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The necessity of implementing writing-based curriculums in early education

Published: October 5, 2012
Section: Opinions

A recent article published in The Atlantic, written by Peg Tyre, discusses a New York high school’s population of low-performing students and the struggle to find a solution. New Dorp High School, a public high school located on Staten Island, primarily caters to low-income and working-class families. For decades, school officials and teachers have been unable to figure out why students at New Dorp have been failing. In 2006, 82 percent of the first-year class entered the high school, reading below grade level.

In 2007, four out of 10 students dropped out of New Dorp after their first year, making the school one of the lowest-performing high schools in the nation. And so in 2008, New Dorp’s principal began an investigation to find the root of the problem. People involved with this investigation found that the only difference between failing students and successful students was that successful students knew how to put their thoughts into complete and structured sentences.

In the fall of 2009, New Dorp High School underwent radical changes to restructure their curriculum to teach the basics of analytical writing while at the same time keeping them up to pace with the rest of their subjects. This new way of thinking led to New Dorp’s Writing Revolution, an experiment designed to radically improve students’ writing.

Teachers and other school officials revamped the entire curriculum so that nearly every hour of the day (with the exception of math class) was dedicated to teaching the basics of essay and analytical writing. In chemistry class, after a lecture, students were expected to write about what they learned using subordinate clauses. Furthermore, every classroom discussion was created for students to express themselves using specific prompts: “I agree …, I disagree …, I have something to add …”

The results of this revolution were extraordinary. Students who had this instruction as first-years were already scoring remarkably higher as sophomores than any other New Dorp class. The pass rates for the Regents exams, New York mandatory standardized tests, rose from 67 percent in June 2009 to 89 percent in 2011 for English and 64 to 75 percent for history. Most importantly, the graduation rate is expected to rise to 80 percent this year, an impressive 17 percent higher compared to the rate before the changes to the curriculum.

I believe that what New Dorp has done is exceptional. Their experimental curriculum should be adapted as a model for all high schools that currently have a high number of failing students. After all, although New Dorp is the school featured in this article, they are not the only high school in this nation failing to produce high-performing students. The latest version of the Nation’s Report Card, conducted by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007, stated that only 1 percent of all 12th graders nationwide could write a “sophisticated, well-organized” essay. Other research says that 70 to 75 percent of all fourth through 12th grade students write poorly.

While I fully support the core values of the Revolution, the experiment also points out a major flaw in our education system. This is a short-term solution designed to fix the problems that we are currently facing, which does not necessarily help students who will enter high school in five to 10 years. The experiment is designed to help high school students learn the basics of essay writing, but the fundamentals of good writing should be implemented way earlier than the first year of high school, even as early as elementary school. I agree with those in support of the Common Core Standards, an initiative designed to produce clear expectations about what students are expected to learn so that parents and teachers can fully support them. These standards are critical for keeping students on track so that by the time they are in high school they will be learning how to critically write, not how to simply write. The experiment produced incredible results, but it leaves me wondering: Why should we even have to have these kinds of experiments? Shouldn’t it be expected that these are skills taught in early education?

And yet, this is a phenomenon that we Brandeisians probably don’t think about too often. After all, we have been accepted into an institution that holds very high standards of academic excellence. Were we the one percent of 12th graders who could write in sophisticated form? Well, it’s likely that more than a few of us were, because we were able to clearly express our intent to attend Brandeis, a concept that seems simple to us but may have seemed so impossible at one point for students like those at New Dorp.

This is not to say that we as Brandeis students do not come from different educational backgrounds; that is certainly not the case. But when we become students at Brandeis, in every department, we are expected to critically observe and learn new information. At the end of the day, we are judged by our ability to successfully analyze information. We will be prepared to face the real world when we leave Brandeis because we will know how to clearly express thoughts, opinions and ideas into structured form. If we didn’t have these skills, how could we ever be prepared to work in any setting or continue any type of education?

I don’t believe that these experiments should ever have to happen because these skills should be a critical component of early education. I do, however, believe in the Writing Revolution’s mission because I believe in the importance of good writing and the impact that it can make. Think about anything you have ever wanted to bring to someone’s attention: How have you done that? Most likely, it was in some type of written form. It could be as simple as sending an email to a professor, or as important as writing a letter to a state representative. Whatever the case may be, it was almost certainly, thoughtfully expressed. These are skills that need to be taught early on so that we as young adults can critically analyze and question the world around us. Writing is a powerful tool and every young adult deserves the right to know how to use it.