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The Education Gadfly Weekly: ChatGPT hasn’t killed the academic essay
Volume 23, Number 39
The Education Gadfly Weekly: ChatGPT hasn’t killed the academic essay
An academic essay is an end in itself. It teaches, among other things, control of language, how to organize thoughts and structure them such that a reader can easily follow them, how to state an argument clearly upfront, how to hook a reader’s interest, and how to conclude in a concise, powerful way. AI will not change this.
Apparently, generative AI has made the traditional academic essay obsolete—and so, for our own good and the good of our students, it is time we scrap them. Over at TheAtlantic, English teacher Daniel Herman calls the essay “no longer useful.” And some professors lament that AI marks “the end of writing assignments“ as we know them. Bollocks.
The general thrust of this argument is old and dusty. In 1899, facing the Industrial Revolution, progressive theorist John Dewey advanced a version of it: “that this revolution should not affect education in some other than a formal and superficial fashion is inconceivable.” In both Herman’s and Dewey’s minds, since technology has changed, education must change.
While plausible on its face, this argument is ultimately flawed. Traditions such as family dinners are all the more important with the advent of modern technology. Handwashing and exercise remain the best prophylactics against disease, even with modern medical therapies. The traditional academic essay, too, still has much to offer students, much that goes far beyond the simple act of writing it.
In all my years teaching, never did I consider an academic essay an end in itself. Whereas Herman suggests that students only write an essay in school so they can write research papers in college, I openly confessed to my students that they’d never need to write a five-paragraph essay in their professional lives. Rather, an essay was a means to different ends.
An essay teaches control of language. It teaches how to organize thoughts and structure them such that a reader can easily follow them. It teaches how to state an argument clearly upfront, hook a reader’s interest, and conclude in a concise, powerful way. It teaches students how to weave together data and compelling anecdotes such that a piece of writing is both accurate and interesting. It’s a place to practice rhetorical strategies like repetition or analogy. Any professional writing, from a workplace email to a newspaper op-ed to a careful blog post, benefits from these skills.
But having rejected the essay, Herman suggests that we focus on what makes teaching “meaningful and potentially life-changing: the communal experience of being in a classroom.” His vision for the English classroom resembles a glorified book club. Or maybe bull session. There are two flaws with this ideal, one practical and the other theoretical.
Practically, sitting around discussing whether students like a book requires little attention to detail or real analysis. Herman’s focus on extemporaneous writing like journal entries and short reflections deprives students of the benefits of formal writing. Revising, extended consideration of one idea, clarifying thoughts after feedback—these are the forces that hone student thinking. Shooting the breeze in a circle discussion or jotting down an off-the-cuff reaction simply doesn’t push thinking in the same way.
That’s not to say that classroom discussion and extemporaneous writing have no place. Socratic discussions and oral examinations have a storied history, and brief, initial reactions help a student process their thoughts before coalescing them into a more structured format. I ended every unit by reorganizing my students’ desks into a circle and discussing the themes of our recently finished novel in an open-ended discussion format. Students learn through these classroom activities, but the demands of an essay teach distinct lessons, too.
Herman provides an example of one student who connected the exploitations of whaling in Moby-Dick to the shortcomings of modern capitalism. There’s a vast amount of writing skill and factual knowledge a student must master to write that essay well. One of my own students analyzed Romeo and Juliet through the lens of different Greek words for love—agape, storge, philia, and more. No mere discussion can foster that depth of analysis.
The theoretical flaw is in Herman’s assumptions that the communal experience alone is meaningful or life-changing. Quite the contrary: Teaching students formal academic knowledge such as the mechanics of writing—emphasizing evidence and formal structures over passing impressions and reactions—is what teachers uniquely can offer. Students can sit around and chat with their friends. Can they teach each other how to use an appositive phrase or fronted adverbials to trim turgid prose?
We still revere the power of constraint in the realm of music. It’s not a student left to plunk out random notes that achieves musical freedom. It’s not a child who listens to and discusses music all day who masters the craft. Rather, it’s the one who spends hours practicing scales or memorizing songs who is liberated in the long run to play Chopin’s “Nocturnes” or whatever else fits their fancy.
