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Teaching elementary and secondary students how to write well is challenging. Many students don’t understand the core principles behind writing, including the basics of sentence and paragraph structure, a logical progression of ideas, and reader awareness. Others don’t have the technical skills of writing, including grammar and punctuation. However, with consistent, year-by-year, engaging instruction by committed teachers who understand not only the value but also the principles and skills of good writing, students can learn to write well.

 

If students don’t learn to write well, I blame the teachers. Not the television, not the parents, not the peers, not the music—the teachers because they are specifically charged with teaching and are held accountable for student learning. In this day and age of education accountability, teachers are held to a high standard for student learning by local and state education leaders. In part, they are measured, assessed, and evaluated based on whether or not their students learn to write.

 

But here’s the rub. If education leaders are not able to write well, do they have the moral authority to hold teachers accountable for the students’ writing abilities? Furthermore, do they have the ability to determine whether or not students write well if they, themselves, cannot demonstrate good writing?

 

Egregious Example

 

I spend quite a bit of time on websites for state education agencies, and once in a while, I come across a document that demonstrates how education leaders struggle with writing. Recently, I was reviewing a School Improvement Grant (SIG) request for proposals. The purpose of the SIG is to transform so-called “failing” schools so that students can improve their academic performance. The people who wrote the request for proposal, and whoever reviewed it before distribution, do not write well. Even while telling school leaders what to do to improve student achievement, they demonstrated their own lack of ability.

 

Example 1

“LEA must implement each of the following strategies by:

  • Replacing the principal (if the principal has been at the school less than two years, the LEA can choose not to replace them).”

 

Problems with writing skills

 1) “Them” is a plural pronoun referring to more than one person; its antecedent is “the principal,” which is singular. (According to the Common Core State Standards, third grade students are expected to master the ability to “Ensure subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement.”)

2) The colon after “by” is incorrect because the prior statement is not an independent clause. If this statement were written out (i.e., not in a bulleted list), it would not need a colon.

 

Problems with writing principles

1) The writing style is inconsistent. The following text occurs later on the same page: “the LEA can choose not to replace him /her.” This statement is grammatically correct (even though I don’t like the “him/her” construction).

2) The statement doesn’t make sense! The example shows the first of many actions in a bulleted list. The applicant is instructed to “implement each of the following strategies by” doing the following actions. According to the example, therefore, the applicant must implement each strategy by replacing the principal (e.g., to do strategy one, replace the principal; to do strategy two, replace the principal; etc.) This is wrong. Replacing the principal is the required strategy, not a way to implement the strategy. To fix this logic problem, the writer could remove “by,” and the statement will communicate the intended message. (According to the Common Core State Standards, fourth grade students are expected to master the ability to “Choose words and phrases to convey ideas precisely.”)

 

Example 2

“Implementing comprehensive instructional reform strategies that includes -

  • Using data to identify and implement research-based instructional programs that are aligned with state academic standards and vertically aligned between grades.
  • Promoting continuous use of individualized student data to inform and differentiate instruction to better meet the individual academic needs of students.
  • Promoting continuous use of individualized student data to inform and differentiate instruction to better meet the individual academic needs of students.”

 

Problems with writing skills

1) “Strategies that includes” is wrong. “Strategies” is not a third person singular noun, so the verb “includes” should not have an “s.” As mentioned previously, third grade students are expected to use verbs that agree with their subjects.

2) Similar to the prior example, the introductory statement for the bulleted list should not have a hyphen to introduce the list.

3) The first two listed items should not end with periods but with commas (or, perhaps, semi-colons). This bulleted list starts with a partial sentence, but where does that sentence end?

 

Problem with writing principles

The third bullet repeats the second bullet. That’s simply sloppy. Grade 7 students are expected to “Choose language that expresses ideas precisely and concisely, recognizing and eliminating wordiness and redundancy.” Repeating the exact words is the worst form of redundancy.

 

Example 3

“For each major activity, identify the line item costs associated and provide an explanation/justification for the cost that closely connects to the project action step, strategy identified. This will be completed in an excel spreadsheet and uploaded to the Web EPPS filing cabinet.”

 

Problem with writing skills

1) “Excel” is a proper noun and should be capitalized. Even second grade students are expected to “Capitalize holidays, product names, and geographic names.”

 

Problem with writing principles

1) The first sentence is not clear: what does “strategy identified” refer to? If the prior comma is replaced with “and,” this statement might make more sense, as in “connects to the project action step and strategy identified.”

2) In fact, the entire first sentence is unclear. The expression “that closely connects to the project action step, strategy identified” could refer to either the costs or to the justification.

 

Conclusion

 

I will make a huge assumption here and assume that these errors and problems are the result of someone being rushed for time and not editing. But that is an unprofessional (and risky) approach, particularly when the document is critical. Particularly when the publishing agency publishing has regulatory authority such that the documents have legally enforceable implications.

Particularly when the publishing agency is a state-level education organization.

Most likely, though, some problems are mistakes, and others are faults. Mistakes and faults are different. If you know how to do something correctly, but you accidentally do it wrong, you have made a mistake. I do this. Everyone does this. I try to minimize mistakes, but mistakes happen.

Faults, on the other hand, are more fundamental. Faults occur when you don’t know the right way to do something: when you don’t know better and you think you are correct. Skills may be faulty, such as when you don’t know a rule or you use an incorrect rule for commas.

Principles, too, may be faulty. For example, confusing document length with quality demonstrates a faulty principle. Skipping the document editing stage demonstrates a faulty principle. Choosing the wrong level of formality indicates faulty principles. Certainly, problems with logic, such that the text doesn’t make sense or communicates an unintended message, are faults.

I expect better from education leaders. Before they point out the splinters in teachers’ eyes, they should make sure no logs are in their own.

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