Writing Instruction in Massachusetts: Commonwealth’s Students Making Gains, Still Need Improvement

BOSTON – Writing Instruction in Massachusetts [1.3MB PDF], published today by Pioneer Institute, underscores the fact that despite 17 years of education reform and first-in-the-nation performance on standardized tests, many Massachusetts middle school students are still not on the trajectory to be prepared for writing in a work or post-secondary education environment.
The study is authored by Alison L. Fraser, president of Practical Policy, with a foreword by Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review, who, since 1987, has published over 800 history research papers by high school students from around the world.
Writing Instruction finds that Massachusetts’ students have improved, with 45 percent of eighth graders writing at or above the ‘Proficient’ level on the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress test. In comparison, only 31 percent of eighth graders scored at or above ‘Proficient’ in 1998. The paper ascribes Massachusetts’ success in improving writing skills to adherence to MCAS standards and the state’s nation-leading state curriculum frameworks. It also suggests that strengthening the standards will help the state address the 55 percent of eighth graders who still score in the “needs improvement” or below categories.
According to a report on a 2004 survey of 120 major American businesses affiliated with the Business Roundtable, remedying writing deficiencies on the job costs corporations nearly $3.1 billion annually. Writing, according to the National Writing Commission’s report Writing: A Ticket to Work…Or a Ticket Out, is a “threshold skill” in the modern world. Being able to write effectively and coherently is a pathway to both hiring and promotion in today’s job market.
“While we should be pleased that trends show Massachusetts students have improved their writing skills, the data shows that we need renewed focus to complete the task of readying them for this important skill,” says Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute. “Before we even think about altering academic standards, whether through state or federal efforts, we need to recommit to such basics.”
The study notes that if the failure to learn to write well is pervasive in Massachusetts, one should look first to the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) designed to measure mastery of those frameworks. Analysis completed in December 2009 by a member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education found that nearly all of the skills that the 21st Century Skills Task Force identified as important, such as effective written communication, are already embedded in the state’s academic standards guiding principles.

Writing Instruction in Massachusetts has these additional findings:

  • The Poor Alignment Between State Writing Standards and Teaching Methods: In large measure, prospective teachers are instructed in how to promote the use of various “writing processes,” typically for experience-based writing. Therefore, without the knowledge to teach different approaches to writing, teachers often fall back on the vagaries of the process approach or formulaic methods of instruction learned in high school.
  • The Importance of Reading to the Writing Curriculum: As Professor E.D. Hirsch describes, core knowledge and cultural literacy means a familiarity with a common core of knowledge, gleaned from well-rounded reading in the liberal arts, gives students, and other writers, a common language through which to communicate with their audience.
  • A Better Way Must Be Found: School districts and teachers can more effectively help students develop their own voices and ideas across multiple subjects by focusing on knowledge- and skill-building, rather than the self-centeredness of approaches such as the Writer’s Workshop. Direct instruction, as opposed to the group-centered and collaborative methods emphasized in many classrooms today, focuses teachers and students on building those skills that research has shown have the greatest impact on student writing.

“Broadening one’s knowledge base strengthens comprehension, improves vocabulary and creates the civic and global awareness that is so important in this century,” writes Fraser. “In other words, in order to be a good writer, students should have ideas and information to write about.”
A 2006 Pioneer report, Aligning District Curricula with State Frameworks, has demonstrated that the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks are not fully aligned with district-level curriculum and are not being taught effectively in many classrooms. The key is clear, sequenced instruction, combined with the reading of quality non-fiction, which will give students access to information about which to write. Students need experience reading, analyzing, and writing about informational and content-rich texts, ultimately preparing them for college and career success.
Pioneer Institute is an independent, non-partisan, privately funded research organization that seeks to change the intellectual climate in the Commonwealth by supporting scholarship that tests marked solutions against the conventional wisdom of more governmental involvement in Massachusetts public policy issues.
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