceed desirable levels, but significant numbers of instructors are teaching well above the mean. The survey found that more than 20 percent of writing instructors at community colleges teach between 111 and 130 students each semester. And 9 percent report teaching 131 to 150 students a semester.

I assume that these instructors have a workload of 4 classes, since that would mean that the recommended level is 15 students per class. That seems reasonable when teaching undergraduates. My experience in an MFA writing program is that 8 students is ideal, 10 is fine, and 12 is pushing it. That’s at the graduate level, where papers are much longer and arguably you need more time for nuanced consideration of what makes for the difference between good and great.

So leaving the idyll of grad school and dividing by 4, we get a real-world average of 23 or 24 students. Two out of ten classrooms have 28-32 students, and 9 percent are even more crowded than that. You can’t really teach much good writing even at the lowest of those numbers. I’m not even sure you could teach a good class in social psychology or cost accounting with that many students. Let’s remember what a writing class involves: lots of writing by the students, which means lots of feedback—reading and editing and commenting and office hours discussions.

Composition professors say such limits are essential because good writing instruction – especially at colleges where many students may not have received adequate instruction in high school – is intensive, involving constant assignments that need to be graded promptly so students can learn from mistakes and advance.

As the article suggests, the pressure on colleges, especially community colleges, would be less if students came out of high school with more—more in the way of writing skills, that is. As the NY Times reported this week, it turns out high schools are working on it. But it takes—you guessed it—money.

States and school districts nationwide are moving to lengthen the day at struggling schools, spurred by grim test results suggesting that more than 10,000 schools are likely to be declared failing under federal law next year.

In many districts across the country, the trend has taken hold. In Miami, 39 schools that are farthest behind have added an extra hour to the school day, as well as five days to the school year. In California, the small West Fresno district, with some of the lowest test scores in Fresno County, added an hour more of school a day for students in the fourth to eighth grades.

The reference to “grim test results” should be a red flag that what’s at issue is No Child Left Behind. Sure enough,

The surge of interest has been spurred largely by the federal No Child Left Behind law, which requires annual testing of students, with increasingly dire consequences for schools that fall short each year, including possible closing.

Pressed by the demands of the law, school officials who support longer days say that much of the regular day must concentrate on test preparation. With extra hours, they say, they can devote more time to test readiness, if needed, and teach subjects that have increasingly been dropped from the curriculum, like history, art, drama.

Let’s just linger for a moment and notice the Orwellian terminology. Regular instruction is now “test preparation.” Test preparation has taken time away from what we used to call high school instruction, which is now thought of as “test readiness.” If every moment of every school day is geared toward tests, it’s not hard to see why Johnny can’t read Dickens or even Salinger well, and, obviously, students who can’t read well won’t write well.

But let’s move on, because the point is moot. We aren’t even giving schools the money to do “test readiness” well.

Money also has proved a big obstacle. Murfreesboro, Tenn., experimented with a longer day, but abandoned the plan when the financing ran out, said An-Me Chung, a program officer at the C. S. Mott Foundation, which does education research. Typically, she said, lengthening the school day can add about 30 percent to a state’s per-pupil spending on education.

Karen Kay Harvey, an assistant secretary of education for New Mexico, said that the state could not afford to do more. Adding the equivalent of one extra day of school a year for all students could run from $3 million to $5 million, she said.

I wish the Times had looked into these numbers a little, instead of taking them at face value. For example, are any schools extending the day with study periods in which students do homework assignments and special projects. They could be staffed with, say, the better college students who could provide tutoring and other help and might enjoy making work-study wages mentoring instead of stacking dishes in the cafeteria? And wouldn’t that be less expensive than extending classes themselves by a few minutes?

Such a system would relieve the burden on single parents and double-income parents who get home at dinnertime and spend much of the evening overseeing homework. It seems at least worth trying.

Even that, of course, would take money. And apparently we’re going to have to find it somewhere, because one way or another, expanding the school day is the direction things are going.

“In 15 years, I’d be very surprised if the old school calendar still dominates in urban settings,” said Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, which has added 45 minutes a day at eight of its lowest-performing schools and 10 more days to their academic year.

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