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September 09, 2009
October 09, 2009
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:
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.”
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:
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.”