by Connor Buckmaster
For decades now, the study and practice of writing has been on a revolutionary roller coaster. Leaps in pedagogy surrounding college composition classes, translanguaging, and collaborative learning have changed the way college students today learn and produce writing. At the same time, the (dated) values of Standard American English, the five paragraph essay, and the thesis statement are still upheld in many pockets of American public schools. We wonder why Americans struggle to write, and there seems to be a host of answers: an inability to construct sentences, a fundamentally bad approach in teaching how to read, and a school culture which rewards surface learning and quick responses, viewing texts as inert information rather than an argument. The more and more we look, America seems to be in a literacy crisis.
Public and private education have taken major steps to elevate this supposed “crisis.” College composition courses were originally designed to fill literacy gaps for incoming freshmen. College students often take one to two semesters of this required writing class, the goal being to improve their writing and reading skills. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for primary and secondary school students prepare them for further education and writing in the world. It’s clear that there is a large emphasis on the importance of writing across all levels of education, yet our expectations are continuously not met. Why?
We’re going about this all wrong. The old argument of more funding and a robust pedagogy has some weight in truth, but these repeated arguments have lost their meaning, and are, at best, bandaids over a very old wound.
The fundamental problem with America's reading and writing skills are not due to underdeveloped standards or a poor education system, and it’s certainly not right to blame teachers (they do so much for our future!). The problem resides deeper, not in our education, but in our culture. The foundational beliefs of writing and reading, upon which our education systems are built, are flawed, unstable, and outdated. The American ideology on what writing is, and why it should be valued, needs to change if anything is going to improve.
The standards in our current public education system reveal this ideology: we value the outcomes of writing. Write an argumentative essay with supportive evidence; determine the theme or central idea of a text; compare and contrast the structure of two texts. Yet how to achieve these outcomes—and more importantly, why students should strive to achieve them—is left unsaid. The CCSS isn’t shy about this: a “Key Design Consideration” for the English Language Arts Standards was “A focus on results rather than means.” In other words, achievements are what is important, not how one gets there.
This is wrong. The means to learning, growing, and achieving are just as—if not more—important than the outcomes themselves.
The CCSS claims that the emphasis on outcomes is in the best interest of teachers. Teachers are free to “provide students with whatever tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as most helpful for meeting the goals.” Yet in practice, this methodology leaves teachers stranded as to why these expectations exist in the first place. The CCSS isn’t shy about this either. They state: “The Standards define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”
Meanwhile, students are stuck in a system focused on outcomes, on achievements. Unsurprisingly, students develop a characteristically American outcome mindset. Achievements and success are placed above the means needed to reach them. In effect, students dwell within a system which emphasizes achievements yet lacks the mechanisms to support their growth.
Left unsupported, our education system is a paddleless boat in a sea of expectations, drifting on the waves of American history that swell from below. Without a robust, twenty-first century approach to the “hows” and “whys,” our education system supports the historic, discriminative values embedded in our culture. Language is an example of this.
We cannot deny whitewashing is present within American Language Arts classrooms. And yes, support for English Language Learners (ELLs) has grown over the years. Even still, both culturally and in public education, the default language is still Standard American English (SAE). Which is sadly ironic in a country with no official language. The CCSS dodges any responsibility in teaching within a diversity of languages. Instead, it perpetuates SAE as the standard:
“It [is] beyond the scope of the Standards to define the full range of supports appropriate for English language learners and for students with special needs. At the same time, all students must have the opportunity to learn and meet the same high standards if they are to access the knowledge and skills necessary in their post–high school lives. Each grade will include students who are still acquiring English. For those students, it is possible to meet the standards in reading, writing, speaking, and listening without displaying native-like control of conventions and vocabulary.”
This is left up to states, who each approach these challenges wildly differently. Yet the CCSS is clear in where its values lie: all students must learn the standards of American English to succeed.
Clearly, there is no room for writers and readers of different languages within our system. But this isn’t just an educational phenomenon—America at large values Standard American English: you “should” learn and speak English if you immigrate to this country; Black English Vernacular is “unintelligent” and “poor grammar;” this is America “and you should speak American.”
Consistently throughout the history of schooling and culture in America, English has gotten the gold star, leaving the voices and languages of others unsupported and unseen. Not only does our culture need to adopt new values of writing and reading—ones which value process over product—but we must also simultaneously work to value the diverse languages students use to read and write. Because left unchecked, we have resigned ourselves to stifling the voices and languages of the next generation to perpetuate a standard of oppression.
If you’re overwhelmed by the necessary structural reforms of American education and culture, that’s okay—you should be. We must first accept this discomfort: there will always be a literacy “crisis” in America. All writing begins with a need to respond to exigence: a state of urgent need or difficulty. On the grand scale of American culture, the multitude of exigences which call writers to respond are exceedingly complex and ever-changing. Simply put, writers respond to the world, and the world is always changing.
We must see our discomfort with these challenges as an opportunity to transform our cultural and educational beliefs, to revolutionize what writing is, the many ways it can be done, and our values attached to it. We must recognize our emphasis on outcomes is holding us back, and our complicity with cultural norms is a detriment to us all. To break these bonds, we must accept that there will always be work to do, and in the face of that summitless mountain, climb up anyway.