Tuesday, January 24, 2017


     The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level...To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma...The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills....


Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. For two decades, his research has focused on the policies and practices of the countries with the best education systems. His latest book is Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems. Follow NCEE on Twitter.

College Readiness: Are Different Definitions Driving Inequality?

By Marc Tucker on January 19, 2017 6:24 AM

Years ago, the best students were encouraged to take two or three Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  Now they are told that they don't stand a chance of getting into a really selective college unless they start taking AP courses in their sophomore year and then pretty much fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  To get into the best colleges, students have to take and do very well on a full slate of AP courses and, if they are required to submit them, their ACT or SAT scores need to be very high.  To be fully competitive, they also need to have a solid record as a leader in their school and a contributor to their community. 

This, of course, suggests that the standard for being "college-ready" at the elite colleges has been moving steadily up in recent years, to the point that only superb achievers need apply unless their parents are prepared to become multi-million dollar contributors to these schools' endowments.

But regular readers of this column will remember me telling you about a study that NCEE did a few years ago of what it takes to be prepared for the first year of the typical two-year college in the United States.  We found that the most often required first-year mathematics course for most students, regardless of major, is a course called College Mathematics or College Algebra.  But, notwithstanding its name, it is really Algebra I with a bit of geometry or statistics—content that is supposed to be taken in middle school.  Most high school graduates, however, are not ready to succeed in that course.

The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level.  The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills.

One could reasonably conclude from this study that the majority of high school graduates are not ready for what used to be a high school curriculum.  But one could also conclude that most of our colleges have decided to take whatever they can get, as long as they can fill their seats.  Judging by the reports we have gotten from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average performance of our high school students has hardly changed at all in forty years.  But this overall conclusion may mask a steady decline in standards for most high school students and a dramatic rise in standards for our top high school graduates.

But how can it be that the requirements of success in college have been greatly ratcheted up in our elite higher education institutions and, at the same time, been eviscerated in the majority of our colleges?  And how can it be that we are able to create an adequate supply of young people who can meet the soaring requirements of the elite institutions, and, at the same time, fail to enable our high school graduates to meet the puerile standards of most institutions?  And, finally, if this portrait is accurate, what does it mean for the future of our country?

Here's what I think may have happened.  What I am about to share is not a research finding.  It is sheer speculation. I believe two things might have happened at much the same time.  First, as the baby boom generation worked its way out of our colleges and universities, the institutions, determined to keep up the level of their enrollments in the face of a steeply declining supply of applicants, lowered their standards of admission in order to keep enrollments up.  The majority of institutions took anyone who had a high school diploma and, in most cases, the diploma was little more than an attendance certificate.  To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma.

Because their funding was based on enrollment, these institutions decided it was more important for their long-term fiscal well-being to fill their seats than it was to limit enrollments to any specific standard of literacy. Once that decision was made, the die was cast and there was no incentive for either high school students or high school faculty to raise their game or even to maintain their prior standards.

But, at the same time, in the real economy, low-skill, high-wage jobs were disappearing fast.  The demand for relatively low-skill workers was rapidly declining, first because of outsourcing, later because of advancing automation and rapidly increasing demand for highly-skilled, creative and very well educated people.  The people who had these skills were increasingly concentrated in a limited number of states, cities and suburbs that are home to leading universities and high technology firms.  These are people that Richard Florida has dubbed "The Creatives."  Florida describes them as searching for enclaves where they could find people very much like themselves, intellectual stimulation, rich cultural resources and, not least, spouses who were also well-educated and highly skilled.  These people, who were in high demand and could live, more or less, wherever they wish, looked for public school districts that could get their children into the world's leading universities so they could grow up to live as well as their parents.

Voila!  Those are the parents whose children begin to take AP courses in their sophomore year and fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  They use their excellent connections to get their children high-profile internships and opportunities to build health care clinics in Haiti in their summers and, in between, they get them the equipment and coaching they need to make it onto the varsity teams for competitive sports.  These hugely ambitious people communicate very high expectations to their children, who have virtually unlimited support as they seek to meet those expectations.

