National Writing Project

Testimony to House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education

By: Barbara Smith, Richard Sterling
Date: March 23, 2004

Summary: NWP Executive Director Richard Sterling and Barbara Simons Smith, a teacher-consultant with the National Writing Project at Kent State University, testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education on the importance of a continued federal investment in the National Writing Project.


Testimony of Barbara Simons Smith
Western Reserve Middle School, Berlin Center, Ohio

I have been a teacher for over thirty years. I stepped in front of my first class of students in 1967, and since then, I have taught nearly two thousand children. During the five decades in which I have taught, I have engaged in a wide variety of professional development programs. I consider this to be an important part of my role as a teacher.

My professional development experience spans my career from my first year of teaching to the present. I have participated in more than one hundred professional development activities, including university-sponsored workshops, national conventions, regional seminars, scholarly presentations, teacher study groups, and two days of teacher inservice training provided by my local board of education each school year. It is from this wealth of professional experience and time spent in the trenches of my classroom that I speak to you today. I am here to tell you that, from among all of the professional development programs in which I have participated during my teaching career, the National Writing Project has been the most beneficial.

My association with the National Writing Project began during the summer of 2000, when I attended the Invitational Summer Institute of the National Writing Project at Kent State University. During this five-week session I was exposed to a very different type of teacher education, one where good teachers from across Northeast Ohio taught other good teachers the very best things they knew about teaching. For eight hours each day, and often long into the evenings by choice, we worked together to understand deeply what it takes to be effective in the classroom. We identified barriers to our own learning, and then we broke those barriers to merge into a cohesive, caring learning community. We discovered the value of the support our colleagues offered. The directors of the institute wove throughout the sessions a strong program of theory, academic reading, and analysis of research. We worked to design and produce standards-based lessons that reflected the best practices identified in today's reading and writing research. We became readers and writers and researchers of our own teaching practice.

For the past 28 years, I have been a language arts teacher in a small, rural, under-funded school district in Northeast Ohio. Before my experience with the National Writing Project, I taught my students well. They composed perfunctory five-paragraph essays, read with understanding the assigned "typical" texts, and performed at an "effective" level on our state mandated reading and writing proficiency tests. In our close-knit rural community, where citizens place great value on hard work, straightforward truth, and mastery of basic skills, I was considered to be a good teacher.

But, the straightforward truth of the matter is, the teaching I was doing then does not match the quality of the teaching I do today. The increased quality in my teaching is reflected in the scores my students receive on our state mandated writing tests. Before my affiliation with the National Writing Project, my students had a very high passage rate on the proficiency test, but very few students received scores in the advanced range. In fact, for the first six years of the test's existence, only three students received advanced scores. Since my attendance at the summer institute of the National Writing Project at Kent State University, the percentage of students in my classes who received advanced scores on their writing proficiency test has risen each year, from 31 percent in 2001, to 35 percent in 2002, to 44 percent in 2003.

But, in the spirit of straightforward truth, it must be said that the impact the National Writing Project has had in my classroom goes far beyond proficiency test scores. Indeed, it goes far beyond the walls of my classroom. My continuing involvement with the National Writing Project, the link to research, theory, and best practice it provides to me, and the network of respectful, knowledgeable colleagues who are always available, have helped me find ways to bring meaning to the writing and reading and thinking of the students in my school and beyond. Through a minigrant from the NWP at Kent State University, for the past two years, I have been able to offer a day of School and Community Writing, called "Write Here; Write Now" in which my colleagues from urban, rural, and suburban schools in our region come for the day to teach workshop sessions attended by students and community members from Berlin Center, my rural town. This annual event, now sponsored by our PTA, brings the parents and school board members of our community into our school, engaging them in the act of writing poetry and essays with our children. The impact on our students when their parents experience their learning directly in these writing classes has been very positive. With my improved understanding of how writing is learned and how it can be used to learn in other subjects, and with the support of our parents and community members, my students are moving far beyond the basic five-paragraph writing that was done in my classroom five years ago. Students now reach deep within their heads and their hearts to use language to its fullest. They discover the power of words. I carefully develop sound, creative ways to help them master the necessary academic content standards. The high levels of confidence and enthusiasm our students show as they approach academic tasks reflect the spirit and philosophy of the National Writing Project. In this small, country school, the mastery of reading, and writing, and speaking of all students at all levels of academic attainment demonstrates the positive impact the National Writing Project has had beyond my classroom walls.

