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OP-ED | Writing And Critical Thinking Are More Important

by Sarah Darer Littman | Mar 8, 2012 9:37pm
(4) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

Wearing my “author hat” this week, I Skyped into high school classrooms in upstate New York, central Pennsylvania, and southeastern Indiana to highlight the importance of reading and writing as part of World Read Aloud Day. What I always emphasize to kids when visiting schools, either virtually or in person, is that being able to communicate effectively in writing is an essential skill no matter what field they eventually pursue. When I worked on Wall Street, every performance review mentioned my well-written reports.

In my “live” presentations I show them the results of a National Commission on Writing study,  Writing: A Ticket To Work . . . Or A Ticket Out,  which surveyed 120 major American corporations associated with the Business Roundtable. As then-chairman of the National Commission on Writing, former Sen. Bob Kerrey summed it up: “People unable to express themselves clearly in writing limit their opportunities for professional, salaried employment.”

Half of the responding companies reported that they take writing into consideration when hiring professional employees and when making promotion decisions. “In most cases, writing ability could be your ticket in . . . or it could be your ticket out,” said one respondent.

I thought about this Wednesday night over dinner when my daughter and I discussed the CAPT Response to Literature test she had taken that day.

As any public school parent or teacher knows, starting in February, or even earlier, effective learning slows as test prep starts revving up for March Madness. I’ve already written about why our kids and teachers are more than the sum of their test scores, and there is plenty of research to back me up. But what got me even more furious this time was that my daughter’s principal visited the kids before testing started to tell them that they needed to do their best because CAPT scores go on their transcripts and “colleges look at them.”


I called the admissions offices of several Connecticut colleges and threw in a random, out-of-state Ivy League school that happens to be the alma mater of two of my nearest and dearest, the University of Pennsylvania. None take CAPT or any other state-mandated tests into account when making admission decisions. The admission officer at the University of Pennsylvania said they “take a holistic approach. We do look at SAT’s, SAT II’s, AP’s and ACT scores, but we also at look at essays, extracurricular activities, and community service. We understand that some students have strengths in the area that they want to study.”

So we’re reduced to telling fibs to already stressed-out kids in order to benefit whom, exactly? I’ll tell you one thing – it’s not the kids.

But as someone who champions the importance of critical thinking and good writing in schools, what upset me most was how my daughter spoke of having a completely different style of writing for taking the CAPT test than she does for her Honors English class. Writing for the test requires her to “think with a different set of rules” so that she can “satisfy the CAPT graders and get a six.” Instead of “analyzing things in depth, you have to prove that you know everything. Our teachers tell us to throw in literary terms like ‘motif’ and ‘theme,’ so that they know you know them but you don’t have the time or the space to actually give examples of what they are.”

In a wonderful piece on the New York Times’ SchoolBook blog, professors Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols wrote about how they learned a lesson on teaching to the test from reading E.B. White’s “The Trumpet of the Swan” to their kids. White, the author of some of our best-loved children’s classics and co-author of one of the best writing manuals of all time, The Elements of Style, wrote:

Snug, greeted Sam with a question.
“Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?”
“It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,” replied Sam.
The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.
“Sam is quite right,” she said. “I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel quite so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.”
Albert Bigelow raised his hand. “My father knew a man who tried to walk twelve miles, and he died of heart failure,” said Albert.
“Goodness!” said the teacher. “I suppose that could happen too.”
“Anything can happen in four hours,” said Sam. “A man might develop a blister on his heel. Or he might find some berries growing along the road and stop to pick them. That would slow him up even if he wasn’t tired or didn’t have a blister.”
“It would indeed,” agreed the teacher. “Well, children, I think we have all learned a great deal about arithmetic this morning, thanks to Sam Beaver. And now here’s a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?”
Linda Staples raised her hand.
“About fifteen ounces,” she said.
“Why is that?” asked Miss Snug. “Why wouldn’t the baby drink sixteen ounces?”
“Because he spills a little each time,” said Linda. “It runs out of the corners of his mouth and gets on his mother’s apron.”
By this time the class was howling so loudly the arithmetic lesson had to be abandoned. But everyone had learned how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.

