For many, March equates to basketball madness; even President Obama filled out his NCAA Tournament bracket. Fewer people think of March as Education Month. Obama has juggled a packed schedule with matters to address in Libya, Japan, and elsewhere — squeezing in a moment for basketball predictions – but the future of our country’s education system also has weighed on the president’s mind. He’s not the only one thinking about the state of our nation’s failing education system. Every teacher I know is thinking heavily about the future of education, with budget crises looming everywhere and a seemingly negative shift in America’s perceptions of teachers and schools.
President Obama has visited several schools lately, even talking with students in our community through a distance learning lab at our local university in February. While touring a school in Boston on March 8, the president touted Education Month. He said then that he will cut back federal spending, but not on essential education programs. Yet, the stopgap federal spending bill that Obama signed into law on March 2 to trim $4 billion from the budget does cut back on essential education programs – in particular, Obama cut $25.6 million of direct federal funding to the National Writing Project.
The National Writing Project, folks, is essential. The decision to stop funding the NWP chokes a network of 70,000 teachers who work through 200 university-based Writing Project sites to deliver quality professional development to educators across the country. The National Writing Project includes teachers at all grade levels and across all content areas. The program reached over 3,000 school districts just in the past year to improve student writing.
Does this national program model work? Absolutely. A core belief of the NWP is that effective classroom teachers are the best teachers of other teachers. The leadership of these teachers is developed through invitational summer institutes. During the summer institutes, teachers share writing lessons for the classroom, conduct research, and write together. Another belief of the Writing Project is there is no single right way to teach writing – no easy formula – but there are best practices that we can learn from exemplary teachers, from research, and from the experience of writing itself.
I participated in the Upper Peninsula Writing Project summer institute in 2001, the same summer that I was hired to start my first teaching job. It was directed by an assistant professor in education at our local university and a local fifth grade teacher. What I love about the Writing Project model is that there is no hierarchy; we all value each other. As a high school teacher, I have learned as much about the processes of writing from a first grade teacher as from a middle school teacher as from a college professor. We are all professionals in the teaching of writing, and we are partners in educational reform.
In recent weeks, Obama has told Congress he wants No Child Left Behind education reforms reworked by the start of the next school year. My question is how will teachers be involved in these reform decisions? Another core belief of the Writing Project is that classroom teachers must stand at the center of educational reform. As the National Writing Project has shown, reform happens every time teachers collaborate on best practices. Please include us.
The U.S. Department of Education has launched a new TEACH campaign, an initiative to inspire talented and dedicated Americans to become teachers. I hope Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his department encourage these new teachers to participate in the National Writing Project. It was the best decision I made in my teaching career. I do not believe I would have stayed in the profession these past 10 years if I did not have that network of like-minded professionals who are passionate about teaching and writing. The National Writing Project has sustained me. It has been essential to my growth as an educator. I, like thousands of teachers around the country, cannot imagine next year without it.
The U.S. Department of Education should partner with the National Writing Project in improving education. After all, the National Writing Project is the largest-scale and longest-standing teacher development program in our country’s history. It is already the kind of program that the USDOE wants to support. Obama knows that writing is essential. He became a writer before he became a president. Obama started keeping a journal in college and found it, in his words, “extraordinarily rewarding.” Our young people need to be taught best practices in writing. The National Writing Project is essential.
Jim Gray, the teacher who founded the National Writing Project in 1974, grasped some truths in life. One of his favorites was “The Macbeth Family Factor: It pays to consider the consequences – lest you go mad.” Please President Obama and Secretary Duncan, please do not disregard the National Writing Project. Reinstate funding. Consider the consequences of cutting the lifeline to a program that raises student achievement, that provides high quality professional development to teachers, and that fosters the collegiality of teachers across grade levels and contexts around the country.
Losing the National Writing Project, a proven and essential MVP in education? Now that would demonstrate madness. We need an educational win.