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Extra Credit--Homeschooling means more writing

[Here is one of our occasional letters from readers and responses from me.]
Dear Extra Credit:

I read your column religiously and have noticed that you have sometimes asked to hear from homeschoolers. After reading your column this morning on the demise of research papers in high schools, I decided to make the leap. See, this is one of the main reasons I am homeschooling (for the first time this year) my two middle-school aged children.

Since graduating from college 20 years ago with an English literature degree, I have worked in a field that requires a lot of writing. Over the years, I have noticed that new-hires--even those with degrees from prestigious universities--are coming into the workplace unable to write a coherent, grammatically correct paragraph; forget about making a reasoned argument in writing. My children's teachers, while quite good at some things, were not particularly skilled in teaching research and writing skills, which I think are essential to critical thinking, making persuasive arguments, and evaluating the arguments of others.

We are homeschooling this year, and early on, my 13-year-old son said, "You know, you're making us do a lot more writing than I'm used to." (This said, of course, as if I hadn't realized it and would give them some relief. Ha!) He has since dropped his objection and has started to make some progress on short writing assignments, which is how I'm starting out. My daughter, who is 11, embraced my writing requirements and is currently working on a 10,000 word novella for a writing contest (her idea, not mine). If your article today is correct, at completion, she will have done a more intensive writing project than most college freshmen.

I think your suggestion that some of the history requirements be junked in favor of a long research paper is a good one as far as it goes. The problem is that you can't wait until late in high school, drop a long research paper into kids laps when they haven't been expected to do much research or writing before, and expect anything other than frustration on both sides. I know punctuation and grammar are tedious. I know letting kids go in a library (on a regular basis) with a list of questions and instructions to find the answers using any reference media EXCEPT Wikipedia is time consuming. I know logic, per se, is not on the SOLs. You won't learn how to be a decent communicator (or thinker) in any other fashion, however.

Writing is, of course, not the only reason we are homeschooling this year. We may only do so for one year; we're reserving judgment on the success of this experiment. I just thought that you might want to know, anecdotally, how one trend you've noticed (homeschooling) has converged with another trend you've noticed (the demise of research and writing projects).

Kathy Rondon
Falls Church,

I applaud your bravery and resourcefulness. Let me know how this works out. Comments by readers have led me to change my mind slightly on the solution. I no longer was to cut out some of the history content and spend a month there working on a long research paper. I think it would be better to carve this time out of the 12th grade English class that everyone has to take. Maybe they can have you come in and advise a couple of classes on how to do that.

For more on Education, please see

By Jay Mathews  | November 24, 2009; 5:49 AM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Kathy Rondon, home schooling, student research, term papers  
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This “Class Struggle” entry is inspiring to those of us ‘Generation X-types’, now parents who seek to homeschool our children. Many of us either desire to right the wrongs of our educational experience or feel that schools, including privates, have slipped significantly in their college preparation. A large number of thirty-something parents are trying new and innovative means to either supplement or fully replace conventional education for our kids.

I suppose my wife (DVM) and I (PhD) are progressive in that we value education so highly that we may not trust established institutions to educate our son, now two. We also seek a secular home education because we feel that teachers are caught in the middle of a morality battle, part of the Culture Wars, where the psychological casualties are the children of the American classroom. (For more related issues, I highly recommend the quarterly, Secular Homeschooling).

As a professor I cannot stress enough the necessity of effective writing skills for entering students. I was a gifted student but extremely poor writer who did not address my deficiency until forced in the process of writing a dissertation – Thanks Fairfax County Public Schools! Now I spend a large amount of time with students, especially in this thirteenth week of the semester, helping them with term-paper writing. It’s only now that I see the product of college writing preparation supposedly taught in our schools. And, I don’t expect the American secondary school system changing much in the next 15 years. Sorry, I do not believe that such highly regulated, bureaucratic institutions can make positive, necessary change within a generation.

I am cynical for good reason. I have heard too many horror stories and read so many of Jay’s columns detailing the chronic problems in the high schools. It will take a lot of selling to get me to subject my son to such a system. My wife and I would rather loose tens of thousands of dollars in lost potential income homeschooling than force him into a situation that we would not place ourselves. It is thus our responsibility to fix the problem ourselves.

