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School districts turn to paid readers for grading student essays
Times Snohomish County bureau
In the Northshore School District, some English teachers don't spend much time reading student papers.
In the Bellevue School District, some don't even grade the papers.
Both districts now rely on paid readers to evaluate and in some cases grade student essays in English classes; Seattle's Garfield High School is piloting such a program this year. The use of readers greatly reduces teacher workload and gives students more writing practice, but the trend raises questions about teachers' roles in inspiring and guiding students' work.
Many English teachers in the region teach five classes a day with 30 students each. If they assign a two-page essay in every class, that adds up to 300 pages to read, edit, comment on and grade.
Teachers and administrators agree that most high schools don't give students enough writing practice, largely because of the limits on teacher time. By using readers, Bellevue officials estimate their students can write seven three- to five-page essays a semester, compared with two essays in a traditional literature class.
"External readers encourage teachers to assign more writing. That's the heart of it," said David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon. "The amount of writing in high school is dramatically less than what's expected in college."
Conley was the consultant for the Bellevue School District as it reworked its curriculum two years ago to increase its rigor and prepare more students for college. He recommended Bellevue students do more discursive and argumentative writing, the type they are most likely to do in college, and less literary analysis, the type most frequently assigned in high-school English classes.
Bellevue this year launched a required senior English class that relies almost entirely on paid readers to analyze and grade all but a fraction of papers. Teachers don't see most of their students' written work, and they don't give most of the grades.
The use of paid readers isn't new. In the 1980s, before tightened school budgets, many districts hired professional readers to assist their English teachers, said Carol Jago, co-director of the California Reading and Literature Project. The Theme Reader program in Northshore, in which teachers weigh readers' comments and assign grades, has been in place for at least 15 years, officials there say.
But Jago said the practice raises questions, even when teachers work closely with the readers.
Readers for local school districts are typically college students majoring in literature, professional writers, editors and retired teachers.
Northshore spent $80,000 last year — $13 an hour, per reader — on the Theme Readers program, though not all teachers use it. Bellevue pays its readers $20 an hour and expects to quadruple the reading ranks next year when the writing initiative expands to include the sixth through 11th grades. The Bellevue Schools Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports education, donated $29,000 to pay for readers this year; the district has requested $235,000 for next year.
In the Seattle school district, the Garfield High School PTA has spent $6,000 on the school's new reader program. Gretchen Wilkinson, who chairs Garfield's English department, said parents had criticized the department for not giving students more writing practice and more detailed feedback to improve skills.
During fall semester, Wilkinson said, readers commented on 725 papers and critiqued 435 practice WASL essays written by ninth-graders. Teachers will use the comments to identify students who need more help.
"We wouldn't have been able to give that kind of attention to the essays unless all our ninth-grade teachers were willing to give up three to four weekends and not get anything done in our regular classes," Wilkinson said.
Lance Balla, a curriculum and technology coach for Bellevue schools, said the district built into the program several checks to keep teachers informed about their students' work. The teachers develop a scoring guide for each assignment and read three out of every 30 essays. Readers and teachers consult after each set of papers is graded, and teachers are expected to use the readers' comments to look for common problems and if necessary, adjust their teaching.
"It's not just a way to give a kid a score, it's a way to improve instruction across the district," Balla said.
That's debatable, said Stephen Miller, president of the Bellevue Education Association.
"All English teachers would agree that students become better writers by writing more. But is writing many essays more important than personal feedback from your teacher? We don't know the answer," he said.
One of Bellevue's paid readers, University of Washington doctoral candidate Megan Miller, said using readers also eliminates the "suck-up" factor in teacher-student relations.
"The fact that they have outside readers commenting [on their papers] may make them step it up a bit and not rely on their rapport with the teacher."
Naomi Vaughan, a 2003 Woodinville High School graduate who is now a student at the University of Washington and a reader for her former school, said that prompt and frequent feedback is more effective at helping students improve their skills.
"Students want feedback. If they have to wait two to three weeks, it's meaningless," she said.
But some teachers want to remain connected to their students, and their progress, through their written work.
"If I have an ace writer, I can demand more. If he or she's a B-level, I want to know that, too," said Angela Rossana, an English teacher at Mariner High School in the Mukilteo School District.
David Ehrich, chair of the Roosevelt High School English department in Seattle, talks about paid readers the way a remote villager might talk about electricity.
"I never thought they were in the realm of the possible," he said.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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