I am no romantic.  It is certainly true that the opportunities for the children of the wealthy have always been quite different from the opportunities for the poor in this country, and those differences have been compounded by race and ethnicity.  But the evidence is accumulating that those differences are being magnified many times over by forces that are shaping a society that is different, not just in degree but in kind, from the one many of us grew up in.

Robert Putnam, in his wonderful book Our Kids, describes how he grew up in a town in which the children of the wealthy mill owner went to the same schools, played on the same teams, and went to the same ice cream parlor as the children of the people who worked in the mill, people who taught their own children that it was just plain wrong to flaunt their relative wealth in front of kids, like Putnam himself, who had much less money.  And Putnam describes how that kind of real democracy died in his hometown and was replaced by a community in which the children of the rich have little or nothing to do with the working-class kids.

Putnam's story is a story about changes in the relationship between owners and managers, on the one hand, and workers on the other.  Richard Florida describes, as I said above, how the rising professional class, of which Putnam is one, as Florida is himself, have been progressively cut off from the working class.

The rapidly increasing social class and racial isolation of the last four or five decades has been accompanied by another kind of isolation—a wide and growing gulf between those who go to 'college' but who enter with little more than middle school knowledge and literacy and those who have far more.  Increasingly, the people in the latter camp live apart, in their own enclaves, marry one another, and create a set of expectations and cultural supports for their children from birth forward that are simply not available to a large and growing class of people whose prospects are increasingly grim.  What I have just described has become the crux of our politics.

I used to think that it was the forces that account for widening income inequality that have resulted in increasing inequality of education opportunity and there is certainly much truth in that.  But what if it is no less true that widening inequality in educational standards is leading to widening income inequality?  What if these forces are strengthening each other?

So what does 'college ready' mean in the situation I have described?  I'll posit four different definitions: 1) the current functional standard for the high school diploma, which varies from a minimum of maintaining a sufficient attendance record for 12 years of schooling to the most widespread standard in the United States: the ability to reach an 8th grade level of literacy; 2) the ability to succeed in a typical first year community college or state college program, which would require the ability to read at the 12th grade level and to do mathematics at the middle school level (no state now demands this much to get a high school diploma); 3) the ability to function at a level that would give the student a reasonable chance of engaging in a career that would enable him or her to attain a middle class standard of living in an age of increasing automation (writes well; has a sound understanding of basic concepts in science and can apply them to complex problems, has a good command of the fundamentals of algebra, probability and statistics and understands why liberty, freedom and democracy are so important and what it takes to maintain and nourish them--I must point out that it is unclear whether most college graduates meet this standard) and 4) ready to be a serious candidate for admission to a highly selective college.

Here's my point: to the extent that states set graduation standards by specifying grades on standardized tests that students must take—some do, some don't—the standards are typically set by a political process in which state officials in the best of circumstances decide how high the standard can be set without generating too much pushback from the parents of students who fail to get a diploma. Compounding the problem, some states with test-based graduation requirements have waived them for students who simply complete their regular course work or who take online 'credit recovery' courses set to vanishingly low standards. Once standards are lowered, of course, it is far harder to raise them than it was to lower them.

I believe, for the reasons just offered, that the effective standards for most American high school students have been lowered over the last 30 years at the very time that the actual academic requirements for access to a middle class way of life have been steadily rising and can be expected to rise further in the years ahead. At the same time, standards at the upper end of the distribution have risen dramatically, but only for a relatively small band of highly advantaged elite students who, by virtue of having met those standards, will be uniquely positioned to ride the next wave even as the majority of students struggle for the rest of their lives.

The most responsible policy would be to raise dramatically the standards we set for most students, to the third definition of 'college ready' described above.  Paradoxically, we can expect the greatest resistance to such a move to come from the parents of poorly educated students who are afraid that raising the standards will disadvantage their children.  This is a democracy—we cannot raise the standards without first persuading those parents that their children have more to fear from standards that are too low than from standards that are too high.  Therein lies the core challenge for education leaders in the years ahead. 