Posted by: professor70 | November 24, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I would like to add that I am by no means anywhere near the level of writer I would like to be. Note the extra "ourselves" in the last sentence. Ah, another funny anomaly in our pythonesque reality, or as the afroed artiste Bob Ross used to softly say, "happy little accidents".

Posted by: professor70 | November 24, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

As an English teacher I've always wished I had the class size ratio of parents that homeschool: one-to-one, or perhaps two-to-one. My current ratio is 154:1. This greatly reduces the number of papers I can assign, the depth of my responses, and the number of drafts I can assign.

To put this into perspective: if I assign one paper a month, and require students to do two drafts, and spend just ten minutes on each draft, I will spend over 50 hours of time outside of class grading one assignment. Of course, ten minutes isn't much time to spend writing comments on a draft, nor does it allow me to conference with students, let alone individually tailor assignments to a student's strengths, weaknesses, or interests.

Given all this, it's always a wonder to me that homeschooled students don't significantly outscore those in public education.

Posted by: Busboom | November 24, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

As a high school English teacher with 20+ years of experience (and having taught, among other things, 12th grade English for every year of my career), I am sympathetic to the concern about declining writing skills.

I also empathize with Busboom's observation about the incredible amount of time it takes to evaluate writing assignments. While my student-me ratio isn't quite as extreme as Busboom's, this year I have 109 students, all of whom take a high-stakes writing test. (My senior AP Lit and Comp students write for the AP English test, and my standard and honors sophomores have to take my state's writing test--which is used as an indicator for AYP in the No Child Left Behind evaluation.)

Any good writing teacher knows that the most effective way of teaching writing is by holding one-on-one writing conferences with students. We also understand that we must teach writing as "process"--i.e., we need to have students do prewriting, and produce multiple drafts, before submitting the final paper. And ideally, they should be getting feedback at every stage of the process.

Practically, though, it just isn't possible. And that's one of my objectons to Mr. Mathews' suggestion that the long paper be assigned in the 12th grade English class.

Another reason is the danger of identifying successful writing exclusively with the English curriculum--a common situation in public education. The problem with poor writing skills is not limited to the English curriculum; it also affects the social studies and science curricula--and I would argue that good writing is important in the arts department as well.

My school system has for more than ten years has had as a graduation requirement the kind of comprehensive research project that Mr. Mathews advocates. Despite my persistent (and obnoxious) efforts to the contrary, this requirement has stayed parked in the 12th grade English class--including the 12th grade AP English class. That means that in addition to teaching AP Literature and Composition, I've had to shepherd my students through a long extracurricular writing assignment in my AP class.

It's an unfunded mandate--unfunded with the requisite time to do it properly.

I believe that students would be better served if there were a cross-curricular focus on research writing, beginning in maybe the 6th or 7th grade. Students would also benefit from a specific course or two in grammar. (Most of my students don't have a clue what a gerund is, or an antecedent.)

As Busboom suggests, the English teacher alone cannot take on this responsibility unless we are given the requisite time to do it.

Posted by: ashevilleshep | November 24, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

In the 60s, I did a major research paper in both junior and senior (HS) English. Other than a brief outline, the teacher received nothing except the final paper. This was also true for the history papers my brother assigned to his students. Of course, in both situations, the assignment had been preceeded by 10 years of grammer, composition and research assignments. Done that way, it wasn't a big deal. BTW, the schools in question were small and rural, not affluent ones in the leafy suburbs.

Posted by: momof4md | November 25, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

More writing isn't better. What works best is having better writing practices in school.

Posted by: ericpollock | November 25, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I am happy to see that several educators here have responded with immediate references to teacher: student ratios. Good writing is a skill that is developed. That skill takes a lot of direct instruction and feedback to develop. Ratios of 150+:1 are not going to lead to good writing development. I would strongly discourage homeschooling as an intelligent alternative. As a high school teacher I frequently have students enter my classroom fresh from a homeschooling experience I would offer the following general observations of home school students:
1) They lack a good numbers of skills related to socialization with their peers.
2) They struggle with personal responsibility in relation to regular attendance, submission of assignments without prompting, and initiating conservations with teachers to follow up on all manner of topics.

Posted by: Mostel26 | November 27, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

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