Stone and Nichols imagine the same lesson in a classroom with a standardized test in the offing. “Would (Miss Snug) not have had to interrupt the children’s speculations and instructed them that actual circumstances in word problems must be completely disregarded, because the point is to arrive at the answer the test designers have in mind? … Real life, and real thought, are too complicated to be foreseen – and so need to be put aside at testing time.”

Is it any surprise that college professors complain that freshmen arrive without the necessary critical thinking and writing skills? Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stated that he was driven to push education reform because employers complained they couldn’t find qualified employees, but we’re testing the critical thinking skills out of them. President Obama wants us to “stop teaching to the test” yet the policies espoused by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Race to the Top require that we do so. I urge members of the state legislature not to buy into SB24 until they have listened to a wide range of views on what is best for our kids. Ask the governor to produce research proving that his proposed policies will work best. I have asked, and haven’t received any, while I’ve researched and provided numerous studies that show the flaws.

After all, doesn’t the governor say that we should be judging based on data? 

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(4) Comments

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | March 10, 2012  10:48am


Writing is an issue by itself. Students are largely left on their own. Sure, I’d mandate 4 years worth: sentence construction, non-fiction, creative, and technical.

Critical thinking is easier to test. The bigger problem is values and ethics and elements of bias in grading.

As you know some high schools require a capstone project with portfolio that should include all the bullet list items. Many colleges require a similar capstone portfolio after a Senior internship or student teaching and similar.

In general these portfolios should include non-fiction writing, technical writing and some elements of creative writing. Proposals, post-mortems, critical analysis and suggestions for reform or improvement.

Most textbook publishers offer materials to integrate projects and critical case studies into the curriculum but then there’s costs. 

Even dry subjects like accounting have critical materials available: age approproate FASB discussions, case studies,  and project work (a corporate accounting computing job simulation with various department roles (team rotations between payroll, A/R, A/P) etc.

But they cost money!

Then there’s time and money to properly integrate critical thinking and writing in schools that are much more challenged.

Sure there are ways to do it on a budget.

Do you really want math teachers grading essays? That’s a political issue in itself as in “I’m not going to grade their writing and spelling. What I want to do is throw it at Mrs XXXX and tell her to teach her kids what they need to know. This stuff is unreadable gibberish!”)

(and I agree over-testing is a waste. Testing has its place.)

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | March 10, 2012  2:54pm


Here’s a common scenario in in Math, Science, Accounting or Computer Science classes.

Mixed Junior and Seniors in an Honors or AP class.  Many non-native kids—Asian, Eastern Europeans, and Hispanic. They are diligent and among the easiest classes to teach.

Then you give them some case studies and critical writing to do at the end of a unit. Ruh-ro. Numbers are the universal language. Written English isn’t. And sometimes written English can be really, really bad when its the second or third language. 

What to do?  You can’t kill their Freshman English teacher. You gotta be collegial. You can’t fail them. The kiddos understand the core material and do understand the critical elements of a case study.

A small group PowerPoint solution next time because the written thing is a ‘no go’  and keeping things to simple terse, business-like sentences is almost OK. Acceptable even.

That’s reality. You can get the English Teacher involved in a cross discipline assignment but that has its limits too. Gotta be collegial.

When it’s all said and done these aren’t the ‘reform school’ kids anyway.

That’s the sadness: the teachers union insists on a one-size-fits-all contract and tenure and closed shop system so now the state is pushing back with their own one-size-fits-all solutions.

The real goal is to target failing schools. That the state has a problem decertifying the union in failing school is a travesty. It should be automatic. If a Charter or Magnet fall below a certain standard they lose their Charter. Public schools should face the same stricture. Automatic decertification.

posted by: Reasonable | March 11, 2012  12:24pm

Sarah:  Thank you for your well written, intelligent thoughts. However, Gov. Malloy does not always make his decisions based on data, “but by trying to be politically correct.”

posted by: brutus2011 | March 13, 2012  2:14pm


Thanks, Ms. Littman for another insightful article.

And thanks, “GoatBoyPHD” for your posts.

All I can say as a teacher is that I hope that more and people like yourselves join the conversation about our schools.

What really goes on in our schools and in our school district’s decision rooms needs to come out into the light and be revealed to all.