Children will become engaged, thoughtful writers only once they’ve mastered language. That is meaningful and life changing.
ChatGPT can do many things, but it can’t teach us how to think. Until AI masters that skill, traditional assignments—from practicing math facts to writing an essay—will remain essential elements of any productive classroom.
Tensions between parents and educators are at an all-time high. Differences in opinion about education are not new, and they certainly do not have to lead to a corrosion of trust. Yet that is exactly what has happened, and both groups shoulder blame—as does the media.
It’s undeniable that parent conduct has been out of control since the pandemic. Ask a teacher or principal in any type of school district you can think of, and they will likely tell you that, during their entire time in education, the last few years have been the worst in dealing with parents. In one study, 29 percent of teachers and 42 percent of administrators reported at least one “incident of harassment or threat of violence” from parents. Family members have come to schools armed to settle disputes and threaten staff in the School District of Philadelphia, for example. Parents were arrested at a South Carolina school after fighting in the lobby. School board meetings in California have seen violence break out. Youth sporting events in Indiana have led to referees being attacked on the court. A sixty-year-old grandparent died shortly after a parent brawl in Vermont.
The education system is at fault, too. Taken as an institution that should include everyone from teachers to school board members to politicians, it has contributed to the parents’ growing distrust. Concerned parents were labeled “domestic terrorists.” Politicians campaigned on messages like, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” with teachers union leaders echoing the sentiment. Educators have posted performative videos, engaged in questionable classroom practices, and taken sides in the culture wars, much of which parents saw firsthand during virtual instruction. School leaders and school boards consistently implemented discreditable policies over the course of the pandemic that deteriorated parental confidence. Such actions warrant a cynical response from parents who deserve much better treatment and performance from educators.
And journalism has fanned these flames. No matter what side of the debate you’re on, there have been countless examples of the media exaggerating or straight-up lying. Imagine, as a parent, reading headlines that your child’s school in Houston is “turning libraries into discipline centers,” a claim refuted by Dale Chu’s on-the-ground reporting. Or that your school district in Tennessee is “banning Maus”—when in reality they’re just engaging in the routine practice of changing curricula. Misleading and dishonest reporting has led to an uninformed and increasingly angered public over largely false narratives. Parent and school relations cannot improve if we have a media that continues to prioritize divisive cultural war issues over honest education stories that actually matter.
To restore relations and build back trust between parents and schools, we don’t need to “reimagine education” as U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona puts it. We need a reset. And there’s at least four strategies for schools and parents to accomplish this.
First, schools should make expectations clear to parents by establishing a code of conduct like the almost fifty schools in the UK that have demanded parents agree to follow rules concerning social media behavior and even dress code when they pick their students up. They can also make parent obligations such as timely communication and attending meetings mandatory much like Success Academy in New York City does.
Second, school leaders must gain the courage to justly enforce consequences for parents failing to meet these expectations. This is not an easy task for traditional public schools, as enforcing a dress code for parents can cause national outrage or prohibiting parents from school board meetings may result in legal action. Yet, there are ways—grounded in common-sense, fairness, and the law—for leaders to overcome such constraints. A superintendent in Pennsylvania demanded more of parents through a persuasive plea that appealed to the common senses of parents concerned with school safety. New Mexico’s state athletics association passed a harsh but fair rule banning an entire team’s fan base from spectating for the season if a parent commits two acts of unsportsmanlike conduct. And lastly, if warranted and through due process, courts have ruled in favor of schools exercising accountability measures, such as banning parents from school property.
Third, school leaders and staff have to accept warranted criticism from parents and be willing to address justifiable parent concerns. For example, the aforementioned Success Academy doesn’t just hold high expectations for parents, they also hold the same demands of themselves. In their policies, they detail what parents should expect of them, such as agreeing to respond to parents within twenty-four hours, providing countless opportunities for parents to engage with staff, and ensuring parents are integrated in improvement plans based on their feedback.
