Conspicuous Omission

Provocative level (on a scale of 1 to 10): 9.7

It’s 4:00 in the morning and I should be preparing for my presentations today, here in the beautiful Farmington, Connecticut. But it wasn’t today’s topics that woke me. It was and issue that has been a frequent irritant in my mind, one that I have mentioned out loud to only a few people and only during certain conversations.

You see, there is a part of me that wants to believe in the competence and wisdom of my government, that its intentions are for the common good of all people. Yet it continues to nag at me why writing was left out — conspicuously left out — of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. Our nervousness about blogging in the classroom has brought this issue back to the forefront of my thinking, and I simply have to scratch this itch.

There are three Rs in our traditional notions of the basic skills, Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. Yet NCLB made almost no mention of writing, as a basic skill, as it emphasized, at the expense of all other disciplines, reading and math, and most recently science. Writing seems less important.

The pragmatic part of me says that it was because writing is hard to assess. It’s messy assessment. It’s expensive and difficult to automate (bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble).

But there is a more cynical side of me that, quite frankly, seems to gain in justification nearly every day.

Reading is important. People can’t follow directions without being able to read. Arithmetic is important, because we need to be able to work our stuff. And since our stuff is described primarily with numbers, we need to be able to work the math to add value to our stuff, and make money.

RobotWriting, however, is mostly a civil skill, and empowering people with the ability to compellingly express their ideas seems to make us nervous. There’s a lot about it that makes me nervous. It’s why I keep hammering at teaching critical thinking skills and insisting that information ethics be an explicit part of our definition of literacy. But could it be that we are afraid of a population that can express itself.

Please convince me that I am wrong, that education is about more than just making robots.

2¢ Worth…

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18 thoughts on “Conspicuous Omission”

  1. Intriguing thought, possibly. A government plot, I don’t think so. I believe it is just as important to be able to eloquently express yourself and articulate a point of view. Public speaking is also a public skill. But it, like good writing, is much more subjective and I think these areas are wisely not being tested. Reading and math skills are more easily evaluated on standardized tests.
    Just one possibility….

  2. David:

    I sure do hope you are wrong, as I know you hope you are wrong, as well. You raise a very intriguing question. Here’s a challenge for you or somebody else who has a little more time than you, do some research and investigate the Congressional discussions around No Child Left Behind and the subject areas that would be tested. What did people say about writing 5 years ago? Unfortunately, I think that a serious researcher would have to look beyond the Congressional Record. For Congressmen tend to be smart individuals who don’t want to include everything in the Record. However, people close to the situation will have a lot more information than that contained in the Record.

  3. David —

    As I was reading this post I was reflecting on my own “school days” which really weren’t that long ago. Growing up in the 70s and 80s I distinctly recall being taught not only how to write — but how to change my style of writing depending on the purpose of the writing. In other words — how to write formal letters, thank you notes, press releases, etc.

    But times have changed. When I was in school, there was no need to distinguish between formal writing and effective email communications or the difference between “writing” and “texting”.

    Your point about “writing” being left out is even more critical when we consider the fact that many of our students think it is perfectly acceptable to incorporate “texting” when doing writing assignments in the classroom. I’ve personally seen too many instances where students have written articles or essays or just body copy for a project and included text-messaging short-hand in the work.

    Today we should be teaching MORE writing, not less.

    Our district adopted a graduate profile that we are all supposed to focus on creating in our schools — that “ideal” high school graduate. The first characteristic listed in the profile is: Effective Communicator

    We’ve got a challenging (but not impossible) task before us. We do need to continue our focus on reading because we become better writers as we read a wide variety of texts and writing styles. However, to focus exclusively on reading and NOT on writing — and worse, to block access to engaging tools that help promote writing — we risk producing a generation lacking a crucial skill for success in life and work.

  4. Actually there are some states that were and are doing more than NCLB. Oregon is one state that has included writing as part of its benchmark standards. Let me tell you how difficult it is to accurately assess writing. I can truthfully say because of those assessments I find I am teaching more about writing organization, sentence fluency etc. I hope that it is making my students better writers. They do know more about how to do it.
    I am adding blogging this next year because I think the students need to have practice in writing their ideas in a less formal situation. Everything does not have to be an essay.
    I am only 25% convinced that NCLB is good but this is one aspect for teaching to standards. Don’t get me started about that pesky 75% left over.

  5. I think that researching the congressional record would be an interesting task. But let me clarify, as I so often have to do, that I do not think that there is any kind of conspiricy going on, besides an increasing emphasis on education as a work-place preparing endeavor than an essential part of a democratic society.

    Maybe it is a conspiracy, now that I think about it. I don’t know. Very tired after today’s work. This may be an interesting conversation.

  6. David — The legislation reflects the leadership. Being articulate, in either reading or writing, is clearly unimportant to our President nor the leadership that put him in charge. Conspiracy? No, just modeling. Was there anything in NCLB about critical thinking skills? I suspect not. Hard to assess? Probably. But also, an articulate electorate that is able to use critical thinking skills? What politician wants THAT?

  7. David – a couple of thoughts related to writing. Many states group “reading” and “writing” into the broad category of “language arts.”

    It is also important to keep in mind what NCLB requires and what falls to the discretion of the states. If you look at the actual legislation (, you’ll see that NCLB requires states to develop academic standards but it leaves it to the states to actually determine what it is that students should know and be able to do. Same with assessment. You might find it hard to believe, but NCLB doesn’t mandate standardized tests. It requires that states assess student proficiency and develop an accountability system using measures that are statistically valid and reliable. Hypothetically, this means states could use portfolios and essays to assess student quality. The challenge has been ensuring that those measures are valid and reliable.

