The Importance of Writing and the Common Core

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The Common Core State Standards themselves are not much different than many states’ current adopted standards. There are some definite subtle changes, but overall they align fairly well with most states. The biggest change resulting from the Common Core will be the associated assessments particularly in the area of writing. The rigor attached to writing and the Common Core will be a difficult transition for both teachers and students.

The Common Core assessments are designed to prepare our students better for college by the end of high school, track student progress beginning in 3rd grade, and provide teachers, parents, and students with more timely feedback. The single biggest shift from many traditional state standardized assessments will be the writing required in both the English Language Arts and Mathematics portions of the assessments.

Most teachers will tell you that the majority of their students struggle when it comes to critical thinking. The writing component in the Common Core assessments will require teachers to become more focused on teaching critical thinking skills and to put their thoughts into coherent sentences and paragraphs on paper. Students will have to adjust quickly to this style or many could fail.

Current middle school and/or high school students are going to struggle with this transition. Most of them simply do not know how to read a passage successfully, analyze it, and then put into their own words what it means.

This generation has access to so much information at the simple click of a mouse, but they have never been taught the skills to decipher its true meaning. Teachers cannot be faulted for this. It hasn’t been taught because it hasn’t been a requirement up to this point.

The Common Core State Standards will change this, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to be a difficult transition with many road bumps.

Many teachers across the country have already begun to transition towards implementing more rigorous writing across all content. It isn’t going to be an easy transition, and in truth it will likely take an entire cycle of students before we can accurately measure the impact it has had on education.

It is essential to realize at this point that writing has not been altogether abandoned in classrooms or even state assessments. However, the focus of the writing is going to be the key difference between what we are doing now and what we will need to be doing in the Common Core era. The types of writing that most teachers and state assessments require from their students currently are creative essays as compared to the critical thinking and analytic essays that will accompany the Common Core.

In many current classrooms and state assessments students are given a prompt such as this:

If you could invent something that would revolutionize the world, what would it be?

With the Common Core assessment, students will be given a brief passage or passages from either a fiction or nonfiction book. Let’s say the passage is about Abraham Lincoln. They may be asked a question similar to this:

Write an essay that summarizes and explains the adversity that Abraham Lincoln faced throughout his life.

There is a vast difference between these two styles of writings. The latter requires much more analytic, and critical thought to compose a valid response. As we move into the Common Core, creative writing will be replaced by narrative, informative/explanatory, and argumentative writings.

Author Peg Tyre, recently wrote an article called The Writing Revolution in which she discussed how New Dorp High School in New York went from a low performing school to a model school in the matter of a few years by making analytic writing the backbone of their academic curriculum. This charge was led by New Dorp principal Deirdre DeAngelis as a last ditch effort to keep the school from closing. Over the years, the school had tried everything to improve standardized test scores including firing teachers, adding after school tutoring programs, and providing students with access to educational technology.

Nothing had worked, so DeAngelis rolled the dice placing analytic writing as the focal point.

This change in philosophy wasn’t met without its naysayers. Veteran teachers balked at the idea and had negative attitudes, but they slowly came around. Teachers initially focused on finding out what skills their students lacked but needed to become accomplished writers. They eventually found that most students simply didn’t have the tools to become proficient analytic writers. For example, many students didn’t know how to use simple parts of speech correctly in their writing.

The problem at New Dorp is prevalent across the country primarily because students haven’t been taught formal writing for several decades. Instead, the focus has been on journal style writings in which students write about how they feel about a topic or are given a simple open prompt that allows them to be creative. This approach doesn’t teach them to be analytical, and this is reason that many students will initially struggle with the Common Core assessments.

New Dorp invested a lot of time figuring out what skills their students lacked and how to improve them, but the results have been staggering. Their graduation rate has improved tremendously, and student test scores have shown significant improvement across the board. They have gone from the brink of closure to a model for others schools across the country because of the shift towards analytical writing.

New Dorp has reaped tremendous benefits by changing their philosophy in how they teach writing. It hasn’t been an easy transition, and it won’t be an easy transition for schools across the country. However, if the results are comparable to New Dorp’s then it will be well worth the headaches.

I was able asked Peg Tyre some questions about the topic in a brief email interview. Here is what she told me:

Derrick Meador: Based on your experience and expertise, what kind of impact do you believe the Common Core State Standards will have on education in the United States?

Peg Tyre: I'm excited about the new standards. The patchwork standards we have now are a mess. And the way we test those standards -- ugh! Raise your hand if you think multiple choice questions reflect deep learning. If schools really dig into the Common Core, they are going to be teaching a lot more content in history, science, nonfiction, for example. And that's a good thing!

DM: In your article "The Writing Revolution" you discuss the dramatic academic turnaround made by New Dorp High School after thoroughly revamping their approach to teaching writing. Do you believe that a similar approach would be effective for elementary or middle school teachers? What is the ideal grade level for educators to transition this approach?

PT: The foundational skills for good writing instruction should be built in elementary school. By middle school, a lot of time has been lost. By high school, it is almost too late.

DM: What was the single most important thing that New Dorp did to change the academic culture in their high school?

PT: Good question -- they did several things -- got a strong principal, got rid of the worst performing teachers, broke up the sprawling comprehensive school into smaller learning academies. But then the teachers began a process of examination to figure out what the kids didn't know -- who does that? A few places, I guess. But who does that so rigorously? Well, New Dorp did it. And they found kids didn't know how to write. So they taught those skills. It made a world of difference.

DM: Can other schools follow the New Dorp model and expect to see as much success as they had?

PT: It is not a panacea. You have to have strong leadership. You have to have teachers who will admit that if the kids are not learning, they are not teaching the way they need to. This is a huge hurdle -- since many teachers don't look at education that way. They think that it is up to the kids to absorb what they are trying to impart. And many teachers make assumptions about what kids all ready know -- and, as we saw at New Dorp, those assumptions were wrong. The kids at New Dorp weren't lazy or stupid. They had no idea how to do what the teacher wanted them to do. They needed foundational skills and a different kind of instruction.