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Professional Development Boosts Student Argument, National Writing Project Finds

Guest post by Liana Heitin, originally posted on Curriculum Matters.

The results of a two-year study on the National Writing Project, a teacher professional-development program with nearly 200 sites around the country, show that the program had a positive impact on both teachers' instructional practice and student writing.

Completed as part of a federal Investing in Innovation validation grant, the experimental study looked at NWP's College-Ready Writers Program, which aims to improve students' ability to write arguments based on what they've read. Fourty-four rural districts were randomly assigned to either receive the CRWP professional development or continue with whatever their district or state would normally provide for support. 

"This kind of finding that it impacts teacher instruction and student learning is relatively rare in experimental studies," said H. Alix Gallagher, a principal investigator for the study.

Since professional development directly affects teachers but only reaches students indirectly, professional-development programs don't often find strong impacts at the student level. But the study, conducted by SRI International, found positive, statistically significant effects on the content, structure, and stance of students' argument writing. 

The results are especially good news for the NWP because in two prior SRI studies, the program showed little or no impact on teacher practice and no significant impact on student writing. That's in part because the program was not being implemented consistently across sites, said Linda Friedrich, the director of research and evaluation for the NWP.

In addition, Congress eliminated direct federal funding for the program five years ago, and it has not been reinstated since. 

"For us, this really confirms our belief and our many years of observations that professional development really can support teachers in making complex changes in their practice, and that makes a real difference for students," said Friedrich.

What the CRWP Program Looked Like

In the rural districts randomly assigned to use the College-Ready Writers Program, 7th through 10th grade English/language arts teachers received 45 hours of training on how to teach argument writing for two years in a row. The NWP trainers, who were teachers as well, coached and mentored the participants throughout the process. 

"The thing the teachers really appreciate is it's embedded," said Chip Arnette, a high school principal in Branson, Mo., whose school was in the control group but is now receiving the program. "It's this yearlong PD that they're coming in and constantly working working with our teachers. They're modeling lessons, giving feedback—it's a coaching model."

The participants were also given multiday lesson plans, texts, formative assessment tools, and other curricular resources to use in their classrooms. "The resources, the ease of using them ... that had a lot of weight," said Sydney McGaha, a high school English teacher who trained CRWP participants in Mississippi. "We were making sure they had tools to be able to sustain what we taught them."

One of the hallmarks of the NWP program is that it's localized. So while the resources were provided from the national program, the sites were able to alter and adapt them as needed, explained Friedrich. "We have the belief that what's local really matters, and that handing somebody a script in the long term isn't the strongest way to make a difference for teachers and students," she said. 

The program focused on reading nonfiction text and then using evidence from the text to make an argument. That's in line with the Common Core State Standards, which emphasize both nonfiction and using text-based evidence. The districts participating in the study were in 10 states that were implementing either the common core or similar college and career-ready standards, said Gallagher, who is a principal scientist in the center for education policy at SRI International. 

While the NWP works with many types of districts, the study looked only at those in rural areas. "We do have a long track record working in rural communities," said Friedrich. "That's part of our portfolio that, especially with the loss of direct funding, we haven't been able to provide as much attention to."

Classroom Outcomes

Teachers in the treatment group reported receiving nearly 10 times as much writing PD as those in the control group during the second year. There was little difference in how often the two groups of teachers asked students to write (about 9 out of 10 days for each) or for how long (about 30 minutes a day). But the kind of writing the teachers had students doing was quite different.

Teachers participating in the CRWP were much more likely to focus on argument-writing skills. Those include "developing a claim, connecting a claim to evidence, selecting evidence from source material, and introducing and commenting on source material," the report says.

Students whose teachers took the CRWP program spent about 40 percent of instructional days on argument writing, while students in the control districts spent 13 percent of days on it. Control teachers, on the other hand, put more emphasis on writing conventions and literary analysis. 

SRI study NWP

CRWP students also outperformed their control peers on their use of content, structure (or organization), and stance (or tone), in their argument writing. The effect size for content was especially large, at about 0.2 standard deviations. 

"Relative to other studies, this is a very solid impact on students," said Gallagher. 


 

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