    So states have the freedom to include writing in their lanuage arts standards and to assess writing as part of AYP. There’s even some interesting technology tools such as Vantage Learning and eRater which use artificial intelligence to grade student writing.

    You’ll find other documents throughout the Department’s website that talk about writing too. This letter for instance talks about states having the flexibility to include writing assessments as the other academic indicator for AYP.

  8. David,
    I have to echo Diane P., writing is a big part of the benchmark test in Arkansas. Our district has a K-12 literacy plan, literacy coaches in our building and we place a strong emphasis on literacy. I would say writing receives the most attention. We all agree that writing is harder to assess. Maybe they mandated the areas that could be automated and left up to the states the areas that would be more difficult to assess. This would give the states the discretion to determine the areas of assessment and funding that would be required for their own benchmark tests. It’s just a thought.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this one on a more personal level lately as I’ve watched my four-year-old daughter approach literacy through writing rather than reading. She’s been writing for almost a year already, but still shows little interest in reading for herself.

    I think the basic assumption is that the goal is literacy (combining those two Rs), and that if we can get everyone reading, the writing will follow. But it makes me wonder how many kids out there might be more interested in creating words right from the start rather than just taking them in.

  10. You hit an important point in why writing is not included in NCLB … testing it is difficult when you get to the stage where people will actually have to read the writing. This costs money – the government is doing a good job of funding the tests that run through the scanning machines. Imagine the financial disaster of having to provide money to pay people to read!

    There’s no doubt that writing is important … so are higher order thinking skills, but those aren’t required by NCLB either!

  11. David,

    As an Independant School teacher, let me tell you that writing in school is alive and well. At least in schools not run or overseen by the government.

    Benevolent? Maybe (but really more self-serving. Find me a politician that doesn’t think about the next election when pandering – I mean speaking on important topics). Incompetent, YOU BET! How many of the framers of the NCLB legislation (pause for violent shiver) actually know ANYTHING about education? You may be onto something with the “messy assessment” theory. You can’t write a multiple-choice writing test with straightforward metrics, therefore you can’t tie money to it.

    If we want to leave no child behind, we should leave the government out of it.

  12. The state of Tennessee uses writing assessment test in grades 5th, 8th, and 11th to measure writing skills. These tests require students to compose their writings in response to a prompt within a designated time allotment. Each year 5th grade students are asked to compose a narrative essay (story), 8th grade an expository essay (an explanation), and 11th grade are assigned to write a persuasive essay (an argument). The test are scored holistically. The writing samples are scored holistically on a scale from 1 through 6, with 6 being the highest. The data is then used as part of the school and school system’s plan for improvement. For further information regarding Tennessee’s Writing Assessment test I encourage you to visit – – , on the left hand side of the page you can view information regarding the test, information on each garde level that includes and scoring rubic, as well as sample questions.

  13. NCLB should have covered literacy skills. Reading and writing aren’t mutually exclusive – the learning of one is always impacted by the other. Too many kids are worried about too many tests when a good curriculum and a good teacher that encourages kids to be better readers and writers instead of better test takers would do the job.

  14. Perhaps this quote from Jacques Barzun is relevant: Everybody keeps calling for Excellence – excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: “Elitism!” And whatever produced that things, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. “Standing out” is undemocratic. This common response is a national choice, certified by a poll: we have a self-declared “Education president.” Good. But what happened soon after he took office? His populatiry rating went up when it was discovered that he was less than articulate on his feet. One commentator said in a resigned tone, “It’s not pretty but it works.” It works only because of our real attitude toward “excellence” – we won’t have it. (Barzun, 1992, University of Chicago Press, p 3)
    Written in 1992 he could not have been talking about the present Preznit. Which is a good thing, as clearly things have vastly improved in that area….

  15. I’ve enjoyed tracking this conversation, when I could. Many hours in airports lately either without WiFi or without an available power outlet.

    Adding to the states’ initiatives, my state, North Carolina, also has a state writing test. Writing is recognized as a basic skill by most people. However, many teachers in my state complain about the test because it places emphasis on form, where writings are assessed based on a common form and structure, making them easier/cheaper to assess. Teachers insist that this has little to do with good writing, and more to do with just following instructions.

    Diane mentions good curriculum and good teachers. The problem is that we have lost confidence in good teachers, replacing them with highly qualified teachers and higher test scores. When did education become such a bean-counter industry.

    I also agree with James Leesch as he asks how many of the framers of NCLB actually know anything about (modern) education. I see no more vision in the democratic rhetoric than in the republican. I think we simply need to rescue education away from the amateurs and put it back in the hands of the experts.

  16. I know it’s popular to find fault and Big Brother plots in everything, but there is another side to writing and the teaching of it that could have kept it from being included. In teaching writing, there are many, many errors that can occur very quickly, and it can be very disheartening to a student to be “graded down” for poor spelling, incorrect punctuation, and incoherent organization, in addition to inappropriate resources, failure to attribute ideas or to correctly cite them, and lack of a compelling style. Give that to a kid who just labored just to eke out two pages (increasing the line spacing and font size so that it would print out over two pages, rather than the page and a half it really was!), and you’ll crush his excitement about writing for life! But if it’s a mandate that you test and report on those things, you must.

    So, maybe it was left out to save the kids from undue stress while the Reading/Math/Science stuff gets worked out, and is intended to be added in later, along with the Public Speaking. Then, one day, they’ll think about adding Art and Music.

    :: sigh ::

    Baby steps.

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