Commentary: Essay day is a way to really measure schools' progress | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: Essay day is a way to really measure schools' progress

May 29, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2008 - How about this for our schools? One day each year every high school senior in the state should sit down for an hour and write a two or three page essay.

Then, that very day, each school should put each essay on the internet.

The essays might be the students' responses to provocative sentences. For example, one year let them choose one from among the following:

  • America should not drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas.
  • The Cardinals need patient hitters both ahead of and behind Albert Pujols.
  • A person should spend a little time each day in pursuit of leisure.
  • The school lunch program should have additional funding, and students should not be required to clear their own trays.
  • A young person should stand up when an adult comes to the table.
  • The Iraq war seemed like a good idea at the time but it just didn't work out.
  • I would rather make a piece of furniture than write an essay.

You get the idea.

Putting these essays on the internet might be transforming. How would you like to be an administrator in a school in which the students have no ability to write and that ineptitude is on the web for all of the world to see? Imagine the feelings of those who run our high-dollar private schools?

Suppose an allegedly educated student were to prove himself unable to properly distinguish between "their" and "there." Or suppose a student were to write "could of" instead of "could have." And what about those run-on sentences? If the essays are weak, how will our educational establishment explain what they have been doing?

Perhaps the day the students are to write the essays should be a surprise. Life occasionally presents us with urgent situations, and springing "essay day" would be a nice "real world" example of that.

How will the students react? No doubt they will (a) complain that the whole idea is unfair, (b) assert that the pressure is too great, (c) claim that their victimization makes them unable to handle writing under pressure, and (d) challenge the idea that writing is meaningful in a video game world anyway. But after their pleading and cajoling have died down, they just might start working on their writing. (The essays would be published without the students' names, of course.)

Parents considering moving between school districts would take a cold hard look at these essays. Places with good essays would be flooded with students. Places with bad essays would be in trouble. Private-school parents would either gloat or be furious.

It is fun to think about faculty members giving final instructions to the students: "Don't write in 'text message speak." "Think first, then write." "Above all, DON'T MAKE ME LOOK BAD!!!"

Imagine a local school board luminary, or private school trustee, standing calmly in line at a grocery store. Here comes a parent: "I saw those crummy essays. Those kids are completely illiterate. They can't put two thoughts together in a row. What is going on at that school? What are you going to do about it?"

Such interactions might lead the bosses to take action.

I envision no commentary or grades on the essays. The writing will speak for itself. The media will have a field day.

Maybe if a few schools start doing this the parents at others schools would pressure their administrators to join in.

The ability to write a coherent essay is surely one of the most critical things to learn in school. This proposal will put that skill under the glare of the spotlight - right where it should be.