Reading & Literacy Commentary

Don’t Write Off the National Writing Project

By William Tucker — March 25, 2011 4 min read

Last week, despite his resolve to preserve successful educational programs, President Barack Obama signed legislation that eliminates funding for the National Writing Project, or NWP, among other transformative programs in K-12 education.

“These devastating cuts to education come at a time when our nation should be investing in education and our future,” the project’s director, Sharon Washington, wrote to supporters after the president signed a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running, but with major cuts in spending. “We stand alongside other longtime efforts to improve literacy and teaching whose funding has been eliminated, including Reading Is Fundamental, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and Teach For America.”

In the mad rush to clear budget terrain, Congress, through this stopgap bill, has trampled on an exemplary grassroots program that depends on a modest federal grant to sustain its national outreach. The expression “penny-wise and pound-foolish” comes to mind.

Although the NWP has received targeted federal funding for 20 years, it bears no comparison to the “earmarks” that benefit just one congressional district or a single state. The funds the NWP receives have been distributed from its central office in Berkeley, Calif., to more than 200 sites in 50 states, sustaining a community of 70,000-plus active teacher-leaders. The NWP started out in 1974; no other professional-development network has been so effective for so long.

According to the National Writing Project, its teachers provide more than 7,000 professional-development activities annually, reaching 130,000 educators, and through them, 1.4 million students. All this for approximately $25 million in annual federal funding. This is the essence of productivity: In one year, 7,000 NWP teacher-consultants reach nearly 20 times their number in “educator participants,” according to the California-based consulting firm Inverness Research Inc., which has studied the NWP’s effectiveness.

Along with the teachers, the direct beneficiaries of NWP funding are the parents, the students, and the apprentices of NWP teacher-leaders. They are the caregivers who attend NWP’s family-literacy workshops, the children and teenagers who participate in its 1,000 summer writing camps, and the preservice teachers who visit classrooms and practice in NWP classes. The National Writing Project has become the soil to grow young writers and their families, as well as the next generation of teachers.

Unobtrusively, the seeds of the federal grant germinate in 200 locations every summer, with four-week institutes for the development of writing teachers; those seeds grow as graduates develop their skills as writers, teacher-leaders, and teacher-researchers.

Last year, according to a report from Inverness Research, titled “Understanding the Effectiveness of the National Writing Project,” 94 percent of NWP institute participants reported: “I increased my expertise in an area of teaching that I can share with other teachers.”

Participants in the summer institutes become a community of writing teachers by sharing their personal and professional writing, their teaching practices through “demonstrations,” and their research questions in teacher research groups. This growth enables them to become both a professional-support group and individually trained coaches and workshop providers in K-12 schools. The National Writing Project calls the activities that emerge from the summer institutes “continuity programs.” How many federal grants can claim “continuity” over decades?

Is the instruction of NWP teachers any good? The Local Site Research Initiative, which NWP uses to add to its base of research on what works in the program, has made eight studies of the writing of students in NWP classrooms and reached the following conclusions:

“The results, taken across sites and across years, indicate a consistent pattern favoring the NWP. For every measured attribute [of writing] in every site, the improvement of students taught by NWP-participating teachers exceeded that of students whose teachers were not participants. Moreover, in 36 of the 70 contrasts (51 percent), the differences between NWP participants’ students and the comparison students were statistically significant.”

By every measure, the NWP’s investment in teacher-leaders has been a super-producer, and its yield has consistently increased from its humble beginnings in Berkeley to a 200-site network today. For the past two decades, this network has leveraged federal support to link universities with K-12 schools in sustainable school improvement.

Early this month, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., addressed a letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on the need to distinguish between funding for the NWP, among other programs, and earmarks:

“Authorized, national programs such as Teach For America, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Reading Is Fundamental, National Writing Project, and Close Up are quite different from congressionally directed spending items, which only benefit a specific state, congressional district, or region, and change year to year,” she wrote. “These programs, on the other hand, have been authorized and are nationally structured with many years of bipartisan support. They benefit millions of individuals and families in a majority of states, districts, and regions across the country. In short, national, authorized programs are not what has invoked the public’s demand for earmark reform and should not be classified as such.”

Don’t write off the National Writing Project. It is not too late to admit and correct a tragic oversight. Bring the NWP back into the federal budget and renew it for as many years to come as it leverages its modest grant to transform teachers and young writers in our schools.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2011 edition of Education Week as Don’t Write Off the National Writing Project

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