How to improve a failing school in one easy step

One US school discovered the key to learning is something most Israeli schools neglect – writing.

Elementary school 521 (photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Elementary school 521
(photo credit: Sherihan Abdel-Rahman)
Last month, two Israeli high-school students were among the eight winners of a prestigious international physics competition, First Step to Nobel Prize in Physics. In addition to accounting for a quarter of the winners, Israelis won 12 honorable mentions, more than double the number won by any other country. And to top it off, 12 of Israel’s 14 budding physics stars came from disadvantaged southern towns like Kiryat Gat and Netivot, which normally place well down the educational rankings.
I wish the above were the prelude to a groveling apology for having repeatedly maligned Israel’s public education system as “failing.” Unfortunately, the public education system had nothing to do with these stunning results; the credit belongs almost entirely to an extracurricular program run by Ben-Gurion University’s Ilan Ramon Youth Physics Center – which is why southern students featured so prominently. The center, founded in 2007, has produced a steady stream of Israeli achievements at the competition in recent years.
Thus what these results actually show is just how much potential our failing school system is wasting – and why improving it ought to be a top priority for whatever new government is elected in January.
Of course, saying that is easy; the tough part is figuring out how. In an editorial last week, The Jerusalem Post urged the adoption of recommendations prepared by the international consulting firm McKinsey & Company, which focus on improving teacher quality. That’s clearly essential; it’s hard to provide serious math education, for instance, when 42 percent of high school math teachers lack college degrees in math or any related subject. But it’s equally clearly a long-term project.
There is, however, something schools can do that produces almost immediate results, as one failing New York public school recently discovered: invest serious time and energy, rather than mere lip service, in teaching kids to write.
An article published in this month’s Atlantic magazine tells the story of the New Dorp public school. For years, New Dorp tried all the accepted methods for turning itself around: It fired bad teachers; it solicited grant money that led it to reduce class sizes and offer after-school enrichment programs. But nothing worked.
When principal Deirdre DeAngelis sought to find out why, her investigation led her to a stunning conclusion: The one thing that consistently distinguished successful from failing students was that the former could express themselves in writing and the latter couldn’t. In fact, the failing students didn’t even know how to use simple connecting words like “and,” “but” “although” or “despite” to combine simple ideas into more complex ones.
One of my best high school teachers used to say that your ability to think is limited by your vocabulary: You can’t even think a thought if you lack the words to express it. That, essentially, was what DeAngelis discovered about her students: Because they lacked the tools to express complex ideas, they also lacked the tools to understand them.
She therefore got an expert to show her teachers how to teach writing. Then New Dorp began teaching its students. First, they were drilled in basic grammar, learning how to use crucial connecting words like “although.” Then they were made to practice – relentlessly.
Writing became part of the curriculum in every subject except math. Even in chemistry class, students were assigned to produce complex sentences describing the concepts they had learned (like “Although hydrogen is explosive and oxygen supports combustion, a compound of them puts out fires.”)
Later, they were taught how to combine such sentences into paragraphs, then expository essays, so as to convey complex ideas. Essentially, New Dorp scrapped the prevailing American educational theory, which held that students learn writing best through fun, creative assignments. Now, instead of assignments like “Write a postcard to a friend describing life in the trenches of World War I,” students had to write essays describing three major causes of the war.
The results were dramatic. Between 2009 and 2011, the proportion of students who passed New York’s statewide Regents exams shot up from 67 to 89 percent in English and from 64 to 75 percent in history. The number of students put in remedial courses after failing the exams the first time fell from 175 to 40. And the number taking college-level courses rose from 148 in 2006 to 412 in 2011.
The implications for Israel should be obvious. Though Israeli students are taught grammar, they are required to do very little writing. And like any skill, writing can’t be learned without practice. The result, as university presidents have been warning for years, is that students enter college with very poor writing skills.
They also enter with poor skills in many other areas – as is clear not only from the laments of university presidents, but also from the results of the triannual PISA exam: On the 2009 exam (the 2012 results aren’t available yet), Israel ranked 36th out of 64 countries in reading and 41st in science and math. Yet as New Dorp’s experience shows, teaching kids to write can also improve their learning skills in general.
Obviously, better math and science education are also essential: From the shortage of trained teachers to problems with curricula (the sharp drop in eighth-grade math scores on last year’s nationwide Meitzav achievement tests, for instance, has prompted the Education Ministry to investigate whether its new middle-school math curriculum isn’t making things worse rather than better), Israeli schools face serious problems in math and science education that must be addressed.
But doing so will require both time and money: Not only is it impossible to recruit thousands of qualified teachers overnight, but persuading people with top-notch math and science skills to choose teaching over high-tech will require narrowing the enormous salary gap between these professions. In contrast, a serious writing program can be introduced quickly and cheaply, and it demonstrably produces quick results.
A beefed-up writing program would thus be an excellent way to start improving the education system. And it would even be politically smart – because nothing would make parents more likely to reelect a government than seeing their children’s achievements at school demonstrably improve.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.