Writing program helps give students a voice
By Quentin Wodon
Consider these topics: School security. Teen depression. Anti-bullying programs. Wage equality for women. America needs aliens. Video games are not bad. Speaking out on stuttering. Banishing the death penalty. Carbon emissions. Urban public schools.
These are the topics of the first 10 essays that show up on a page of student writing on One World Education’s website. The essays were written by D.C. middle and high school students as part of a successful program that strengthens their reading, research, writing and presentation skills. Students select the topic they write about, and many write about issues that deeply affect them on a personal level. This is writing that matters – and writing that gives a voice to students from D.C. public and charter schools, many of whom live in low-income families and have faced hardship.
Last year, more than 5,800 students participated in the program, which operates in both public and charter schools in partnership with D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. In public schools the program is part of the Cornerstone initiative, which aims to provide rigorous content to students, improved professional development for teachers, and continuity and consistency across grades and subjects.
The One World Program (or One World Cornerstone, as it is known in public schools) is organized around four tasks or stages for students: reading comprehension, research, writing and presentation.
Students start by reviewing how to write a strong argumentative essay, including by looking at exemplary essays from students in previous years. Next, they select and research their own topic, looking at claims and counterclaims for their argument from reliable sources. With the framework in place, students then proceed to write their essay. After revising their work, they present their essay to their teacher and classmates to get feedback.
This may sound simple, but the balance for good implementation consists in providing enough structure for students to do well (and for teachers to prepare their lessons), while ensuring that students have enough freedom to pursue their passion and write about what they care the most about.
Teachers select some of the students to present their essays to a panel of judges at a College and Career Senior Challenge organized each year, with the winners receiving scholarships. This past school year, then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson gave the keynote address at the event, and in April more than a dozen students received scholarships for college.
How successful is the program? As part of a pro bono initiative of the Rotary Club of Capitol Hill that works with D.C. nonprofits on their strategic priorities, and in collaboration with a team from American University, a recently completed evaluation of One World Education’s program showed significant improvements in argumentative writing.
The evaluation is based on writing assignments from more than 550 students, with each student writing an essay before and after the program. The data suggest that most students improved their argumentative writing skills in a statistically significant way. Importantly, initially weaker students improved the most. In other words, the program is especially beneficial for students lagging behind. Overall, students improved their writing performance in all participating public and charter schools except one, where performance was flat.
Data on teacher and student perceptions about the program were also collected. Teachers were asked in an online survey to rate the program anonymously and provide recommendations as to whether it should continue this year. On all 13 questions about the program, feedback was favorable and 94 percent of teachers recommended using the One World Cornerstone again this year (none of the teachers recommended not to). Data on student perceptions were obtained through focus groups. Most students found the program beneficial, and they especially appreciated the fact that they could write on a topic of their choice – writing that matters to them! The great news is that thanks to this positive feedback, the program will be implemented again in public and charter schools this year.
Programs such as One World Education are needed in D.C. and in the U.S. more broadly. The country used to have one of the best workforces in the world, but our comparative advantage has been eroded. Within the U.S., despite progress in recent years, D.C. still ranks toward the bottom of national rankings on student learning. Efforts by public and charter schools and partnerships with nonprofits such as One World Education, however, are sending the message that gains can be achieved.