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Failure To Communicate

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews recently sparked some interesting online chatter about why students aren’t better prepared for college-level writing, and what can be done about it.

In a first article, Mathews introduces us to high school history teacher Doris Burton, who asserts that state and district course requirements leave “no room” for the assignment of serious research papers of 3000 words (10-12 pages) or more. According to Mathews, “We are beginning to see, in the howls of exasperation from college introductory course professors and their students, how high a price we are paying for this."

In response, Kate Simpson, a full-time community college English professor, decided to poll her students. According to Mathews, she found that “40 percent of her 115 students thought that their high schools had not prepared them for college-level writing," while only “23 percent thought they had those writing skills."

Joanne Jacobs and Math Curmudgeon agree that it’s a serious problem that needs attention. So do I. And there’s a lot of research that says the same thing (see here and here, for example). Few researchers really explore the reasons “Why?", however. A notable exception was a 2002 study of research paper writing, funded by the Albert Shanker Institute and conducted by the University of Connecticut’s Center for Survey Research and Analysis for Will Fitzhugh’s Concord Review.

The authors found that, while 95 percent of surveyed teachers believe that writing a research term paper is important or very important, 62 percent never assign a paper of moderate length (3,000-5,000 words), and 81 percent never assign a paper of over 5,000 words. The reason for the discrepancy? Time.

A large majority (82 percent) of the teachers said that it was difficult (33 percent) or very difficult (49 percent) to find adequate time for reading and grading the research papers that they assign. Some simple math will help to explain why.

Many secondary teachers teach five different classes a day. If there are 30 students in each class, the assignment of one 10-page paper to all students means 150 papers (or 1,500 pages) to read, correct, and comment on. If it took just 10 minutes to read and correct each paper and 5 minutes to meet with each student about the result (both very optimistic estimates), that would still mean at least 37 and a half hours of extra work per assignment. And this is over and above the out-of-class time that teachers already spend regularly in preparing lessons, grading assignments, tutoring students, filling out paperwork, coaching teams and clubs, talking to parents, etc.

For all teachers, but especially those who have spouses and children at home, this can represent an impossible burden—one that may well worsen with the current budget crisis generating increases in class sizes across the country.

This is not to say that the problem can’t be fixed. First, as stated above, 95 percent of teachers believe that it’s important for students to write a serious research paper. And second, there are now 34 states and counting that have adopted the Common Core standards, and must now figure out how to implement them.  This includes, hopefully, the sections on writing.

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