Monday, January 9, 2017


NEHTA Newsletter   Fall 1998   Volume XI, Number 1


    Just as in the days, decades ago, when there was a big push to put a television set in every classroom, makers of technology now want to put new hardware in every classroom, not only, of course, to make money, but also to bring students and teachers out of the dark ages of reading and writing ordinary text on sheets of paper, and into the bright new dawn of full color multimedia productions.

    Taking notes can be replaced with the videocam and writing papers can be improved away by teaching students to use digital drawing and editing programs to “morph” their ideas into colorful and fast-moving pictures that can hold the attention of their fellow students for fractional seconds, and make them say “Wow!”

    Some problems remain, naturally. Just as Peter Jennings depends almost entirely on pictures to present his view of the 20th century on ABC News (and spinoffs), and is thus somewhat limited in the knowledge he can convey, as compared to that offered, for example, by Martin Gilbert’s three-volume history of the same century, so other events and writings which do not lend themselves to easy summary in pictures will get lost as well.

    Take, for example, George Washington’s Farewell Address. On paper it reads, in part,

The impressions, with which I first undertook the arduous trust, were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say, that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the Organization and Administration of the government, the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps more than in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the encreasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.

    How would we go about rendering those remarks in an exciting, graphic, colorful, multimedia sort of way? How can we employ Canvas, Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark, PowerPoint and any other among the tools of the multimedia fan to enhance these mere words by a long dead President? How can we free our feelings of being creative from the diffidence he expresses and the sense of duty which constrained him?

    Or to take another example, from Jefferson:

During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

    Could this be improved by the application of multimedia? Only in the minds of those whose experiences with literacy left them unaware of the majesty and evocative powers of the written word. For those who read little and poorly, and yet teach in the schools, and for those who may be literate themselves but see no way to pass that gift along to the new generations, the primrose path of multimedia lies sparkling before them, and many take it. I was told at a conference recently that term papers are things of the past, replaced for ever by the visual aids of the new illiterates and the multimedia tools they are being sold. One History department chair said he no longer assigned papers, but PowerPoint presentations instead. The wonders of books will not be offered in his classrooms. We all lose when great writing is left behind. 

Will Fitzhugh

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


[Will Fitzhugh] I remember Pearl Harbor. I was five years old and my sister had her 11th birthday party on December 7, 1941. We went to the movie—Sergeant York with Gary Cooper—about a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. 

In the middle of the film it stopped and the manager brought a mic out on the stage and said: “All servicemen report to your bases.” And all over the theater soldiers, airman, sailors and marines got up and left. When we got out of the movie there was an extra edition out saying Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

This December 7th, 2016, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack wrote in The Boston Globe that when he asked a high school girl what she knew about Pearl Harbor, the girl said, “Who is she?”

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Fight Autodidacticism!!

It is important to consider what might happen if educators, consultants, EduPundits, etc., find out that our secondary students are capable, if not prevented, of reading complete History books on their own, and not only that, they can, if not advised against it in time, write long serious History research papers (average 8,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography) on their own as well.

At first, this might seem a fine way for high school students to learn History and to improve their academic expository writing abilities. But this simplistic early impression fails to take into account the potential harm to all our educational efforts. Only think! They are choosing their own topics to study! They are writing based on their own research in History, and not waiting for our ELA prompts!

What real damage this could cause to the Social Studies and Literacy empires in American education! In fact, it now appears there is a quarterly journal* in existence which publishes such exemplary History research papers by students (from 41 countries since 1987), and this journal could, if we don’t act to prevent it, actually appear in secondary classrooms and even in the homes of students, to allow them to read the exemplary work of their peers!

Our defenses are wide and strong enough to stop this sort of thing from happening, except in a few isolated cases. We can refuse to allow such exemplary student writing in History into our classrooms. We can say it is not really Social Studies. We can say it is not really our Curriculum. We can say it is not really teacher-directed. We can say it is not really personal writing, creative writing or the five-paragraph essay.

