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Thoughts On The Alliance’s New Report: Informing Writing

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September 20, 2011 06:36 pm

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As an education professional, I have had a longstanding interest in ensuring that all students learn what they need to learn to succeed, but as a professional writer and editor, I am particularly interested in seeing that students can write well. Clear writing reflects clear thinking, and the ability to write effectively—whether it’s a letter to a city official, a memo to a supervisor, or a research paper for an academic journal—is an essential skill. I have seen in my career, though, that even well-educated people have difficulty writing well, and the evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress suggests that most students continue to struggle with writing.

A new report issued by the Alliance for Excellent Education provides some good news. The report, Informing Writing: The Benefits of Formative Assessment, offers solid evidence that writing assessment is an effective tool to improve student writing. Written by Steve Graham, Karen Harris, and Michael Hebert of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, the report finds that when teachers or peers provide feedback to students on their writing, or when students assess their own writing, the quality of their prose improves. In addition, the report identified six practices to ensure that assessment is done reliably and fairly.

Event Implementing these ideas in classrooms poses a challenge, however. As Tanya Baker, the director of national programs for the National Writing Project (NWP), noted at an Alliance briefing on the report, it is difficult for teachers to provide feedback to students when they have twenty-five or thirty students in a class. And many teachers are ill-prepared to evaluate writing or provide effective feedback. (Watch video from the Alliance’s briefing on the report here or by clicking on the image to the right)

There are hopeful signs. Baker noted that NWP holds summer institutes in which teachers write frequently and receive feedback on their writing and provide to other teachers. In that way, they learn strategies they can apply in the classroom. And the Common Core State Standards have placed a strong emphasis on writing; implementing the standards will require professional development to help teachers teach writing. For example, Bonnie Hain, a consultant in English language arts for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of two state consortia developing assessments to measure the Common Core, said at the briefing that the consortium is developing tools and providing coaches to help teachers understand ways to teach writing so students can meet the standards.

While these efforts are encouraging, the road ahead is long. Informing Writing is a solid start down that path.

Robert Rothman is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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