19 March 2011

Funding What Works: The National Writing Project

Despite all the nonsense you hear and read on television, in mainstream newspapers and magazines, even in "research," there are not many things in education "proven" to make a difference.

Charter school management doesn't. KIPP doesn't. Teach for America doesn't. Most reading programs (Success for All, Reading Recovery, etc) don't. Being non-union doesn't. Merit Pay doesn't. Broad trained administrators don't. Gates financed principals don't. "Better" testing doesn't. If you honestly look at every bit of research you'll see that even the best arguments for any of these make no difference at all for 95% of kids.

But a few things do work. And, despite all the talk, we know these work. Smaller class sizes. Co-teaching. Multiage programs. Individualizable technology. Great pre-school experiences which offer playtime and stories rather than explicit academics. Reducing poverty. Better family health care. Improved teacher education. Despite Daniel Willingham's essentially irrelevant research, catering to children's learning styles and preferences.

And something else... one of the few federal initiatives of the past two decades to demonstrate real success in making schools better learning environments and improving children's live: The National Writing Project. This is the project President Obama wants to "zero out" in next year's federal budget.

Unlike many who will blog this weekend in an attempt to get President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress to continue funding for this project, I have never been involved with NWP in any way. I've never helped build the project, or worked with the teacher support programs, or implemented NWP strategies as a K-12 teacher... All I've done is see the results.

The National Writing Project is much larger, and much more effective, than its title suggests. And in any given year its impact is 100 times, 1,000 times the positive effect on children of all Arne Duncan's highly funded, political-donor connected initiatives in Race-to-the-Top and I3 grants combined.

Because what the National Writing Project does is help teachers re-think practices in ways which turn children into better communicators - better writers, better readers, better storytellers, better information shares, better information consumers. And those skills are the heart of advancing achievement and opportunity. And study after study has documented the real differences this little program makes.

Photo from Education Week. All NWP blogs are available at Cooperative Catalyst.
Why does a writing program have this kind of impact? Because, in order to write well, you must build all the component skills, from "reading" (text intake and comprehension), to listening (aural intake and comprehension), to careful and creative seeing, to vocabulary and descriptive skills, to research capabilities, to crap detecting, to empathic skills, to performance ability. Writing is all that, and learning to work well with writing inspires and motivates, and perhaps most importantly, gives voice to students across the widest range of diversities.

I don't need to say much more. Read the blogs from teachers who have watched their students benefit. Read the research. Do a quick look at the NWP site. Understand the absurd budgeting decisions the U.S. President and his congressional pals are making - " It costs $25.6 million and it reaches 130,000 teachers and more than 1.4 million students in over 3,000 districts." (Teach for America this year will spend $189 million this year - not including teacher salaries and benefits which are paid for by the involved school districts - on 4,500 untrained teachers, in comparison, reaching - but not improving the lives of, perhaps 115,000 students. Federal contribution to that exceeds $45 million - direct grants, Americorps, I3.)

And understand this: If the President and Congress choose to destroy this program by "zeroing out" its funding, they are admitting, fully, that they are liars. It will be obvious that they do not care "what works." That they do not care about improving literacy. That they do not choose "the best programs" for our children. And that they really are not interested in closing the achievement gap.

So, call your congressional members. Call the White House. Email them. Jam their Twitter accounts. Go stand outside their homes.

Saving the National Writing Project is a tiny thing in a massive budget battle which will re-define America, probably much for the worse. But if we can win this tiny battle, we might save a bit of hope for the future.

- Ira Socol


bigmaggie said...