If colleges are asking for 500-word personal essays from their applicants, why would we want students to be distracted, even as Seniors, by 8,000-word History research papers by their peers? The risk exists that reading such work could tempt some of our students to try their hand as Autodidacts! And it need not be pointed out what, if that practice became widespread, this could do to the foundations of the entire educational enterprise in this country. Beware! And Defend!

One Benjamin Franklin is enough!!


Thursday, November 3, 2016


[NOW it's SEL for ALL—WHF]

In large part, this is because instead of clearly stated, verifiable outcomes, OBE goals are often diffuse, fuzzy, and ill-defined—loaded with educationist jargon like “holistic learning,” “whole-child development,” and “interpersonal competencies.”

“A Semantic Hijacking”
Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, pp. 245-247

         Ironically, “outcomes” were first raised to prominence by leaders of the conservative educational reform movement of the 1980s. Championed by Chester E. Finn, Jr. among others, reformers argued that the obsession with inputs (dollars spent, books bought, staff hired) focused on the wrong end of the educational pipeline. Reformers insisted that schools could be made more effective and accountable by shifting emphasis to outcomes (what children actually learned). Finn’s emphasis on outcomes was designed explicitly to make schools more accountable by creating specific and verifiable educational objectives in subjects like math, science, history, geography, and English. In retrospect, the intellectual debate over accountability was won by the conservatives. Indeed, conservatives were so successful in advancing their case that the term “outcomes” has become a virtually irresistible tool for academic reform.

        The irony is that, in practice, the educational philosophies known as Outcome Based Education have little if anything in common with those original goals. To the contrary, OBE—with its hostility to competition, traditional measures of progress, and to academic disciplines in general—can more accurately be described as part of a counterreformation, a reaction against those attempts to make schools more accountable and effective. The OBE being sold to schools represents, in effect, a semantic hijacking.

        “The conservative education reform of the 1980s wanted to focus on outcomes (i.e. knowledge gained) instead of inputs (i.e. dollars spent),” notes former Education Secretary William Bennett. “The aim was to ensure greater accountability. What the education establishment has done is to appropriate the term but change the intent.” [emphasis added] Central to this semantic hijacking is OBE’s shift of outcomes from cognitive knowledge to goals centering on values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings. As an example of a rigorous cognitive outcome (the sort the original reformers had in mind), Bennett cites the Advanced Placement Examinations, which give students credit for courses based on their knowledge and proficiency in a subject area, rather than on their accumulated “seat-time” in a classroom.

        In contrast, OBE programs are less interested in whether students know the origins of the Civil War or the author of The Tempest than whether students have met such outcomes as “establishing priorities to balance multiple life roles” (a goal in Pennsylvania) or “positive self-concept” (a goal in Kentucky). Where the original reformers aimed at accountability, OBE makes it difficult if not impossible to objectively measure and compare educational progress. In large part, this is because instead of clearly stated, verifiable outcomes, OBE goals are often diffuse, fuzzy, and ill-defined—loaded with educationist jargon like “holistic learning,” “whole-child development,” and “interpersonal competencies.”

        Where original reformers emphasized schools that work, OBE is experimental. Despite the enthusiasm of educationists and policymakers for OBE, researchers from the University of Minnesota concluded that “research documenting its effects is fairly rare.” At the state level, it was difficult to find any documentation of whether OBE worked or not and the information that was available was largely subjective. Professor Jean King of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education describes support for the implementation of OBE as being “almost like a religion—that you believe in this and if you believe in it hard enough, it will be true.” And finally, where the original reformers saw an emphasis on outcomes as a way to return to educational basics, OBE has become, in Bennett’s words, “a Trojan Horse for social engineering, an elementary and secondary school version of the kind of ‘politically correct’ thinking that has infected our colleges and universities.”

