The Decline and Fall of Student Writing

by Robert Pondiscio
February 18th, 2010

Writing aids such as spellcheck may mean fewer technical errors in student work than a generation ago, but English professor Joel Shatzky’s comparison of student work from earlier decades leads him to the conclusion that the quality of student writing has declined markedly.  In a piece on Huffington Post, Shatzky cites samples of 9th grade writing from the 1950s and 1960s:

Color is rampant and the woodlands and countryside are ablaze with every hue of the spectrum; lemon yellow, bright saffron, tawny orange, lively russet, flaming scarlet, brilliant magenta, deep crimson, and rich purple… With such a prelude it is no wonder that the contrast of the weird subterranean world of the Caverns strikes one with tremendous impact. . . . Instead of the sparkling sunlight there is a Stygian darkness pierced by colored lights.” — Ninth grader, Crestonian, Creston JHS,1957 (SP class)

The drab clothing and scenery helped to set an unpleasant, solemn atmosphere and helped to annoy the captive audience a little bit more. Annoying the audience was probably what made this such a compelling moment in theater. With the lights, the sharp, harsh pounding of the gavel, and the drab atmosphere I began to realize I wasn’t being entertained and I wasn’t having a happy time of it, but rather I was being told the truth, the cold, blunt, horrifying truth.”– Review of “The Investigation,” Ninth grader, Inwood Chatter, Inwood JHS, 1967

Shatzky concedes the pieces he cite were probably edited, however they were written by public school children from average public school in New York City fifty years ago.  “Can we say that this is typical of the kind of writing students, even in the more ‘specialized’ high schools, do today?” he asks.   Shatzky notes there is no definitive study that firmly establishes a decline in the quality of student writing, however there is “increasing evidence” that vocabularies and ability to comprehend college-level texts are declining.

“Educational quality in a healthy democracy is not something that can be taken for granted, even among students who are fortunate enough to be in a “good” school whether measured by standardized tests, graduation rates, or even the rankings of the colleges such students attend,” Shatzky concludes. ”If you have doubts that the ‘dumbing down’ of America is a serious problem, just compare the writing I’ve cited from fifty years ago of public junior high school students with those today.”

Shatzky connects good writing with good reading, and cites writing guru Nancie Atwell’s recent Education Week essay which notes “our 13-year-olds aren’t reading well because they’re not reading enough.”  However (advocates for a “print rich” environment take note) an exhaustive recent study from UC San Diego found we’re actually consuming more text now than ever before.  Thus the issue is not whether kids are reading.  The problem is that the depth, complexity and vocabulary of what they’re reading is not particularly good or challenging.  

Shatzky doesn’t say so, but I have to believe that a process-heavy approach to teaching writing and de-emphasizing academic content in the elementary and middle school may also be a factor here.  Will Fitzhugh of the Concord Review has long lamented how nonfiction reading and research papers have become endangered species.  Writing personal reflections about one’s own life and experience may engage students, but a steady diet of it surely doesn’t help develop the kind of mature, capable writers Shatzky sees disappearing from college campuses.