Stephanie J. West-Puckett

writing, teaching, studying digital writing and rhetorics


Composing the White House

LtoR: Stephanie West-Puckett, Will Banks, and Elyse Eidman-Aadahl

A big thank you to our friends at Wellstone Action! for inviting us to the White House to talk about education, literacy innovation, and achievement and a special recognition of the Thomas Hariott College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University who funded our work.  Dr. Will Banks, Writing Program Director at ECU, and I, along with other representatives from both the Council of Writing Program Administrators and the National Writing Project, met in the East Wing this past Friday, October 7 during the Community Leader’s Briefing Series, listening to the administration’s education priorities and talking about our own work with writing, literacy and professional development in Eastern NC and across the country.

The White House Community Leader’s Briefing Series, an outreach of the Office of Public Engagement, brings local leaders to Washington to learn about the president’s agenda and speak with senior White House staff about how the administration’s initiatives and policies affect our work and our communities, and in this case, our teaching and our schools.  Morning presentations in the Eisnehower Executive Office Building included economic updates, schilling for the American Jobs Act, and an overview of administration initiatives such as Joining Forces, a program that provides additional support to military families and Let’s Move, Mrs. Obama’s campaign to prioritize exercise and provide healthy, fresh food in low-income neighborhoods and communities.  In addition, we were encouraged to review the website and submit profiles of our work to Champions of Change, a campaign that spotlights community leaders and innovative projects that “out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

During the afternoon breakout session, our groups met with Department of Education (DOE) policy advisors to discuss the administration’s education policy, specifically the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and Assessment, and state waivers which allow for more local control in school transformation and reform, and Sponsoring Effective Educator Development (SEED) grants that congress has set aside out of Title II funds for teacher training and development.

Linder Adler-Kassner, Past President of the Council of Writing Program Administrators (CWPA), applauded the inclusion of writing in the CCSS, considering that the previous administration’s No Child Left Behind focused on reading instruction at the expense of writing instruction.  Linda, however, went on to critique the narrow bands of writing that are prescribed by the CCSS, saying that drilling students for twelve years on the three modes–argument, description, and exposition—does little to prepare them for college and career writing readiness.   Fifty years of writing research, she and WPA Vice-President Rita Malenczyk argued, shows us that good writers are flexible.  They can perform in different writing situations—writing for different audiences and for different purposes—and possess habits of mind that are explicated in the newly released CWPA Framework for Success in Post-Secondary Writing, which we shared with DOE officials.

We asked Karen Cruz and the other DOE representatives why writing teachers, writing scholars, and organizations such as CWPA and NWP were not invited to the table to give input in the drafting CCSS for writing.  She answered by noting that CCSS is a federated approach to curriculum reform and that our groups should move forward by reaching out to the assessment consortia (Smarter Balance and PARCC) as well as state-level education departments to create sustainable partnerships between writing teachers, writing scholars, and those whose work will define the implementation of CCSS.

Obama’s education policy advisors lauded the administration’s investment in the $86 million initiative, College Pathways and Accelerated Learning, that expands Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and dual/early enrollment programs which drew sharp criticism in the room as Writing Program Administrators including Dr. Kelly Ritter from University of North Carolina at Greensboro pointed out that these programs encourage a hurried approach to reading and writing instruction with the goals of memorization and completion as opposed to engagement and metacognitive reflection on writing and learning.  Advanced Placement course work and assessment, CWPA members argued, does little to develop effective writers as those programs have little basis in research-based practice and little or no input from writing teachers and scholars in the field.  Dr. Will Banks also pointed out that we need to support good reading and writing practices not merely for the “talented 10th” who are served by these programs but for the ever-growing numbers of students from rural, first-generation, and under-represented groups who now, more than ever, need access to higher education.

Leaders at the table discussed the imperative for higher education faculty to get more involved in K-12 education reform and discussed creating spaces and coalitions for articulating a vertical writing curriculum that would foster career and college-ready writing instruction.  Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Programs Director for the National Writing Project, reminded folks that this cross-pollination is already occurring throughout the NWP network as K-16 faculty are engaged in collaborative professional development experiences such as Invitational Summer Institutes and school embedded professional development programs.  She applauded the congressional set-aside of SEED funding that will enable NWP to continue some of this work, despite losing its federal funding when its status as an authorized program was misconstrued as an earmark, and underscored the significance of assessment in these discussions.  Machine-scoring of writing, she noted, is both efficient and cost-effective; however, the value of writing and making meaning with real audiences is undercut when machines focus on surface-level correctness as opposed to knowledge-making, learning, and communicating in authentic contexts.

Our trip was successful in that we were able to share our research, talk about our work, and highlight the role that teacher and research-based networks like the National Writing Project and the Council of Writing Program Administrators can play in reshaping both local and national responses to literacy innovation and achievement.  In addition, we were able to network with other organizations and to brainstorm ways to bring federal dollars to North Carolina to support reading and writing and address the particular concerns of students and teachers in the Tar Heel State.  As our University’s slogan touts, Tomorrow starts here– but it doesn’t start without vision and leadership.  There are many organizations, small and large, that will join this sort of work and we know that with the right leadership we can locate those donors. The same is true for the connections we need to make among our universities, our K-12 schools and our community colleges.