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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 frighteningyet-
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 eighthgrade
students and 24 percent of 12thgraders
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
subtly 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 12thgraders
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.