By Dr. Paul M. Rogers
Director, Northern Virginia Writing Project
All of us care at some level about the education of America’s children. Parents, teachers, school administrators, business owners, entrepreneurs, community leaders, and elected officials all understand that children are indeed our future.
Yet, in spite of this formidable collective willpower aimed at increasing the competitiveness, confidence, and creativity of the next generations of Americans, education seems to be in a constant state of repair. “Reformers” from both sides of the aisle constantly use education as a way to show that they care more than their opponents.
No one feels this constant pressure more than teachers.
In fact, 46 percent of new teachers quit in the first five years of teaching. Those who have stuck it out have grown accustomed to this flavor-of-the-month approach to education. Programs such as No Child Left Behind, Common Core State Standards, and Race to the Top are only the most recent in a string of attempts at fixing what is largely perceived as a broken system.
The problem with all of this focus on national and state policy is that it misses the most critical leverage point in raising student achievement and performance: teacher-student interactions.
Regardless of the policy background at the national, state, or district level, the only possibility for impacting a student’s life (beyond improving the educational experiences of students at home) is to improve the quality of teacher and student interactions.
Research study after research study has demonstrated that the most important school-related factor influencing student achievement is teacher quality.
The question remains: How can we help teachers go from good to great?
For more than 30 years, George Mason University’s Northern Virginia Writing Project (NVWP) has been working to improve the quality of instruction with a powerful model of professional development throughout the schools of Northern Virginia.
The NVWP is a part of the National Writing Project, a network of nearly 200 local sites dedicated to focusing the knowledge, expertise, and leadership of our nation’s educators on sustained efforts to improve writing and learning for all learners.
Five central principles guide our work:
- Classroom teachers are the most trustworthy and competent authorities on what works in classrooms.
- What working teachers of writing know from their classroom experience constitutes valid professional knowledge (what Lee Shulman, former director of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, calls “the wisdom of practice”).
- A successful staff development program requires the ongoing and continually renewed collaboration of teaching colleagues who will continue to share and pool their expertise beyond a few scheduled workshops or even beyond an extended summer institute.
- All teachers of writing, from kindergarten to university, belong to a single, interdependent, collegial community with shared professional challenges, which will best be met through collaborative efforts based on mutual professional respect.
- Teachers of writing must write: Their authority as teachers of writing must be grounded on their own personal experience as writers, persons who know firsthand the struggles and satisfactions of the writer’s task.
Rather than relying on outside experts to train teachers, the NVWP brings 25 of the best teachers in Northern Virginia together each summer to take part in an “Invitational Summer Institute,” where for four to five weeks, teachers examine the most pressing issues related to teaching and learning across the curriculum, demonstrate and reflect on their own best practices and strategies, and study current research in the field.
They also develop their own personal and professional writing lives through participation in writing workshops and writing response groups. Upon completion of the Institute, the teachers become “teacher consultants” of the NVWP.
Since 1978, the NVWP has produced more than 850 teacher consultants, many of whom have taken on a variety of leadership roles in their schools and districts, as well as at the national and even international levels. Many of these teachers have been recognized with awards and honors.
Perhaps more importantly, empirical studies of the Writing Project’s work have shown that over 90 percent of teachers who have gone through the Invitational Summer Institute remain in education.
Of course, journalists, technical writers, screenwriters, and grant-writers know the importance of writing skills.
But ask most engineers, legal professionals, consultants, marketing specialists, and CEOs about the importance of writing abilities, and you’ll come to understand even more the way writing abilities act as a gatekeeper to promotion and more opportunity. Poor writing abilities might not keep you from getting a job, but they will definitely contribute to whether or not you get promoted.
By bringing teachers together from across the curriculum to focus on the “neglected ‘R‘” in education, we have found that teachers not only discover that they indeed have something to say and can learn how to say it effectively, but that their intellectual empathy for their students increases.
They approach the cognitively challenging task of writing as fellow writers rather than people who know how to assign and grade writing. (Studies have shown that writing is as cognitively demanding as playing chess at the expert level.) These subtle changes in teacher practice can lead to large gains in student learning and performance.
As the political rhetoric heats up this election year, we are undoubtedly going to hear grand pronouncements about education from both candidates. Yet, at the end of the day, for the students sitting in the classrooms of Northern Virginia, the only force that can directly affect their educational experience is their teacher. We invite you to join with us in focusing our collective will for a world-class educational system in this country where it belongs: on the interactions of teachers and students.