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By Bob McNamara
Our 2,000-plus students are back in school for another year, about a quarter of them in a different school than the one they attended last year! During their 12 to 14 years of public schooling, they will all change schools at least three times as they move from elementary to middle to high school.
Students from our five elementary and two middle schools all spend their last four years at Harwood Union High School. As the superintendent of schools, it is my job to ensure that the instructional opportunities provided to all of our students prepare them to successfully transition between the schools they attend in Washington West Supervisory Union and into higher education and the workforce.
The purpose of this letter is to introduce you to a project we are working on across our schools in Duxbury, Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield, Warren and Waterbury to improve writing.
Compared to other states, Vermont students' writing scores are significantly better than most. Compared to other schools in Vermont, Washington West students' writing scores are above average. So you may wonder why we selected writing for improvement.
The answer is simple -- we are not satisfied with our students' level of performance. Our students score "above average" in an area where "average" is very weak. For us, it is not good enough to be better than most when around half of our students aren't meeting the writing standards:
• At the national level, only one-quarter of students tested scored at or above proficient.
• At the state level, slightly more than half (53 percent) of the fifth and eighth grade students scored at the "proficient or above" levels on the Vermont state assessment (NECAP) in 2005. That percent decreased to 48 percent in 2006.
• Locally, Washington West students scored higher than the state average but still, only 55 percent of our students scored "proficient or above" in 2005 and 2006.
• There are similar results at the high school level where only about half of Harwood students tested in grade 10 meet or exceed the writing standards on the state exam.
Nationally, writing has been identified as in need of significant improvement (National Commission on Writing report, 2003). The findings of the Commission are compelling:
• Two-thirds of 1,200 major American companies surveyed said that their employees need to be able to write effectively to be successful in their jobs. That number increases significantly in some industries such as finance, insurance and real estate.
• 75 percent of government agencies report that writing skill is part of what is considered before workers are hired, and 60 percent report that promotions are influenced by writing skills.
• The types of on-the-job writing expected have changed and continue to change. In addition to the traditional technical reports, formal reports, memos and other correspondence, email is used almost universally as are presentations using visuals.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE?
The National Commission on Writing report challenged schools K through 16 to:
• Double the amount of time devoted to writing
• Assign writing across the curriculum
• Encourage more out-of-school writing time and have parents reviewing students' writing with them
• Establish ways to assess writing that are fair and authentic
• Strengthen how we use technology to teach, develop, grade and assess writing
• Require writing in every curricular area and in all grades
• Provide developmentally appropriate writing opportunities in all grade levels
• Establish common expectations in writing across disciplines
WHAT WE CAN DO LOCALLY?
There are significant challenges to implement the Commission recommendations. Increasing the emphasis on writing will require time -- time for students to write more, time for teachers to read, respond, and assess to increased writing demands, and time for teachers to learn how this is being done and how it could be done locally.
Fortunately, we have a number of our own classrooms where teachers have started to work on these challenges -- many with a good degree of success. We will build on these resources to strengthen our writing program across our classrooms and schools.
This school year, we have the opportunity built into our school calendar for educators to come together to work on these challenges and others. We have eight days built into the school calendar (once a month except January) where students will be released around 12:30 so that teachers and other educators can come together from 1 to 4:30 p.m. to work on improving student performance. There are four areas we are emphasizing: writing, mathematics, civic responsibility, and instructional improvement. I will write about math, civic responsibility, and instructional improvement at later dates.
Robert McNamara is superintendent of schools for the Washington West Supervisory Union.