Slow, but Real, Progress on Writing Instruction

On September 22nd, local and national education leaders will convene in Washington, DC for One World Education’s first Symposium on Preparing College-Ready Writers. The need for this event was highlighted by a recent piece from well-regarded education writer (and one of my favorites), Jay Mathews. His article, “Writing instruction in our schools is terrible. We need to fix it.,” appeared in an August 2016 column of The Washington Post. His commentary is both relevant and timely. It also exposes a lack of clarity about the differences between writing instruction and writing assignments – and the need for greater dialogue about both – which is the Symposium’s main focus.

Mathews’ article responds to a recent Education Trust report, Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today’s Higher Standards? The topic of classroom assignments (as noted in the report’s title) is critical, but Mathews’ comments are actually about the state of writing instruction. Whereas assignments are what students complete to show their understanding of the skills and knowledge they learned, writing instruction is a result of teacher training programs, professional development, and school leaders’ ensuring that writing is prioritized across the curriculum, and not just in English class.

For example, a teacher may be a phenomenal writing instructor but implement a poorly developed assignment that ineffectively measures the skills she taught. As the fields of instruction and assignment development are also multi-million-dollar industries, it is critical to separate these focuses. Albeit connected, writing instruction and writing assignments are distinct topics. The upcoming Symposium will address these differences through two panel discussions; one focusing on instruction and the other on assignments.

As with many teachers whose careers started more than ten years ago, my training (and my school’s professional development focus) did not expose me to writing instructional philosophies, programs, or professional development. I certainly did not learn to teach writing in my graduate courses either. It’s critical that new teachers have this skill, as the academic community is in agreement that all students, and not just the top performing, need to be college-ready writers. This is why a forum for leaders to analyze and share successful instructional strategies is most important now.

The level of supports available to help teachers meet this challenge has grown immeasurably over the last decade. Experts dedicated to this field, like Lucy Calkins, Eleanor Dougherty, and many others, are shaping practices locally and nationally. In this time span, more studies, programs, and professional development platforms to train and support writing instruction have emerged than in the entire previous century. Best practices in writing instruction are emerging, but they take time to learn, implement, and adapt to meet the needs of the most diverse population of students in our nation’s history. Many of these practices can be seen impacting writing instruction in Washington, DC Public Schools (DCPS). Mathews’ article could have explored the topic more thoroughly by looking at our local school district.

DCPS has developed and adopted several highly successful writing instruction programs and initiatives. DCPS partnerships with two nonprofit organizations have significantly helped improve writing instruction in the Common Core era. One is the Writing Revolution, which helps teach the foundations of writing. The other, One World Education, is the organization I founded while teaching at a DC charter school.

One World Education leads a rigorous writing instruction program in every DC public high school (and in several DC public charter schools) and empowers student choice about personally relevant topics as a foundation for teaching essay-writing skills. Researchers at American University and the World Bank reported that One World Education’s program delivered statistically significant gains in multiple writing skills in 93% of its DC schools during the 2015-2016 school year. 

Despite these successes, there is still great need to improve writing instruction in districts, schools, and teacher-preparation institutions. It’s critical that education leaders influencing the field of writing instruction are able to share and discuss best practices, so that the most effective practices and theories reach students in classrooms. The Symposium on Preparing College-Ready Writers is a meaningful step in this discussion. There is great work ahead to improve student writing, both locally and nationally, but the state of writing instruction in DC schools is certainly not a pitiful picture.

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