A knockout story in The Atlantic by education journalist Peg Tyre describes the wonderful turnaround of a Staten Island high school that the turnarounders attribute to a writing program. Yes, that’s right, writing.
This comes at a time when there is some debate about the Common Core English language arts standards (see here and here, as well as The Atlantic profile of David Coleman, and just about anything our Common Core guru Kathleen Porter-Magee has written) and the first contracts awarded by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (known, mercifully, as PARCC) to write the ELA tests for the Common Core.
Tyre, who is the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve and The Trouble With Boys: A Surprising Report Card on Our Sons, Their Problems at School, and What Parents & Educators Must Do, has a great grasp of these issues and tells us that the writing program increased pass rates for the English Regents exam from 67 percent to 89 percent and global history from 64 to 75 in just two years. It is the latter bump that prompted a friend of mine to send the story to E.D. Hirsch, which prompted Hirsch to offer some intriguing insights about Tyre’s story (see below).
One of the keys to New Dorp’s success with “writing revolution,” a program inspired by one developed by Judith Hochman when she ran a private school for the disabled in White Plains, New York, was, according to Tyre, “an intense focus, across nearly every academic subject, on teaching the skills that underlie good analytical writing.” As Tyre explains, this was “a dramatic departure from what most American students—especially low performers—are taught in high school.” Or in elementary school for that matter, where, writes Tyre, students “mostly learn writing by constructing personal narratives, memoirs, and small works of fiction.” This dovetails nicely into what the Common Core is trying to do with the ELA standards, which require students “to write informative and persuasive essays. By high school, students will be expected to produce mature and thoughtful essays, not just in English class but in history and science classes as well.” Writes Tyre:
The Hochman Program, as it is sometimes called, would not be unfamiliar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950. Children do not have to “catch” a single thing. They are explicitly taught how to turn ideas into simple sentences, and how to construct complex sentences from simple ones by supplying the answer to three prompts—but, because, and so.
Hochman, now seventy-five, tells Tyre: “The thing is, kids need a formula, at least at first, because what we are asking them to do is very difficult. So God, let’s stop acting like they should just know how to do it. Give them a formula! Later, when they understand the rules of good writing, they can figure out how to break them.”
In a profoundly hopeful irony, New Dorp’s re-emergence as a viable institution has hinged not on a radical new innovation but on an old idea done better. The school’s success suggests that perhaps certain instructional fundamentals—fundamentals that schools have devalued or forgotten—need to be rediscovered, updated, and reintroduced. And if that can be done correctly, traditional instruction delivered by the teachers already in classrooms may turn out to be the most powerful lever we have for improving school performance after all.
As noted, a friend of mine was so taken by the New Dorp story he alerted the maestro of curricular content, E.D. Hirsch. The author of two of the most important analyses of our education system and the beliefs that undergird it (Cultural Literacy:What Every American Needs to Know and The Schools We Need: and Why We Don’t Have Them), Hirsch replied with an extremely thoughtful and deft consideration of the Tyre story which Hirsch has given me permission to share here:
I had a thought or two reading this. The first is that expository writing is both a craft and a subject matter. It's a subject to be learned and a craft to be practiced. But those formal acquirements of learning how to put an essay together can take you only so far.
One also has to build knowledge and vocabulary as the key school acquisitions. I was wondering whether the emphasis on writing at New Dorp helped in knowledge and vocabulary acquisition by forcing "distributed practice" of subject matter and vocabulary, causing them to be learned more effectively by having to be written out. I was also wondering if that knowledge effect wasn't just as important or even more important than learning the craft. If so, the promise of the method lies in its efficiency: killing two birds with one stone, both writing and general knowledge. The efficiency is significant only if it's an effective pedagogical device in support of cumulative knowledge building.
Thinking of it quantitatively: there are, say a hundred or so cohesion words like but, although, nevertheless, and there are a couple of dozen rules or principles such as: where are the points of emphasis?: the beginning and end, what are the overarching principles: unity, coherence, and emphasis. How do you get coherence through repetition and word placement? How do you make an outline? Etc. etc. There are maybe one or two dozen principles that you need to know and practice to be a competent writer.
But substantively you need to know some 25,000 word groups, and the knowledge they represent. And when you learn these, you won't have much trouble with unity, coherence, and emphasis, since in comparison with that quantity of stuff there's not all that much to learn about the general principles of expository writing.
The reason this is worth mentioning is that one needs a keen eye for detecting the defects of all new methods and reforms that are chiefly structural and formal in character, and which avoid defining specifically the knowledge to be learned. How-to-ism has been the great original sin of American education, and is the thing that has caused the great verbal decline. This formalism has a charmed life, because of the American resistance to imposing content on anybody. None of this is to call in doubt the importance of essay writing in school. That's knowledge too!
As schools embark on the implementation of the Common Core standards, let us hope that educators keep in mind that they are just standards and that the heavy lifting, as Hirsch suggests, will be that of “defining specifically the knowledge to be learned.”