21 February 2011

Educators: Can We Close the Gap on a Disparate View Concerning Writing Preparedness?

Forty-four percent of college faculty believe that incoming students aren't ready for writing at the college level. Ninety percent of high school teachers believe exiting students are well-prepared.

--from "A TEST OF LEADERSHIP: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education"
A Report of the Commission Appointed by
Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings
Pre-Publication Copy September 2006

Being a teacher, you experience this disparity every year.  Are the teachers before me preparing them for the level I am expected to teach?  Am I preparing them for the rigor of the writing curriculum for the following year?  How will my students' writing be perceived by their future teachers?

The media hounds us enough as it is, demonizing educators and crying foul over our meager salaries.  With the seat only getting hotter, we start pointing fingers at each other simply because it's all we have left.  We are not allowed to blame the system: apparently, politicians whose children attend private schools know how to run our schools better than the ones who sacrifice their lives in the trenches.  We can't blame parents: our years of experience and time spent in educational training obviously doesn't mean squat in comparison to the fact that they birthed the students.  We can't blame sociological elements, like bad neighborhoods, low SES, or single-parent homes.  Students aren't to blame, either, even if they are chronically absent, aren't fed enough at home, don't get enough sleep because the meth heads next door are running their lab at 2:00 am, or haven't bathed in a week.  It's out of the question to blame the length of the school year (since we don't work "enough") or budget cuts (makes us sound "whiney") or the superintendent (they sign your paycheck).

So what's left to blame?  I guess it must be us.

While my sentiments are flippant, I am well-aware of the influence I have over my students each year.  Even more important is knowing that no matter what circumstances or X-factor an educator has to face, we are in this together.  We should see a statement like the one above and be concerned for the future academic successes of students who will be in the college and working world one day.  There's no doubt about it: writing skills are indicative of intelligence and academic success.  A fifth grader who struggles with where to place a period in a sentence?  That's a serious concern.  We are the mediators of these skills when students are developing them.  The best writers come out of schools where the teachers communicate with each other about the writing curriculum and expectations, as well as share lesson plans that are effective and engaging for students.  I have worked in a school where we met regularly with teachers from other grade levels to get everyone on the same page, to speak the same language, and to adjust everyone's thinking about one of the most essential forms of communication.  The school where I currently work is moving toward that model, and it's hard for me to contain my enthusiasm!  The "every man for himself" model will only continue to precipitate statistics that evoke negative attention.  From the blood, sweat, and tears of true teamwork, we will put those stats to bed.

Will there be obstacles?  They're as certain as death and taxes.  Will outsiders understand and appreciate our efforts?  Not always.  Will your students reap the benefits of our team efforts?  Absolutely.

Feel free to give your two cents!  I would love to hear your opinions on the statistic above and ideas for how it can be improved.  We have to be in it for our students.

1 comment:

A. Hab. said...

Oh dear, oh dear. This issue is so pervasive in out educational system at all levels that you would think that teachers couldn't possibly be the only ones having this discussion. But, alas, we seem to be.

Bottom line: parents only care about grades. Administrators/government officials only care about passing exams to determine budgets. Students only care about getting the hell out.

Obviously I'm over-generalizing for effect...but that is certainly the worst-case scenario I think we all live with every day (and many of us, to some extent, feel is actually our reality). I honestly don't know what to do about it. You're right on that educators should be in communication with each other so that, in this example, the standard of excellence for writing can be established and taught. The problem as I see it, at least in my neck of the woods, is that there is zero communication between college composition teachers and high school teachers. None.

I was once told by a senior colleague that when I taught freshman comp, I should treat it like 13th grade. Sorry. I don't want to treat my students like they're in 13th grade, whatever that means. I want to treat them like they're in college, whatever that means. I've been told by other senior colleagues in response to my frustrations that we can only blame the teachers previous to us--surely this student must have slipped through the cracks, or his or her 9th grade teacher failed to properly teach the lesson on semicolon usage.

That's not fair. I've never thought that to be fair, but that's the environment. I feel that we are pitted against each other--in fact, there is a great deal of animosity and resentment between my English department (that teaches graduate students how to be teachers of all levels) and the education department (that teaches undergraduates as well as graduates to be teachers of primary to secondary levels). In the face of this animosity, I have never spoken to a professor in the education department, have never been invited to or felt welcome to just drop in during office hours. I have had a rather rude education professor glare at me as I walked into "her" classroom for my college composition class. Robert (who had done half a Master's in the education department) explained that the education professors did not share classrooms with each other, that they decorated their classroom the way they wanted it and did not take too kindly when other classes were held in their rooms. Of course, at the college level, nobody has a personal classroom.

I think the sad fact at this point is that we don't want to bridge this massive gap and talk to each other. We would just like to assume that everyone is doing his or her job and the appropriate level and leave it at that. But we are more than happy to point fingers and blame each other, aren't we? I've heard from sophomore students that their high school teachers were appalled by the standards their former students were held to in their freshman composition class. Of course, the students present it as though the high school teachers thought that college composition was conducted on too high a standard, but I know better than that. I believe that if the high school teachers were shocked, they might have been shocked at this disparity you're talking about. Or maybe, better yet, they were shocked that the students were complaining about having to work harder in college than in high school.

We absolutely must start talking to each other, if not for the students' edification then for our own. The fact is that our students get to leave this scenario after graduation, but we're still stuck in the trenches. So, it seems it would actually behoove us more than them to communicate across the divide between secondary education and higher education. I think, more than to the students, we owe it to ourselves. Nobody else seems perturbed enough to do this for us, you know?


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