Fourth, schools must be transparent with moms and dads about curriculum and day-to-day operations in classrooms. While bills in state legislatures and Congress demanding transparency haven’t had much success, schools should be willing to post their curricula, materials, and instructional methods online, and ensure teachers follow it. Parents also can’t be left in the dark regarding what’s going on in the school. Proposals for cameras live streaming classrooms may be asking too much, but schools should be required to share information to parents involving their child, whether it’s about serious incidents, gender-identity changes, or self-harm. And consider encouraging parents to actively volunteer in the building, such as the fathers at a Partnership School in Cleveland who provide mentoring and support to students throughout the school day.
This road to recovery is a two-way street. Marriage counseling doesn’t really work if just one spouse participates. And like marriage, a divorce or unhealthy relationship will most likely cause worse outcomes for the kids. The faster parents and educators realize that they both need to work on themselves, the stronger their thirteen-year commitment to each other will grow, and the better off America’s children will be.
A new study from a pair of Penn State University researchers finds that passing the U.S. Citizenship Test as a high school graduation requirement does nothing to improve youth voter turnout. Within the last decade, more than a third of U.S. states have adopted and implemented a version of the “Civics Education Initiative“ (CEI), but according to study co-author Jill Jung, a graduate student in education policy studies, “when it comes to improving voting among youth, mandating civics tests that focus on assessing political knowledge might be a wasted effort.” The study by Jung and Maithreyi Gopalan appears in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.
The U.S. Citizenship Test has been in place since 1986. It consists of a list of 100 questions about American history, our system of government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Immigration officials administer the test orally, asking would-be citizens seeking naturalization ten of the 100 questions; they must answer at least six correctly to pass. The questions aren’t particularly difficult. They consist of things like naming any one of the three branches of government, how many U.S. senators there are, and naming a right or freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rock-bottom, basic stuff.
I was an early proponent of making the citizenship test a graduation requirement. About a decade ago, I helped launch a short-lived civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools, a Harlem-based charter school network dedicated to civic education and engagement. Passing the citizenship test was a graduation requirement for DPPS students—and not just six out of 10, but all 100 questions with a passing score of 83 correct. We launched a pledge effort aimed at educators, politicians, and policymakers called “Challenge 2026” that would make passing the citizenship test a national high school graduation requirement by the nation’s 250th birthday. The Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute had far more success gaining traction for the issue and, frankly, a better strategy: getting state legislatures to adopt it as a high school graduation requirement, which eighteen states have done so far.
I take no issue with the finding that those states have seen no increase in youth voting, but the impetus was never to improve voter participation. It was to correct a profound national embarrassment: More than 96 percent of immigrants seeking naturalization pass the test—a rate that Americans at-large are nowhere near matching. Only 13 percent, in one survey, knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, for example. Most couldn’t say which countries the U.S. fought in World War II. Only one in four could even say why American colonists fought a war against Great Britain. Unsurprisingly, older Americans have the easiest time of it, with 74 percent answering at least six in ten questions correctly. Among those under the age of forty-five, only one in five pass, which says a lot about the debased standards of common knowledge expected of students in U.S. schools, whose founding purpose was to prepare ordinary people for self-government.
It is hard to overstate what a low bar the citizenship test represents. At one conference I attended, a teacher at a Core Knowledge charter school, a naturalized immigrant herself, pointed out that seventy-five of the 100 questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test were covered in the Core Knowledge Sequence by the end fourth grade. Moreover, there is the simple and obvious double standard: Why hold immigrants accountable for knowing a few basic facts about our history and system of government, but not students in our own schools? Still, there was an awful lot of tut-tutting from “serious people” in civic education about making the citizenship test a graduation requirement. It’s trivial pursuit! It’s mindless memorization! It takes time and energy away from “serious pursuits” in civics, such as authentic engagement in government, student activism, and grappling with “real issues.”
Never mind that lacking basic knowledge makes it hard to understand how or why to fight for change, our obligations and rights as citizens, what constitutes appropriate democratic conduct, or why a certain amount of frustration is a healthy feature of life in our system. The unexpected resistance to this modest minimum eventually wore me down until I had to agree that the critics were right and I was wrong. I no longer think it’s a good idea for the U.S. Citizenship Test to be a high school graduation requirement.
It should be an elementary school graduation requirement.
