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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 08/26/2010

Why the National Writing Project should be saved

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Mary Tedrow, who teaches high school English and co-directs the Northern Virginia Writing Project. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and a member and past fellow of the Teacher Leaders Network. She blogs at Walking to School.

By Mary Tedrow
Most of us know the old adage: Watch what they do, not what they say.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he supports classroom teachers.

Really? And he does this by dumping the National Writing Project, the best professional development program I’ve experienced in nearly 30 years of teaching?

I’ve had some time to calm down since the U.S. Department of Education’s slightly premature August 4th announcement of the Investing in Innovation (i3) grants. The list of the top four "winners" had my blood boiling – in part because the current winner/loser paradigm in DOE’s lingo grates on me. How can we actively promote any policy that implies that some will be losers in the education game? Or is it a race?

The top two i3 grant winners in terms of dollars are KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) and Teach for America, each receiving $50 million in grant money to be spent over the next five years. Both programs rely on the concept that young go-getters will invest a short but intense period of their lives teaching the nation’s most challenged students -- and bumping up building-level test scores. Burnout is expected, after which they will get on with their high-powered lives.

It doesn’t matter that the gains claimed by Teach for America are questionable or that most charters have no appreciable proven success over the regular public schools. Or that veteran (and higher paid) teachers are being fired and replaced by newcomers fresh out of a summer crash course in teaching, upending communities with promises of short-term mentoring for kids who need long-term stability in their lives. These programs, the Education Department is telling us, qualify as innovation.

The National Writing Project's sterling credentials

I would be less skeptical, perhaps, if the Education Department's current proposed budget didn’t call for the elimination of funding for the National Writing Project — a researched program shown to improve teaching effectiveness and student achievement that is the antithesis of TFA and KIPP’s in-and-out approach to teacher development.

The NWP is a network of sites anchored at colleges and universities that serves teachers across disciplines and at all levels, to improve the teaching and writing and learning. The modest amount of funding that the National Writing Project expends ($25.6 million with matching funds required from the geographical area served) has achieved well-documented results in improving practice and in keeping teachers in the classroom.

The costs of the program come in well under those of the glitzy newcomers, since most of the project's work is achieved by practicing classroom teachers. By leveraging these professionals, the Project is able to maintain over 200 sites, each of which serves multiple school systems, providing access for every public and private educator across the nation who chooses to participate.

In the National Writing Project, teachers are trained, examine their classroom practice, do consultancy work (at a fraction of what outside ’experts’ charge), and continue as lifelong students of successful teaching. School buildings grow in-house literacy experts who model and spread strong classroom instruction throughout the faculty (and district) and remain in the building as ongoing resources and models of professional learning.

The National Writing Project is the gold standard in professional development and has often been heralded as such over its 36-year history.

True innovation in teaching and learning have been a consistent hallmark of this network, exemplified by numerous professional works. Teachers of literacy will recognize NWP authors Kelly Gallagher ("Readicide"), Jeffrey Wilhelm ("You Gotta Be the Book"), Jim Burke ("The English Teachers Companion"), and original thinkers and theorists James Britton, James Moffett, and others.

Because it receives federal funding, the program undergoes continual research on its practices. The results speak for themselves.

One study found that 98% of NWP teacher-consultants remain in education throughout their career, affecting the lives of thousands of students for the better. Multiple reports have found that NWP teachers outpace their non-NWP counterparts on multiple measures of student writing performance. Other studies show the impact of the Writing Project’s approach across the whole K-16 curriculum where writing-to-learn strategies are used to enhance critical thinking and creativity.

A lesson in irony

Despite the Education Department's reluctance to continue federal funding for the National Writing Project, the department awarded its highest score in the i3 grants competition to St. Vrain Valley School District in Longmont, Colorado.

How was St. Vrain able to score so high and promise so much?

It will be partnering with its local Writing Project, using the expertise of well-prepared teachers trained through the National Writing Project model to provide much needed support for struggling learners.

For decades, American taxpayers have invested in the National Writing Project, and the research data leaves no doubt they’ve gotten an excellent return on investment.

It simply makes no economic or educational sense to abandon this model — proven to produce good teaching among teachers committed to classroom careers — in favor of approaches that rely on the recruitment of young missionary teachers who are told, explicitly, that they will be here today and gone tomorrow.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 26, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Teachers, Writing  | Tags:  arne duncan, national board certified teachers, national writing project, professional development and teachers  
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Next: Getting real about social, emotional learning


This is outrageous. Do you have suggestions for things we might do to stop this de-funding of the NWP?

Posted by: crazycatlady | August 26, 2010 8:16 AM | Report abuse

The leaders of NWP need to start schmoozing with the beautiful people, then they will get money.

Posted by: edlharris | August 26, 2010 8:51 AM | Report abuse

The authors point is well taken. Duncan's Education department has no interest in improving classroom instruction. Its mission is to "reform" education by re-directing education dollars from needy students to corporate interests and attack working people, teachers, and poor children. KIPP and TFA are parasites sucking the funding out of public education (or perhaps a giant vampire squid, Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs is equally appropriate to TFA and KIPP) and ensuring the children of the poor will never be able to compete with those of their wealthy backers.

Posted by: mcstowy | August 26, 2010 9:45 AM | Report abuse

Agree with everyone above....excellent but very scary article.

Think some significant action needs to happen to give the nation a wake-up call....
A "sick-out" day with well-coordinated demonstrations, speakers, well-known, brainy celebrities, etc. nation-wide?

Issues such as the one this article describes are not only disturbing, they are enormous rents in the fabric of a democratic education for future generations, and ultimately the society in this country.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 26, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse


"Issues such as the one this article describes are not only disturbing, they are enormous rents in the fabric of a democratic education for future generations, and ultimately the society in this country."

Nicely stated.

Posted by: shadwell1 | August 26, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Good News! Cooler heads prevailed in Congress and restored funding for the highly regarded National Writing Project. Its good work will continue.

Posted by: HonestAbe200 | August 26, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Congressional leaders have recommended restoring funding to NWP, which is the good news. We need to continue to insist that federal dollars follow good research and not the flavor of the month.
It is clear that the public school system needs reform, but we need not be distracted by quick fix, large scale programs that ignore the central issue: We need a well prepared, stable teaching force. This was the recommendation of the report A Nation at Risk that has only marginally been addressed. In addition, we cannot keep experimenting with our neediest children. Other nations have leveled the playing field by supporting teachers in the quality of their pre-service training and in continued professional development and peer review. As a nation, we are far behind on the innnovation .Our blighted areas need support that brings access to the same level as the more affluent areas of our nation.
Some programs, like the NWP, do exist as a model of professional learning and support. Interested parties can contact their representative or senators and insist that more time and dollars be spent where it is needed: creating a professional, sustained teaching force.

Posted by: mtedrow | August 27, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse

The National Writing Project has spent most of its $21,000,000 in federal funding each year helping teachers feel more comfortable writing about themselves. This does nothing to help prepare students for the academic writing tasks they will face in college and beyond. It has been a colossal waste of money for decades, IMHO.

Will Fitzhugh

Posted by: fitzhugh1 | August 30, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

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