Poor Writing Costs Taxpayers Millions

According to a July 4 AP article, “states spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing probably hurt taxpayers even more.”

Writing is an essential skill for just about any job in today’s market. “‘You have to be able to write, convert an idea and turn it into words,’ said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, who is chairman of the [National Commission on Writing].”

Some figures:

  • Two-thirds of companies surveyed in the commission’s 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • 100 percent of the 49 state governments who responded to the survey said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • More than 75 percent of those state governments said they take writing skills into account when hiring.
  • 70 percent of state managers said large majorities of their professional employees had adequate skills.
  • Only one-third said clerical and support staff had adequate skills.
  • The report estimates the states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training.

In public office, “I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible,” Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak. “It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration,” Kerrey said.

Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee added, “there are some really bright people who can’t communicate and as a result their ideas probably aren’t given the attention they deserve.”

The College Board believes the addition of the writing component on the SAT will help. “Critics, however, say the essay is formulaic, coachable, and a poor way to test the kind of writing skills students need in college.”

Frankly, the critics are right. For one thing, students only have 25 minutes to complete all steps of the essay, which discourages students from editing and proofreading. They don’t have time. The topics are, well, lame.

One idea… reduce English class sizes so teachers have time to give writing instruction its due. Writing takes a long time to grade properly, and teachers with three or four preps, five classes of 30 or so students each, and all their other teaching duties and responsibilities don’t have time to give writing evaluation justice.

Read the commission’s report (PDF).

One thought on “Poor Writing Costs Taxpayers Millions”

  1. Dana, how much of this problem do you see as being pedagogical in nature and how much of it is cultural? I agree that lowering the class size would help writing teachers do a better job, but when you think about the prevailing cultural in which students live today and its disregard for things like good writing, how much of an effect will improved pedagogy really have? I'm not saying that improved pedagogy (or classroom conditions) WON'T have an effect, I'm just wondering how much, and whether the problem ought to be addressed at its cultural root and how much of a difference we can reasonably expect a classroom experience to make. It seems to me that we as a society are now beginning to reap the "rewards" of a culture where education has been equated with testing and in which real intellectual ability (even basic stuff like writing well) is looked at as something freakish and undesirable. I deal with this all the time too in my math classes — not just with math skill but with writing skill too. You should see the look on my freshmen's faces when I grade them down because they use incomplete sentences or text-message-ese in a formal project writeup.

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