The Accelerating Campus Excellence program (ACE) was launched in Texas’s second-largest school district in 2016 by then-superintendent Mike Miles (now the state-appointed supe in Houston). Its primary purpose was to offer salary stipends to effective teachers and principals in exchange for their teaching in or leading the lowest-performing schools. It was a natural outgrowth of a rigorous new teacher (and principal) evaluation system implemented over the previous two years. That system used multiple measures of effectiveness, including growth and achievement, classroom observation data, student surveys, and more, with the intention of supplanting the traditional pay schedule with one based more on performance than seniority. ACE included other components like afterschool time for kids, but the salary stipends were the centerpiece, and they were Texas-big. Principal pay could increase by roughly $13,000 per year, by $11,500 for assistant principals, by $6,000 for instructional coaches, and by $6,000 to $10,000 for teachers depending on whether they were at the highest level of effectiveness or the next rung under it.
To get a pay bump, teachers had to be ranked in one of those top two categories and be accepted to teach in one of the lowest-performing schools in the districts, hereinafter denoted as “ACE schools,” and that wasn’t an easy task. Existing teachers at ACE schools had to undergo a rigorous screening process to keep their jobs. Ultimately, less than 20 percent of them were retained in those buildings. The rest (including principals) were replaced from the pool of highest performers. Before ACE, the vast majority of district teachers were in the bottom three rungs of effectiveness; after, most were in the top two categories. For teachers accepted to teach in ACE schools, 40 percent received a pay increase of $10,000 per year, 28 percent received $8,000, and 32 percent received $6,000.
The researchers had access to math and reading test scores, demographic data, teacher evaluation data, and salary and stipend amounts. They focused on elementary schools, constructing a panel that linked students, teachers, and schools from 2011–12 to 2018–19. ACE started in 2016, rolling out in four elementary schools, then in an additional five in 2018—so analysts track ACE Cohort 1 and ACE Cohort 2 in their study for up to three years of impact. They use a difference-in-differences research design where similar, low-performing Dallas schools without ACE intervention serve as the control group. Key to the study methodology was that schools in both groups followed a similar pre-treatment trend in performance.
In a win for full-on disruption (and for kids!), ACE schools showed an immediate and very large increase in achievement upon program implementation. Math scores for both cohorts exceeded 0.4 standard deviations, and 0.3 SDs for reading, which brought average achievement close to the district average. Meanwhile, performance barely budged in either control group in the same period. For students with two or three years of treatment, ACE led to larger increases in achievement following matriculation to sixth grade for both cohorts. Students with only one year of ACE schooling ended up with substantially higher fifth grade scores but not subsequent sixth grade scores. In other words, the more time in the treatment schools, the better.
The program turned out to be so successful at boosting student achievement that three of the four initial ACE schools no longer qualified for it by 2019. Stipends were thus eliminated (along with afterschool and other programmatic components), resulting in over 40 percent of high-performing teachers leaving their ACE schools. Those who remained were reassigned as leaders outside the classroom, responsible for providing professional development.
Subsequently, the former ACE schools saw a sharp decline in achievement—so substantial that it reversed much of the prior benefit. Test scores fell significantly in the wake of effective teachers’ exits and reassignments. During the same period, control-group schools had less turnover overall and did not fall victim to the selective turnover of high performers like the ACE schools did.
In the end, the roller coaster of programmatic changes meant that student performance also experienced a dizzying loop of rises and falls. By removing chronically-low-performing teachers and principals, bringing in proven high-performing teachers and principals, and providing sizeable salary increases that rewarded a job well done, ACE demonstrated how pay for performance done right can benefit students. But its demise also revealed ingrained reversion to the status quo in our schools, the quick erosion of success when effective programs and incentives evaporate, and worst of all, students stuck on the carousel of reform when adults fail to prepare for the accomplishment they’d hoped for.
There is no shortage of research into the impacts of school and district accountability systems on education-related student outcomes. But a recently published paper adds a new twist by examining the criminal activity and economic self-sufficiency of adults who were impacted by South Carolina’s accountability efforts when they were high school students.