The Concord Review

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Escape from the Safe Spaces

High School students planning to go to college should know that they will face reading lists of nonfiction books and be asked to write research papers. The vast majority of American public high school students are not asked to read a single complete nonfiction book or to write a term paper before graduation. But they suspect that the safe spaces of fiction readings and personal writing will not prepare them well enough for college. In many cases their teachers have neither the inclination nor the time to help them with History research papers, and while some students, such as many of those published in The Concord Review since 1987, have set up Independent Study programs which let them write such papers, others may want to make use of the services we offer to serious secondary students of History:

One: The TCR Academic Coaching Service matches high school students working on a History research paper online with TCR Authors now at or recently graduated from Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Personal advice and guidance from a successful older peer (many are Emerson Prize winners) can be inspiring and productive for secondary students struggling with serious term papers. Contact Jessica@tcr.org (Manager of the TCR Academic Coaches).

Two: The TCR Summer Program offers a two-week course on the writing of serious History papers by secondary students, with two sessions in the United States and one in Korea in 2017. Contact: steven.lee@tcr.org (Manager of the TCR Summer Program). tcr.org/summer.

Three: The National Writing Board provides a unique independent assessment service for the History research papers of high school students. Our reports by two Senior Readers now average five pages. Inquire at tcr.org/nwb.

Four: The Concord Review can provide students with examples from the History research papers published by 1,200 high school students from 44 states and many other countries since 1987. This journal remains the only one in the world for the academic History research papers of secondary students. These papers have served many students as useful models of research and writing to inspire and guide them in their own reading, research and writing. Seek them at tcr.org/bookstore.

Will Fitzhugh, Founder
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board
fitzhugh@tcr.org; tcr.org/subscribe

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: 
About Assessing Writing
Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) I understand that you have just finished a stint on the ACT/NAGB Steering Committee for the 2011 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) Writing Assessment. What was that like? (And what does NAGB stand for?)

NAGB is the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs the NAEP, “America’s Report Card,” as they say. I was glad that Diane Ravitch recommended me for the Steering Committee for the new national writing assessment scheduled for 2011. I was very impressed with the intelligence and competence of Mary Crovo, representing NAEP, and Rosanne Cook, who is running the project for American College Testing. Many people on the Committee were from the National Council of Teachers of English and the College Composition world, which have little interest in having students read history books or write history research papers. In fact that world favors, or has favored in the past, personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, which do a terrible job of preparing high school students for the nonfiction books and the academic term papers most will be asked to cope with in college.

2) Given the paucity of writing that goes on in the high schools of America, is it really fair to ask high school students to engage in a robust writing assessment?

It would not be fair to ask high school students to play in a football game if they hadn’t had an opportunity for lots of practice, and it is very hard to ask high school students to do the sort of academic expository writing they should be doing if they have never done it in all their years in school. But we need to start somewhere. Every high school student does not need to be able to play football, but they all need to be able to read nonfiction books and write serious term papers.

3) On the other hand, since so much of the college experience is writing, are high school teachers doing students a disservice by NOT requiring more writing?

High school teachers would make terrible football coaches and their teams would lose most if not all of their games, if the teacher/coaches did not have time to practice their teams. We take football seriously, and we take band seriously, so ample time and money are made available to produce the best teams and the best bands the high school can manage. We allow really no time for a high school teacher to work with students on heavy-duty term papers. We don’t make time for them, because we don’t think they are that important. Not as important as drama practice, yearbook, chorus, debate or a host of other activities. As a result our high school students are, once again, ill-prepared for college reading and writing. AP courses in history do not require, in most cases, that students read a complete nonfiction book, and most of them say they don’t have time to ask the student to write a research paper, because they “have to get students ready for the AP Exam.”

4) Most English teachers would cry “already overworked “or “dealing with under-prepared students” if we asked them to do more writing instruction. Is the answer smaller class sizes? Or fewer mainstreamed kids?