I am a physics teacher who was invited, by a member of our English department, to participate in a literacy focused professional development program a few years ago that was informally connected to the Hoosier Writing Project (HWP), the state branch of the NWP. The English teacher who began the program at our school got a grant that paid for subs to cover one of our classes and our study hall once a month in the afternoons, so that we could meet to focus on literacy instruction strategies. The meetings consisted of two members of each of the "core" subject areas (math, science, English and history), two other English teachers who had participated in HWP training before and an HWP associated English education professor from IUPUI, a local university. I was so impressed with the things I learned in this program that I signed up for the month long HWP summer institute at IUPUI that year. This program and the institute I attended were the best professional development I've ever experienced. I learned strategies that not only improved my students literacy development but also the development of their math and science understanding. I was also put in touch with a network of passionate teachers from across the state, through my associate with the HWP, that I can turn to for ideas or support in further improving my instruction. We have been fortunate at the school where I work that this particular English teacher, who runs the program, has been able to continue it. The next year, he invited two members of each of the "elective" departments (fine arts, foreign language, health/wellness and technology). This year, he has returned to pull in more teachers from the "core" areas. In a recent conversation with one of the art teachers who participated last year and who also went to the HWP summer institute, he agreed that this was the best professional development that he participated in as well. I firmly believe that students will benefit greatly if all teachers learn to employ effective reading and writing strategies in their classes, because, as one of the mantras of the HWP says, "Teaching reading is teaching learning and teaching writing is teaching thinking." No matter what our subject area is, teaching kids how to learn and how to think should be our primary objective. There are few programs out there that are as effective as the NWP in providing teachers with the skills to do this well. This program needs to be preserved and I am deeply saddened by the lack of support that this program is getting at the federal level. Thank you for bringing some light to this issue.

Paul Oh said...

As always, you make a forceful and compelling argument. I'm grateful that you're on the side of teachers, students and literacy learning, Ira, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the NWP funding situation.

Unknown said...

The following comment was placed here by "Anonymous" and removed:

"Your blanket dismissal of KIPP, TFA, merit pay, etc. is patently absurd. I'd say this is main detraction of your writing; overemphasis of emotion/anecdote and a general lack of evidence."

I removed this comment, in accordance with "my policy" stated many times on this blog - certain types of criticism must come with evidence and/or identity. In my experience here, over five years, only once has a "pro-KIPP/TFA" commenter identified themselves. And never have they offered evidence.

This blog has produced many links to evidence of KIPP/TFA's minimal impact, and the information cited here is from TFA's annual report.

If the "future leader" who made this comment wishes to have the courage to stand behind their words, I will be happy to engage in conversation.

- Ira Socol

Sara Beauchamp said...

Thanks for this, Ira. I know I've sung the praises enough in your company, but lending your voice is not just nice to hear, but a wonderful addition to the cause. Hope all is well my friend.

Unknown said...

The following appeared in my mail, but for some reason, not here, so I am posting it - Ira Socol

Hi Ira,

I'm not really a fan of arguing ed-reform politics on the Internet, but I felt compelled by your challenge for "pro-KIPP/TFA" folks to identify themselves. I'm not "future leader" - but I would agree with her/him that your TFA/KIPP criticisms seemed off base in this article.

I'm certainly not in favor of removing funding for NWP, but your criticisms of TFA + KIPP seem like straw men here. TFA is in line to receive some significant budget cuts, and, as far as I know, KIPP receives no special federal funding.

I'm no expert on the literature, but anecdotally, the KIPP schools I've been in have seemed like successful, positive places. Additionally, the Mathematica Study - http://kipp.org/about-kipp/results/mathematica-study - on their middle schools shows them to be outpacing peers on standardized tests. I don't deny the existence of literature that finds differing conclusions, but I couldn't find it on a quick search through your archived posts.

Let me know if you ever want to hear the perspective of a (hopefully!) calm, rational TFA-member/charter school teacher. I'll gladly put my name behind my words, and cite any evidence I have available.


- Dan Carroll

Unknown said...


Thank you for your comment. I believe that funding choices represent political priorities, and I believe that an administration which claims to want to support "what works" needs to be held to account on that idea.

So my comparisons are to both impact and effect size. Yes, there is evidence, most supplied by a single research entity, that KIPP students score better on tests and may even attempt college at higher rates than students in some of America's lowest performing schools, at least with certain students. But there is much evidence of both "selective persistence" http://www.scribd.com/doc/36149310/Pb-Henig-Kipp-Finalwc (failing students being counseled out) and evidence that growth in KIPP programs does not continue when students leave for other environments.

Additionally, KIPP will receive almost twice as much money as NWP this year http://www.kipp.org/kippnews/1012/01.htm. So I think comparing its impact is fair.

- Ira Socol