Testimony of Richard Sterling
Executive Director, National Writing Project

Good morning. Thank you for this opportunity to testify on behalf of my National Writing Project (NWP) colleagues across the country. In the writing project, we say that "writing matters" because writing is crucial to a student's success in school and later in the workplace and community. Every student in America deserves and needs a highly skilled teacher of writing.

Certainly these teachers are to be found in classrooms around the country, particularly teachers who have participated in writing project programs. But we also know, most recently from a report by the National Commission on Writing, established by the College Board, that writing is too often neglected, that teachers are too often uncomfortable and untrained in the teaching of writing. We also know that teachers too often leave teaching because they lack the very professional resources and support that would ensure success for their students and themselves.

The National Writing Project is the major effort in the country to improve writing. Currently, there are 185 local writing project sites, located in universities in 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Each of these sites conducts an annual summer institute, attended by experienced teachers in the area. Together, these teachers prepare for leadership roles by demonstrating their most effective practices, studying research, and writing themselves. They also join a network of peers who continue to meet together, to learn and solve problems and improve their teaching.

After the institute, writing project teachers conduct programs in their own schools and in neighboring schools and districts. The programs are similar in their purposes to the institutes. They develop knowledge and skills. They develop local leadership. They put that knowledge and leadership to work to improve student achievement. Collectively, sites of the NWP conducted 6,482 programs in 2003. Over 100,000 teachers attended those programs.

The effectiveness of this combination—summer institute and school-year inservice—is validated by research from independent evaluators. Studies of student achievement—both local and national—show positive results. Student writing improves in the classrooms of writing project teachers. Research also shows that teachers change their classroom practices as a result of their participation in the program.

The National Writing Project is cost-effective. Historically, the project augments its federal funding by raising an average of $21.1 million in local funds. Our fiscal year 2004 federal appropriation is $17.89 million. We are now seeking an increase to $30 million. This increase will allow the NWP to have a much wider impact on writing and education than it does at present.

The goal of the National Writing Project is to have a site within reach of every teacher in America ; to give every teacher access to high quality professional development; to involve new universities across the country in partnering with local schools to improve writing; to create satellite sites that would serve hard-to-reach areas of our country.

The National Writing Project knows how to grow strong, effective sites. The site in Logan County, West Virginia, for example, began six years ago as a satellite of the Marshall University Writing Project in Huntington, some four hours away. Local teachers flocked to the programs because for the first time, those programs were offered right in their neighborhood. The schools, in the meantime, marked the improvement of their students following the opening of the satellite site. The number of Logan County students receiving top scores on the West Virginia state writing assessment more than tripled—from 30 students in 1998 to 99 students in 2003.

This is the power of putting a professional community within a reasonable distance of teachers. An increase in the writing project budget will mean more local sites and satellite sites. It will also mean more services to teachers and schools. Specifically, the National Writing Project plans to expand its programs for new teachers. Many programs for new teachers focus on classroom management. The writing project focuses on instruction and on closing the achievement gap between students who are capable writers and readers and those who are not.

An increase in funding will mean more programs for teachers of all disciplines, including history, science, mathematics, and teachers of English language learners. Bringing this kind of work to scale means a sustained effort and commitment to writing as a central focus for all students.

An increase in funding will mean more emphasis on technology. Learning to write in a digital world is an area of professional development that sorely needs attention.

The promise of the National Writing Project is to bring the power of writing to all teachers and students in America. We appreciate your long-time support of the National Writing Project and ask for that support to continue so the project can move toward our important new goals.

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