In the coming months, the conversation about the importance of formal writing instruction and its place in a public-school curriculum—the conversation that was central to changing the culture at New Dorp—will spread throughout the nation. Over the next two school years, 46 states will align themselves with the Common Core State Standards. For the first time, elementary-school students—who today mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction—will be required to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.
Common Core’s architect, David Coleman, says the new writing standards are meant to reverse a pedagogical pendulum that has swung too far, favoring self-expression and emotion over lucid communication. “As you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think,” he famously told a group of educators last year in New York. Early accounts suggest that the new writing standards will deliver a high-voltage shock to the American public. Last spring, Florida school officials administered a writing test that, for the first time, required 10th-graders to produce an expository essay aligned with Common Core goals. The pass rate on the exam plummeted from 80 percent in 2011 to 38 percent this year.
According to the Nation’s Report Card, in 2007, the latest year for which this data is available, only 1 percent of all 12th-graders nationwide could write a sophisticated, well-organized essay. Other research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of students in grades four through 12 write poorly. Over the past 30 years, as knowledge-based work has come to dominate the economy, American high schools have raised achievement rates in mathematics by providing more-extensive and higher-level instruction. But high schools are still graduating large numbers of students whose writing skills better equip them to work on farms or in factories than in offices; for decades, achievement rates in writing have remained low.