Photo Nationaal Archief on Flickr.

It’s been clear for a while that students’ writing skills in DC, as in many other school districts, are seriously lacking. Now DCPS is beginning to do something about the situation.

For years, DCPS teachers haven’t focused on teaching writing. It’s a hard skill to teach when you have a class of 25 or 30 kids, and teachers haven’t been trained to do it. Standardized multiple-choice tests, which don’t measure writing ability, have given them little incentive to figure it out. But with the advent of a new writing-heavy curriculum, DCPS is now experimenting with a program that has achieved striking results in a struggling New York City school.

In 2008 New Dorp High School on Staten Island had a graduation rate of about 60% and was one of the 2,000 or so lowest-performing high schools in the country. Then, in 2009, the school adopted a program that had kids writing in every class except math. By 2011, test scores had gone up dramatically, and this year the number of students graduating in four years rose to 76%.

Not only that, students were engaging in more articulate, reasoned class discussions. Their reading comprehension improved. Many more were taking college-level classes: that number rose from 148 in 2006 to 412 in 2011.

All of this has been detailed in a much-discussed article in the October 2012 issue of The Atlantic magazine. The article also described the writing program that effected what it termed the “writing revolution” at New Dorp and spotlighted the program’s creator, Dr. Judith C. Hochman.

Hochman got a lot of attention from educators in the wake of the Atlantic article. Deficient writing skills are a national problem. On a 2011 test given in school districts across the country, only about a fourth of 8th- and 12th-graders scored on grade level in writing.

Four DCPS schools in pilot

But it appears that only one school district is actually trying to implement the Hochman program on a large scale: DCPS. This year the program will be piloted in four DCPS schools: Eastern High School, Washington Metropolitan High School, Truesdell Education Campus, and Hart Middle School. (Full disclosure: I have contributed funds to help support the pilot program.)

Hochman doesn’t focus on creative writing, which she and others have said is the only kind of writing that has really been taught in schools in recent years. Instead, her program teaches students how to engage in expository or persuasive writing, the kind of writing they’ll be asked to do in college and possibly on the job. That’s also the kind of writing that will be required under the new Common Core State Standards, which DC and 45 other jurisdictions have adopted.

Hochman dismisses the idea that if kids become avid readers they’ll automatically become good writers. Reading a lot may turn you into a more discerning reader, she says, but students need more direct instruction to acquire writing skills.

The Hochman program is structured, but flexible enough to be implemented at different grade levels and in a range of subjects. (At the 4 DCPS pilot schools, English, history, and science teachers will participate.) Hochman begins at the sentence level, which she calls “the foundation of everything.” Once students have mastered complex sentences, they progress to paragraphs and then essays.

For example, one type of worksheet that Hochman has created gives students a “stem” and asks them to turn it into a complex sentence using the conjunctions “because,” “but,” or “so.” In a history class the stem might be “The Egyptians built huge pyramids …” and a student might complete it with “but used slave labor to construct them.” In a science class, the stem might be “Mutations cause variations …”

Hochman claims that engaging in exercises such as these not only teaches students how to write, but also how to think and how to comprehend what they’ve read. Even something as seemingly simple as figuring out what to put after “but” requires analysis and comparison. And writing about something you’ve read requires you to figure out what it means.

Essay program for 9th and 10th grade

DCPS is also rolling out another writing-related initiative this year. One World Education is a program that asks students to identify a topic that interests them, research it, and then write an essay about it. Each student receives a notebook that guides them through the three-week process. Selected student essays are published on the organization’s website and used as part of the following year’s curriculum.

While some DCPS and public charter schools have been participating in the program for years, this school year it will be available as an option to English teachers in all 9th and 10th grade DCPS classrooms. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of One World Education.)

Neither of these programs will solve all the problems facing DCPS schools, of course. And their success will require enthusiasm and commitment on the part of teachers. But if what happened at New Dorp is any indication, the effects may be real and dramatic. Teaching students to write effectively can be the key to unlocking their native intelligence.

One student profiled in the Atlantic article started high school reading far below grade level but as a senior had begun the process of applying to college, something she’d never expected to do. “I always wanted to go to college, but I never had the confidence that I could say and write the things I know,” she told the author of the article. “Then someone showed me how.”