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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Congress, Can You Spare a Dime? A Teacher Makes the Case for the National Writing Project

Editor's Note: Today, Gaetan has given his pen to guest blogger Judy Jester. Judy has taught eighth grade English in suburban Philadelphia for 23 years; she also co-directs the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University.

I'm a skinflint - always have been, always will be. When I'm cold, I put on a sweater. Though I desperately want an iPad, I'll continue to pine for it as it's just too costly. For years I watched "fuzzy vision" rather than pay for cable. And yet I know that in order to make money sometimes, you have to spend a little first. If only Congress knew this too.

Eighteen years ago I joined the National Writing Project (NWP). It profoundly changed my teaching for the better. (I'll get to that later.) I fear my experience will be one that no other teacher will share. Recently Congress passed a bill that eliminated funding for several literacy initiatives, including the National Writing Project.

Ten Cents Per Student

NWP's appropriation for 2010 was 26 million dollars. That sounds like a lot of money, doesn't it? Now divide that among the 135,000 teachers we served last year and then divide that further by the number of students taught by each of those teachers over the rest of their careers. For the two hundred dollars that were invested in me in 1993, that averages out to ten cents per student I've taught since then. Certainly, we can afford to spend a dime to improve the writing of each child in America.

Lawmakers are justified in lamenting that education spending has doubled in the past forty years with little effect on test scores nationwide. A 2007 public opinion poll The 2007 Survey on Teaching Writing, a national public opinion survey conducted by the independent research firm Belden Russonello & Stewart for the National Writing Project, reveals that there is a greater need to write well now than ever before; yet in that same year's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in writing, only a third of eighth graders scored proficient.

Hit the Ground Running

If only the children who took the NAEP test had been taught by a Writing Project teacher. Sixteen recent studies conducted across seven geographically diverse states showed that the students of Writing Project teachers significantly outperformed students of non-writing Project teachers, especially in the areas of content, structure, and style, NWP Research Brief No. 2, 2010. A recent college graduate and former Writing Project student noted how ill-prepared her classmates were for the writing demands expected of undergraduates. "I, on the other hand, hit the ground running."

How the National Writing Project Transformed My Teaching

How is my teaching different because of my involvement with NWP? When I started teaching in 1987, I thought the teaching manuals I bought at Becker's were godsends. I remember being particularly taken with one book that provided me with 250 research topics, complete with twenty-five questions for each student to answer about his/her own topic. I couldn't understand why my veteran librarian gave my plan such a lukewarm reception. When I read their final papers, I understood why. They were boring, unfocused compilations of trivia. No one learned anything except for me - that I needed to do something drastically different.

How NWP Transformed My Students' Writing

Today my kids read and write about topics that matter to them. Neither Sam's memoir about her house catching fire nor Kevin's picture book on bullying would have been written before my first experience with the Writing Project. Belinda's very personal take on the Dream Act, William's digital story about gaming practices, and Anna's plea for healthier cafeteria fare would also have remained just ideas had I not encountered NWP's principle of writing for authentic purposes.

Because I write too (another NWP principle), I understand what I'm asking my students to do. I know the terror the blank page inspires and I also know how to help them to craft their words in ways we are all proud of. Because I write, they know they can trust my advice to be sound. Additionally, NWP encourages teachers to be reflective practitioners. I think much more critically about my teaching than I used to. In order to explain a technique I've tried in a journal article or in a course I'm coordinating, I need first to understand the source of its success before hoping to replicate it in the future. Every Writing Project teacher has a similar story to tell.

How NWP Transformed My Students' Reading

While students often remark that they believe themselves much better writers because of what I taught them, last year I saw firsthand the effects of writing instruction on reading comprehension. I taught a class comprised of students who had failed our state reading test as seventh graders. When last year's scores were announced, more than half had passed, two-thirds had moved up at least one quartile, and several had jumped up two. Better writers are better readers too. This was just one class. Imagine the impact the training I received from NWP has made with the other two thousand students I've taught over the past eighteen years. All of this for just ten cents per kid.

Keeping Good Teachers in the Profession

The documentary Waiting for Superman reports that teachers in the bottom quintile of effectiveness cover only fifty percent of the required curriculum in a given year while teachers in the top quintile cover 150 percent. With the kind of gains mentioned above, how many Writing Project teachers would fall into that top twenty percent? Not only are students of Writing Project teachers better readers and writers, but they are more likely to continue to reap the benefit of their teachers' expertise for years to come. While fifty percent of all teachers hired leave the profession within the first six years, those with NWP training have a ninety-eight percent retention rate.

That class I mentioned earlier? They fought me at every turn. They clamored for the workbook instruction they were used to, the kind that didn't require much thinking. Their recalcitrance was so strong I wanted to quit teaching altogether. I would have too had not my Writing Project colleagues convinced me to stay the course. Not only were our efforts rewarded at the end of the year, but my commitment to teaching had deepened.

Yet We Can't Find the Money?

Some members of Congress maintain that we can't afford such programs no matter how wonderful they are. How can they reconcile this view with CNN Money reporting that there are 8.4 million households worth at least a million dollars each in 2010, an eight percent increase from 2009 levels, which followed a sixteen percent surge from the year before? That's 600,000 more millionaires this year alone. How can we not afford 26 million to improve the literacy skills of the 55 million children enrolled in school today and the millions more to follow them? Consider too that for every Federal dollar invested in this professional development that local Writing Project sites leverage a matching dollar from other sources. In Pennsylvania, we raise five times that amount. The stamp of approval from the Federal government is that strong. Isn't that the kind of return we want on all of our investments?

If this were our household budget we were trying to rein in, we wouldn't just quit buying groceries. We'd lower the thermostat, make due with the clothes we already have, decide to wait another year before buying a new car. We wouldn't opt to go hungry.

Best Way to Insure Our Financial Future

Our country cannot progress economically if her citizens cannot read and write well. The 21st century workforce must be able to craft cogent arguments, analyze dense reports, and negotiate thorny technological issues not yet dreamed of. Twenty-six million saved today could cost us billions in the future. Take it from this skinflint: there's no surer way to insure our financial future than to invest in our children.

Judy Jester has taught eighth grade English in suburban Philadelphia for 23 years and co-directs the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project at West Chester University. Her articles have appeared in Voices from the Middle and The Quarterly. She's especially interested in the needs of English Language Learners, technology's impact on literacy, and reflective practice. She occasionally posts to her Wordpress blog, Remaining Seated. She lives in Landenberg, PA with her husband, a small flock of animals, and an ever-expanding library.

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