Let's Focus Efforts and Resources

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," December 7, 1999, p. 13A

UI President Mary Sue Coleman proposes the University become the nation’s “writing university.”

While we’re at it, let’s make our school district the nation’s “writing district.”

“The ability to write clearly and cogently is critical to our students’ success,” she says, “both in their undergraduate work and in their jobs.”

As I read this passage in her Convocation Address it came back to me. Why I ran for school board in the first place.

It was concern about the quality of my law students’ writing. Sufficient concern that I wrote and posted the most popular item on my Web site, “So You Want to be a Lawyer: A Play in Four Acts.” And I ran for school board.

The law school has one of the nation’s best small-section writing programs. One of the best writing labs on campus. But we’re often developing skills students should have mastered in high school.

If I really cared about law students’ writing, I reasoned, I needed to learn more about our schools.

Writing is no casual undertaking. As President Coleman notes, “The teaching of writing is labor-intensive, requiring small classes, conducted by extremely well-prepared instructors, numerous writing assignments.”

The formula is equally applicable to public schools.

The nation’s best writing district? Sure it’s an ambitious goal. But with determination we can reach it. Nor is there any question about the benefits for our graduates – in college, the workplace, and life.

The school board, with community input, is focusing on what John Carver, author of Reinventing Your Board, calls “Ends.” His word for measurable goals.

Any school district’s revenues are limited. We can’t afford two “shopping mall high schools” offering a little of everything – with every activity and academic course top priority. We need focus.

Here’s a math example. It’s from the book by Marc Tucker and Judy Codding, Standards for Our Schools.

When Ms. Codding became principal of Pasadena High half the students got Ds and Fs in core subjects, 30 percent were dropping out.

An equal number didn’t graduate.

Math scores were the worst in the district.

“I knew that we could not do everything at once,” she says, “that we would have to pick some place to begin.”

She picked math.

The remedies? A new math curriculum. Teacher training. Two math classes a day for each student. After school and Saturday morning tutoring. Parental “contracts” supporting the program. Frequent assessment. Standards requiring mastery.

To do it some programs were cut or abolished. That created opposition.

But once the smoke cleared math scores at Pasadena High had gone from the worst in the district to the best.

The Clayton, Missouri, district has done this with writing for 35 years. National Council of Teachers of English recognizes Clayton as a “Center of Excellence.” Regularly recognizes its students with NCTE writing awards.

The program that makes Clayton “an English teacher’s dream” also makes it one of Money magazine’s top college prep high schools.

Like Pasadena, Clayton pays a price for its focus. English teachers spend over half their time in one-on-one conferences.

West has proven this formula on the football field. The 12 coaches don’t tell the team, “Here’s how to block. There’s a test next week.”

They provide enough one-on-one to make state champions.

It can make classroom champions, too. A price? Yes. But Clayton’s students, parents, other teachers, and school board members believe the sacrifices well worth it.

If districts as different as Pasadena and Clayton can realize impossible dreams, why not us?

What is our dream? Math? Third grade reading scores? Writing ability? That’s the “ends” discussion we have before us.

Even if we agreed on writing improvement as a goal, that’s only the beginning. Maybe we need lots of teacher training. Maybe we just need to tweak the current program. Maybe we start with pilot projects.

School boards don’t design curriculum details. Individual board members sure don’t. That’s a job for the best experts we can find – a number of whom are already locally available in our district and university.

Our board just sets goals. It’s up to the superintendent to reach them.

Vice President David Skorton has the university’s International Writers Program back on track. The Iowa Writers Workshop just celebrated its 63rd anniversary. There’s our Iowa Writing Project summer program for teachers.

And now President Coleman’s proposal Iowa become the nation’s writing university.

With those local resources, doesn’t it make sense – in this place, at this time – to make our school district the nation’s preeminent writing school district?

Nicholas Johnson is a member of the Iowa City School Board.