Academic journal article High School Journal

A Conflict Revisited

Academic journal article High School Journal

A Conflict Revisited

Article excerpt

The demand that public school students, especially at the high school level, write under time pressure has been the subject of debate for at least the last seventy-five years. As state after state has added a timed writing component to its testing apparatus in recent years, the debate has intensified. Those teachers who are alumni of the National Writing Project (NWP) continue to voice their belief that students internalize the Writing Process, an approach largely free from rigid time constraints. Proponents of featuring timed writing activity, however, continue to support the belief that such instructional demands will assist young people in coping with a variety of challenges in the real, i.e., adult world. The writer of this essay has attempted to present both sides of the argument.


A while ago, in the leisure of my retirement, I was Watching the C-Span presentation of a meeting of the House Committee on Oversight of Government Reform chaired by that persistent watchdog, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) The witnesses that day were five top executives of Lehman Brothers, invited to explain why their large, prestigious financial enterprise had gone in the tank. Rep. Waxman asked each of these gentlemen to make an opening statement, advising them that their statements should be no more than five minutes long. At the four-minute mark, the chairman explained, a green advisory light would go on; at five minutes, a yellow one signaling that their time was up. As each of these tense individuals made his statement, an old issue popped into my mind: should we teach kids to write under time pressure? If so, why?

From the time I began pursuit of a graduate degree in English Education, some 52 years ago, one of the more significant questions posed to us was: can we justify the concepts, data, and processes we introduce in the English classroom as having value for their later lives? The ability to write with clarity, concision, and conviction was a no-brainer, but the role of writing under time pressure is a question that has demanded intense scrutiny from many English educators, myself included. Put more directly, does the ability to perform well on an in-class essay exam, on topics assigned unexpectedly at the outset Of the period, provide useful training for students in their adult lives?

As noted earlier, the debate of this issue goes back at least to the 1930's when the Deweyan and William Jamesian theories of pragmatism were argued among educators. In public school English teaching, the Wilbur W. Hatfield text, An Experience Curriculum in English, published in 1935, raised arguments both pro and con about the merits of required writing under pressure (Hatfield, 1935).

With the movement toward a more academically-oriented English curriculum, begun in the Council for Basic Education days of the late 1940's and catalyzed by the Federal Support for Education era, circa 1958-70, the question of timed writing virtually disappeared from the professional literature on rhetorical pedagogy. If professors of English, particularly those teaching in prestigious institutions, gave essay exams and valued their results, then that must be in the words of Martha Stewart, "a good thing." A question, however, not being faced in those days of scholarly bent was, are we teaching writing--or merely testing it with our tried and true, largely literature based, approaches?

That question was placed in sharp focus in the cover essay of the December 8, 1975 Newsweek issue, "Why Johnny Can't Write" (Sheils, 1975). Just what we were doing in the name of writing improvement-and why those approaches were not very effective-formed the thesis of that lengthy article. Claims of instructional inadequacy were supported by data from the first set of tests created by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and sponsored by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) as well as a body of evidence provided by the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) staff of the Educational Testing Service (ETS). …

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