DCPS looks toward a new chapter on writing

Last week, Natalie Wexler recounted her experience as a volunteer writing tutor at a high-poverty DC Public Schools (DCPS) school, and the fact that many students can't write. DCPS officials sent us this follow-up.

Photo by erink_photography on Flickr.

On behalf of the DCPS community, we would like to thank Natalie Wexler for her commitment to our students and for so thoughtfully highlighting an enormous challenge at the heart of our mission.

In an age where literacy demands are higher than any other time in history, our students need to excel in reading and writing. They also must develop the kind of sharp critical thinking needed to read and write with sophistication.

We at DCPS are well aware that there is considerable work to do to meet our literacy goals. We are urgently working toward these goals, and we want to thank all the community members and DCPS partners who devote time, resources, and expertise to work alongside us.

DCPS has made literacy our clear priority for the coming years. There is much that we have recently done, and much more we will do in the near future that will directly address some of the specific challenges our students face with writing.

First, we have chosen to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) on an aggressive timeline—in fact, we were one of the first school districts in the nation to adopt these standards. DCPS is committed to the Common Core State Standards precisely because they set such ambitious and uncompromising expectations for all students. Their focus on argument requires us to prepare students to be clear, analytical and disciplined in thinking, speaking and writing.

In the first two years of our rollout, our focus has been on the reading standards. As Ms. Wexler noted, the connection between reading and writing is critical. The CCSS-aligned units that DCPS has developed require students to engage in close reading of complex texts and to write analytically in response to these texts. Students must include argument and evidence in their writing. They are also required to write objective summaries, a seemingly simple task, but one which has been demonstrated to have a positive impact on writing abilities overall.

In the elementary grades, the rigorous standards are reflected during the daily literacy block. Every day, students engage in word work, shared reading, guided reading, and writing. Students practice opinionated writing, make written connections to readings, and have opportunities to share stories with their peers for continuous feedback and improvement.

Additionally, in school year 2013-2014, DCPS teachers will be provided a Common Core-aligned, high-quality, comprehensive writing workshop program that incorporates grammar and mechanics while emphasizing the writing process. Our goal is that students will understand the value of pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and sharing their written work starting in the early years.

However this is just the beginning. Ms. Wexler referenced the Hochman approach that helped turn around the struggling Staten Island school. We have also been intrigued and impressed by Dr. Hochman's model. It is an approach that spans content areas and begins at the sentence level and increases in complexity to teaching skills that underlie analytical and argumentative writing. It also involves a great deal of teachers' analysis of student writing and explicit instruction in response to students needs.

We were lucky enough to be hosted at Dr. Hochman's school in White Plains, NY where this writing approach was developed, and were sufficiently impressed by this work to invite Dr. Hochman to DCPS. Indeed Dr. Hochman will be a keynote speaker for our secondary principals at our upcoming May 16 Leadership Academy. As a follow-up to this event, we are planning professional development and curricular resource development that are influenced by Dr. Hochman and the body of research around improving writing.

We are very excited about the work DCPS has ahead of us to further our students' reading and writing skills and prepare them for success in college, career and life. We recognize that we have enormous challenges ahead of us and will need intense focus to overcome them.

It is precisely because of our ambitious goals that we welcome the help of our parents, families, and DC community partners as we look to build a collaborative, constructive, and sustained approach to increasing literacy achievement in the district.

Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning
Corie Colgan, Director of Literacy and Humanities
District of Columbia Public Schools

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Note to Chancellor Henderson: Have Mr. Pick write all of your responses from now on.

by Tim Krepp on May 6, 2013 11:33 am • linkreport

What a useful and insightful response that shows DCPS working to improve the school experience for the students of the District, as well as engage with the community in making it easy for the whole to help the students.

by dcseain on May 6, 2013 2:02 pm • linkreport

Mr. Pick- 7 years in DCPS has taught me that the main office thinks they are telling teachers to become more challenging and more rigorous, but I have yet to meet a teacher that feels like they have been given the tools, professional development or models that to actually produce a better outcome. Instead we as parents are fundraising to help pay for better textbooks. This is all talk, I would love to see the actual list of supports you are providing. I would love to see the actual standards that connect grammatical skill and complex writing and the assignments that would create those outcomes. What I see in the Ward 3 schools my children are attending is too much of a focus on on gimmicks- creating a collage, powerpoint or brochure. Basic writing skills have to come first and they are not being taught. There are reading coaches of the wazoo, but what these kids need are actual adults helping kids learn to write a sentence, paragraph and then a paper. I wish I could have more confidence, but I don't in DCPS anymore. It just feels like all talk, someone will write a memo in central office and find that to actually implement the program will cost about the 3 FTE's in the central office and it will go no where.

by DC Parent on May 6, 2013 2:43 pm • linkreport

My thanks to Brian Pick and Corie Colgan for taking the time to address this issue in this forum.

My only question is how can concerned parents and citizens best help?

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on May 7, 2013 2:34 pm • linkreport

Almost six years ago, Michelle Rhee became chancellor of DCPS. Kaya Henderson has continued Rhee's reforms. During these six years, instruction of writing has suffered. I keep hearing that next year, the focus will be on writing. Why did it take so long? There are students in this system who have missed six years of solid writing instruction. I have to say I'm speechless.

by Ocisab on May 7, 2013 5:31 pm • linkreport

The important article by Natalie, and articulate response from Brian and Corie, both reflect the seriousness of this problem. Great work lies ahead to ensure that DCPS students are ready for college and career-ready writing, and groups like One World Education (of which I am part) are generating strong gains in improving DCPS student writing skills.

The organization has dedicated itself to not only providing valuable common core curriculum for educators to teach writing in an engaging manner, but to publishing DCPS students' essays on its website - a showcase of the exemplary writing that is being generated in our schools. To read some of this student writing, visit www.oneworldeducation.org.

by Eric Goldstein on May 8, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

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