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MAKING WRITING INSTRUCTION A PRIORITY IN AMERICA’S MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOLS: New Alliance Policy Brief Highlights Students’ Writing Deficiencies, Offers Recommendations to Policymakers

“Many students learn to read and comprehend difficult academic materials yet struggle to write coherent or compelling texts of their own.”

Noting that calls to improve student writing are nothing new, a new brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education says that the consequences for poor writing skills are much higher today than at any time in the nation’s history. Unfortunately, however, 70–75 percent of today’s students fail to write proficiently. According to the brief, Making Writing Instruction a Priority in America’s Middle and High Schools, which was funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, even students who plan to go to college often lack basic writing skills. As a result, colleges and businesses must spend billions a year to provide writing instruction to their students and employees.

While acknowledging that reading and writing are “complementary skills,” the brief is careful to point out that these skills do not necessarily go hand in hand. “Many students learn to read and comprehend difficult academic materials yet struggle to write coherent or compelling texts of their own,” it reads. “Simply put, reading instruction isn’t enough. America’s students will not become skilled writers unless and until their schools make writing a priority.”

Unfortunately, writing instruction is rarely a priority in the nation’s schools. According to the brief, very few teachers require more than a few hours of writing per week, and two thirds of students say their weekly writing assignments add up to less than an hour. And when a writing assignment is given, much of it is cursory, asking students to compose a sentence or two in response to a textbook question, for example, or to write a brief summary of material assigned for homework.

The brief points out that a major reason why middle and high school teachers provide so little writing instruction is because very few teachers—whether in English or in other content areas—receive more than a token amount of training in the teaching of writing. In addition, the amount of time it takes a teacher to read and respond to student writing can be quite large given a teaching load of four or five classes of twenty to thirty or more students each. Moreover, many teachers (especially in math, science, and social studies, but also in the English department) assume that writing instruction isn’t their responsibility.

The brief lists several recommendations on how federal policymakers can combat poor writing skills among the nation’s middle and high school students. It says that policymakers should invest in a comprehensive federal adolescent literacy program such as the Striving Readers program and increase federal support for the National Writing Project, a proven, effective professional development network that has helped thousands of middle and high school teachers incorporate writing into the curriculum.

The brief also states that policymakers should give schools the flexibility and resources they need to schedule more time for writing instruction and encourage states to incorporate writing skills into content-area standards. Finally, policymakers should support more teacher professional development in adolescent literacy and increase federal funding for enhanced assessments to help states include more student writing in No Child Left Behind accountability systems.

The complete brief is available here.


U.S. Department of Education Launches Online College-Planning Tool 

The U.S. Department of Education recently launched the FAFSA4caster, an online tool designed to help students and families financially prepare and plan for college before students’ senior year of high school.

“Improving college access and affordability are key to giving more Americans a chance at higher education and keeping America competitive,” said Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “Families need more information—sooner—about students’ federal aid eligibility so that they can plan ahead for college. The FAFSA4caster gives families an important tool they can use to make decisions about the future.”

The FAFSA4caster provides students with an early estimate of their eligibility for federal financial aid, including Pell grants. Spellings noted that the launch of the forecaster fulfills one of the “action steps” in the final report of her Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which called for notifying students of their aid eligibility earlier than the spring of their senior year.

In addition to speeding up financial aid notification, the FAFSA4caster reduces the time students will need to spend filling out the FAFSA in their senior year of high school by prepopulating 51 of the form’s 102 questions.

Spellings also said that the department intends to launch a more advanced version of the FAFSA4Caster, which will estimate a student’s entire federal aid package (including loans), in September 2007.

Additional information about the FAFSA4caster is available at


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