One School's 'Writing Revolution' Takes it From Lowest-Performing to Over-Achieving

New Dorp High is serving as a model for a new kind of curriculum that relies heavily on analytical writing skills.
New Dorp's 'Writing Revolution' turned around an academic free-fall that could have meant the end of the school. (Photo: Michael Hitoshi/Getty Images)
Oct 27, 2012· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

Historically, when educators and parents want to boost students’ test scores, they think in terms of more science and math, and that's not a bad thing. But far less frequently, do they think of assigning students the task of writing a well-researched, persuasive essay that’s thoughtfully articulated and backed up by evidence. And why is that― especially when for one Staten Island High School, teaching that very skill took the school from ranking as one of the country’s lowest performing, to one of its most legendary. Welcome to New Dorp High…

For years, New Dorp High School stood as a monument to educational failure, according to The Atlantic. In 2007, four out of every 10 students dropped out―after only their first year. 82 percent of its freshmen classes entered the high school reading below grade level. The student body routinely scored poorly on their exit exams, forcing a majority of them to take those exams more than once.

Principal Deirdre DeAngelis, positive the city was on the brink of shutting the school down permanently, believed that bad writing was at the heart of all of her students’ academic problems. And so began the school’s first iteration of its now legendary New Dorp Writing Revolution.

The plan was simple, if not confounding to traditional educators. Students would be taught all the skills that underlie great analytical writing, and those lessons would be applied across every academic subject, save for math. The skills included well-thought out and executed research, framing persuasive arguments, and proper sentence and essay structure.

The Brandeis University Community Paper reports that at New Dorp, every hour of the students' day was dedicated to teaching them how to apply these skills to each of their subjects.

Within a year, the sophomore students were already scoring higher on exams than any previous class. But the school saw gains across all aspects of its academic life in the years following; exit exam passing scores went from 67 percent to 89 percent in just two years; the school reduced its exit exam repeater classes from 175 students to 40; and the number of students signed up for college level courses went from 148 to 412.

Dennis Walcott, New York City’s schools chancellor, reported to The Atlantic, “To be able to think critically and express that thinking, it’s where we are going. We are thrilled with what has happened there.”

But some of the same themes that worked to reclaim academic success at New Dorp are about to be released on the rest of the country. In the coming two years, 46 states will adopt what are known as the Common Core State Standards. They mandate that grammar school students will be required to write informative and persuasive essays instead of relying on the previous years’ assignments of short fiction and personal narrative pieces. In other words, the idea is that instead of encouraging students to talk about their feelings, teachers will encourage them to think critically and argue persuasively.

That doesn’t sit well with many educators who argue that self-expression is a key attribute to a successful student. And perhaps tired of hearing New Dorp brought up by its propnents, critics of the plan explain that no one really knows exactly why the high school's writing program is making such a difference with students. They argue that before educators have distilled that through exacting research, we shouldn't be revamping curriculums nationwide because of it.

But whether or not this new educational tactic will give rise to an army of expressionless children, or simply make them more adept students remains to be seen. Whatever the next era in education brings us, it seems to be starting now.

Do you think that analytical writing is as necessary across the board for students, or are you a proponent of teaching them self-expression through their work? Let us know in the Comments.