I have suggested the “Page Per Year Plan©,” which would ask first-graders to write a one-page paper about something other than themselves, and so on, with 8th graders writing an 8-page paper, 11th graders writing an 11-page paper, etc. This would provide English and History teachers with more students who were ready to do serious term papers, and the students would not all have to be started from scratch, like someone going out for football for the first time in their senior year in high school. In addition, if we are serious about term papers and book reports, English and History teachers should be given five class days each semester to supervise such work, and to assess it when it is handed in. We don’t do that now, so most teachers feel they are really too busy to assign these vital projects to their students.

5)  I have often seen “The American public wants more attention paid to writing” phrase. In spite of public outcry, educators or politicians don’t seem to respond. Are there just a lot of lone voices crying in the wilderness?

When there is a response, as from the National Commission on Writing in the Schools, the writing sought is almost inconceivably superficial, formulaic, sentimental, and bland. It is hard for anyone concerned about writing to understand how these and other groups concerned about “Adolescent Literacy” keep their standards so very low. Young Adult sections in bookstores and libraries are full of fiction which panders to teen interests. None of the great history books can find a place there, as teens are assumed to be interested in only little fictional stories which are basically about them and their friends. Dumbing Down doesn’t get much plainer than that.

6)  Doing a national assessment of writing must involve a lot of different opinions about writing. What were some of the fundamental issues discussed at this meeting?

The assessment planned was hobbled by the need to do the evaluation on two 25-minute samples which require no background knowledge, and could be written by students who had never spent a day in school. Nothing learned in school is required and the prompts are accordingly necessarily superficial. In addition, the claim is that “writing on demand” is somehow the standard to be met. Some claim that they are asked at work to produce something written in a short time (not 25 minutes I suppose), but even that writing is based on all the knowledge they have from their job and their schooling. For the most part any decent writing, whether at college or in the workplace, depends on time to gather knowledge, to write, to reflect, and to re-write at least at a basic level. Writing for a prompt in 25 minutes tells us basically nothing about students’ ability to acquire and understand knowledge or to organize their thoughts in a paper. A lot of work was done on this assessment, but I believe the constraints imposed requiring no knowledge and no time for thought or re-writing, make this assessment sadly uninformative about the real academic reading and writing skills of our students.

7) You recently published “Math and Reading: A Lament for High School History and Writing “ in Historically Speaking, November/December 2006, pp 36-37. What were the main point that you were trying to make in that article?

My basic concern is that if Edupundits don’t care about serious reading and writing, and Educators limit their students to fiction and to writing very short personal stories and the like, we cripple our children’s ability to read and write at the necessary level. There seems to be no awareness or desire for awareness of the absence of nonfiction books in our high schools and our (The Concord Review) study from 2002 found that the majority of high school teachers are no longer assigning 12-page term papers. Many of our high school graduates find that they need remedial writing courses when they get to college, and many also find the nonfiction books on their reading lists overwhelming, which is not surprising. If they had not played football in high school, they would not last long on a college football team. When it comes to reading and writing, we seem content to deprive our students of the practice they would need to manage college work when they get there. Many drop out as a result of this, in my view.

8) Good writing, like good piano or violin playing, probably takes time, effort, and energy. But what are the payoffs to good writing for high school students?

Reading is the path to knowledge in the liberal arts, not to slight the value of science labs and the like, and writing is the path to making knowledge one’s own.
If students have not practiced academic reading and academic writing they will literally be “out of mental shape” as they approach more difficult academic material. Some will adjust, but many too many will not, and we will lose them, at least for a while, from the opportunity for a higher education.

9) What question have I neglected to ask ?

Why have history, which might have helped us as we considered our plans in Iraq, and writing, which allows thinking to develop, been so neglected in our schools? There is a tremendous interest in the Arts, which are thought to be good for the soul, and for science, which is thought to be the key to economic success, but as one of the major foundations told me, "We are interested in Math, Minorities and Science" so we can't support history, writing, and the like. But Minorities also need to read and write, and so will our legislators, mayors, judges, lawyers, and all the citizens of our democracy no matter what their path in life. We need science and math, of course, but we also need, desperately, I believe, to do a better job of teaching reading and writing to a higher standard than we have allowed to prevail in our schools.