Nebraska college professors think the state's K-12 schools are too simplistic in the way they teach writing.
By the time kids reach college, the professors say, students often can do a good job with a basic five-paragraph essay — a format that they've been drilled on for years.
But too often, the professors say, their college students can't write for multiple purposes and genres — skills that are essential for college and the workforce. Students with only simple writing skills wind up in remedial classes or can't get jobs after college.
“You have to get away from the five-paragraph essay. It's just way too basic,” said Kathleen Wilson, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Wilson is among the educators reviewing state standards at the request of the Nebraska Department of Education.
It's more than just a matter of faculty-lounge grousing. It's at the heart of what Nebraska will need to do if the state wants to be exempted from the tightening accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Although Nebraska has not requested a waiver, state officials have initiated conversations with federal officials on what would be required.
“We have pieces underway that have to happen before we'd even be considered for a waiver, and that's the accountability and the standards,” said Rachel Wise, State Board of Education president.
If the state does request a waiver, Nebraska university professors will need to sign off on standards. And before they give their endorsement, professors say they want the state to beef up its language arts standards so students are better prepared for college.
Pressure is mounting for Nebraska to pursue a waiver. This year, under No Child Left Behind, schools and districts must have 100 percent of students score proficient on state standards — an improbable goal. Districts that repeatedly miss targets face mounting consequences ultimately affecting the operation and funding of schools.
Forty-two states have obtained waivers. Iowa's request is under review by the U.S. Department of Education. Waivers don't completely relieve states from federal accountability. In exchange for a waiver, a state must adopt measures approved by the Obama administration to close achievement gaps and ensure that all students are on track to graduate college- and career-ready.
The higher education panel reviewing Nebraska's standards is calling for students to learn to write in different “registers” — various degrees of formality appropriate for a range of situations.
Registers are like the clothes that dress up our writing: Some situations call for a tuxedo, and other times it's OK to wear cutoffs. For instance, when writing a sympathy card, one wouldn't say, “Dude, sorry your old man kicked the bucket.”
“We have students who don't understand these registers exist,” said Tricia Parker-Siemers, language arts director for the Nebraska Department of Education.
Wilson said she has witnessed the misuse of register by her own undergraduate students in the UNL teachers college.
“When they first enter my methods class, on the first paper that they do, I'll get a register that is not what I expect to get and not how teachers necessarily would write and should write,” she said.
By the time students leave high school, she said, they need to know how to match the right register to a specific situation or they risk losing credibility, she said.
Students also should learn a slew of writing types: argumentative, persuasive, narrative, expository.
Postsecondary educators from all Nebraska universities, state colleges and community colleges are participating in the review. The department approved the standards in 2009 to guide instruction in the public schools.
If professors fail to endorse the standards, the state could adopt Common Core standards to satisfy federal waiver requirements. To date, however, state officials have maintained that adopting the Common Core is not a viable option.
Parker-Siemers said the Nebraska Department of Education doesn't want the standards to be a stumbling block if the board pursues a waiver.
The other looming requirement for a waiver is adoption of a system to hold schools accountable for student learning. Nebraska publicizes test scores and ranks districts, but it lacks a way to intervene in struggling schools. A bill under consideration by the Legislature would provide for intervention.
Department officials said they expect to have final editing of the revised language arts standards finished in March. At that point, postsecondary educators will have another chance to review and sign off on them before the state board considers adoption in April.
Wilson said representatives of higher education institutions have met several times with state officials to examine the standards.
Some standards are a little outdated, some are redundant and some need beefing up, she said.
The reviewers have spent time clarifying the standards, including adding a glossary to define words so there's less room for misinterpretation, she said.
The reviewers want teachers to integrate technology into language arts but to do it in a way that's useful.
Nebraska's K-12 educators are also reviewing the standards. Among their concerns are that schools need to give students more opportunities for writing, teach the difference between editing and revision, and expect students to back up their arguments with evidence drawn from texts.
A similar review process is underway for the state's math standards, putting an additional hurdle in the way of a waiver.