Introduced in 2000, South Carolina’s accountability system evaluates all public schools according to a set of continuous performance metrics that are then converted into five discrete school ratings—unsatisfactory, below average, average, good, and excellent. The state uses these labels to reward and sanction schools. High ratings are associated with additional funding, while schools that receive low ratings face a range of possible consequences that include leadership change, restructuring, and state takeover. The worse the rating, the more disruptive the state’s intervention. The researchers assert that South Carolina’s system is designed to resist any potential efforts by schools to “game” the outcome by focusing on and improving non-academic rating areas (like attendance or graduation rates) or by excluding low performers from testing in high-value grades or subjects.
The researchers used administrative data that allowed them to connect former students to state databases in which they appear as adults. They employed a quasi-experimental design using regression discontinuity and local randomization. The full sample comprised 160,000 students who were first-time ninth graders in the 2000–2001 to 2002–03 school years and attended 194 different high schools across the state. The sample included slightly more males than females; 41 percent of students were Black and 55 percent White. As in most places, school ratings correlate negatively with the percentage of Black students attending and with the fraction of free-lunch-eligible students. All students were followed—to the extent that they appeared—in three datasets: the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division’s detailed arrest records from 2000 to 2017 (including demographic information on the arrestees, offense data, and the type of crime committed), incarceration records from the state’s Department of Corrections, and administrative records from the South Carolina Department of Social Services regarding enrollment in social welfare programs. Students were followed beyond high school in three cohorts through approximately age thirty-four. Treatment effects were calculated based on the first high school they attended.
The topline finding is that state intervention in low-performing schools was beneficial to students’ later-life outcomes. Specifically, students in schools that were rated just below the cutoff for intervention were 1.8 percentage points less likely to be arrested in adulthood in comparison to students who attended schools that were just above the cutoff. These impacts were nearly double for females than for males. The researchers found null effects on future incarceration, likely due to the arrest data being largely driven by alcohol and drug-related crimes—offenses typically not associated with long-term incarceration.
Although limited, some positive impacts of state accountability were also seen in the study’s measure of future economic stability. To wit: Female students attending schools with marginally lower accountability ratings around the intervention cutoff were 4.2 percentage points less likely to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance food stamp program (a.k.a. SNAP) as adults than their female peers from higher-rated schools. There were null effects observed on females’ enrollment in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and for males’ enrollment in either SNAP or TANF. The researchers note that the SNAP finding may be even more significant than it appears. Since the average monthly SNAP benefit can make up around one-fourth of a recipients’ total gross income, students positively impacted by school improvement efforts as adults and not relying on SNAP benefits likely have higher overall incomes than their SNAP-enrolled peers. Although this is speculation on the part of the researchers rather than something observed in the data.
Digging into mechanisms, the researchers find evidence of a simple and direct explanation: Experiencing state-mandated interventions appears to prompt schools to increase their academic standards and to boost the academic success of their students. The researchers do not break down the specific interventions experienced in any given school, although the worse the original performance, the more thorough a change the state required. The data do show more students being retained in low-rated schools, but without any net change in grade progression rates, as compared to higher-rated schools. This, coupled with the researchers’ assertion that South Carolina’s system resisted gaming, seems to indicate a concentrated effort to remediate students to grade-level standards—as quickly as possible. The data also show a consequent rise in exit exam scores and academic eligibility for the state’s LIFE college scholarship program. In short, better achievement in school leads to less negative life impacts as adults. And ironclad disruptive accountability is a path to get better achievement outcomes. Simple.
A new Georgia program encourages sophomores to start apprenticeship programs, setting them on the path to graduate with career skills and a job. —The 74
Conservatives and progressives alike can’t quit the traditional reform agenda, despite its supposed slide into disrepute, precisely because these policies work. —The 74, Conor P. Williams
A new Michigan policy will guarantee admission to ten public universities for any high school graduates with at least a 3.0 grade point average, a move that risks making soaring grade inflation even worse. —Bridge Michigan
After Congress allocated $190 billion in emergency funds to schools during the pandemic, many districts, despite having wasted that money, are asking for more and more time to spend it. —Education Week
Hundreds of schools have adopted four-day weeks, creating childcare difficulties for working parents. —AP News