The Author of 'The Writing Revolution' Responds to the Debate

Fiction and poetry certainly have a place in America's schools. But when students don't learn how to articulate ideas, their options erode -- and our whole society is worse off for it.

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For teens in America's underserved school districts, minimum wage jobs too often take the place of higher education. (Reuters)

It has been satisfying to see my recent Atlantic magazine story prompt so much passionate and thoughtful commentary. It seems clear that as schools begin to incorporate the Common Core standards into their curriculum, asking students to "respond" to what they read will no longer be enough. Most elementary, middle, and high schools will need to improve the kind of writing instruction they provide our students.

Since the publication of the article, I've heard from many parents, teachers, college professors, and employers who would welcome that development. Writing instruction, however, will not be a quick fix for troubled schools. For New Dorp teachers to understand in a granular way what they didn't know and were not teaching, they had to engage in sustained rigorous inquiry under the forceful leadership of their principal and the insightful guidance of Baruch instructor Nell Scharff.

Judith Hochman's program--methodical, structured and rich--developed in those teachers the capacity to instruct all students, even struggling ones, on how best to express ideas in writing. Make no mistake, though. The Hochman program is no Band-Aid for a poorly run school, an uninterested instructor or a half-baked curriculum. As I tried to reflect in my story, it takes sustained effort and unwavering focus to do what New Dorp did. It also takes time.

If elementary, middle, and high school teachers begin instructing their students on how to manipulate the mechanics of language, the benefits may be far-reaching. What I saw at New Dorp is reflected in the research around literacy, which suggests that intensive and explicit writing instruction improves writing ability in high-performing students but has a dramatic effect on the writing ability, oral expression, and reading comprehension of low-performing students. What is most exciting to me is the possibility that our public schools could better equip our citizens to engage in public discourse by providing the foundational skills they need to hold complex ideas in their minds and formulate nuanced responses.

Utopian? Maybe. But what I saw at New Dorp is that this kind of writing instruction allows all kinds of students to extend their learning, to think about what they are being taught and use what they've learned to come up with their own ideas. Students, even those from low-income neighborhoods who did not grow up in a language-rich environment, began to think and express themselves in a more logical, detailed and complex way.

While no one wants to return to the days of diagramming sentences and asking students to memorize lists of prepositions (common practices from yesteryear that many people recall with dread and that do not seem, when studied, to be particularly useful), I would very much welcome a kind of education that helps the voters of tomorrow sort through the spin and think rationally and compassionately about the pressing issues of the day.

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Peg Tyre is the director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation and the author of The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve.

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