The Fine Art of Getting It Down on Paper, Fast

By Brent Staples - The New York Times - May 15, 2005

Imagine yourself a senior partner in a large accounting firm that has just hired a promising analyst from a top-tier college. You negotiate a generous salary and spend a fortune moving the new employee to an office in a distant city - only to find that he can't write a lick. He crunches numbers well enough and clearly knows the principles of accounting. But like many otherwise bright, well-educated people, he was never trained to express his thoughts in words. The blood drains from your face as you read that first audit report, which is so poorly structured as to be unintelligible.

These kinds of disappointments have a long history in the corporate world. Companies once covered for poor writers by surrounding them with people who could translate their thoughts onto paper. But this strategy has proved less practical in the bottom-line-driven information age, which requires more high-quality writing from more categories of employees than ever before. Instead of covering for nonwriters, companies are increasingly looking for ways to screen them out at the door.

This was clearly the subtext message of a report released last year by the National Commission on Writing, a panel of educators convened by the College Board. At the heart of the report - titled "Writing: A Ticket to Work ... or a Ticket Out" - is an eye-opening assessment of corporate attitudes about writing, surveying members of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executives from the nation's leading corporations.

The findings, though given a positive gloss, were not encouraging. About a third of the companies reported that only one-third or fewer of their employees knew how to write clearly and concisely. The companies expressed a fair degree of dissatisfaction with the writing produced by recent college graduates - even though many were blue-chip companies that get the pick of the litter.

The poor writing found among both new and established employees has turned business leaders into champions of education reform and of the No Child Left Behind Education Act, which aims to strengthen public schools and erase the achievement gap between rich and poor children. But persuading schools to improve math and reading instruction, even in exchange for federal dollars, has proved difficult. Persuading schools to rethink the teaching of writing - those that teach it at all - is going to be a lot harder.

The depth of the resistance to common-sense writing reforms became clear in April, when the National Council of Teachers of English attacked the College Board for adding a writing segment to the SAT, the college entrance exam required by an overwhelming majority of America's four-year colleges and universities. The test, which consists of a brief, timed essay and a multiple-choice section, has already put schools and parents on notice that writing instruction needs to improve.

The English teachers, however, have other ideas. The group questioned the validity of the tests and trotted out the condescending notion that requiring poor and minority students to write in standard English is unfair because of their cultural backgrounds and vernacular languages. This is sadly reminiscent of the "Ebonics" proposal of the 1990's, in which misguided educators supported the appalling notion that street slang was as good or better than the standard tongue and should be given credence in student work produced for school.

The council also tried to discredit the idea of timed writing tests. The report seemed to suggest that the only way to judge writing was to consider student work that had been rewritten and edited over longer periods of time. Long-term projects are important, but they do not cover all of the kinds of writing that students will be called upon to produce either in college or in their lives. On the contrary, substantive writing on demand for reports, correspondence and even e-mail is now a common feature of corporate life.

The teachers also seemed to feel that only other English teachers were qualified to judge what good writing is. The evidence suggests, however, that most teachers have never taken a course in how to teach effective writing and that many don't know how to produce it themselves.

The blame lies not with the teachers, however, but with an American educational system that fails at every level to produce the fluent writers required by the new economy. To change that, the state colleges of education that produce most teachers will need to improve writing instruction courses and require all students to take them. The time devoted to writing instruction in kindergarten through 12th grade needs to be more skillfully used and doubled, at the very least.

The English teachers are right when they note that we live in a test-obsessed culture that puts far too much weight on the SAT. The test is supposed to be used as one element among many in deciding who enters college. But the test developers have performed an important service by bringing writing to the top of the national agenda.

What we need now is a revolution in writing instruction, not just another test prep exercise.

Copyright © 2005 The New York Times Company