The Neglected Voice in the Writing Revolution
Prior to the widespread adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in 2009, writing was largely neglected in the education policy realm. However, the CCSS called for major shifts in the teaching of writing reinforced by the requirements of rigorous new standardized writing assessments. While the high stakes attached to these new assessments place all teachers under increased pressure to improve students’ writing, little is known about how teachers perceive the standards and assessments or how these are influencing classroom instruction. To address this need, this case study explored how English teachers at one urban high school made sense of their school’s new writing initiative, which incorporated use of CCSS-aligned, standardized writing assessments to improve students’ writing. In this longitudinal study, I drew from multiple, nested data sources, including interviews with teachers and school leaders, observations of department meetings, and teacher “think alouds” about students’ writing. Relying on the theoretical lenses of sense-making (Spillane et al., 2002) and communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), I argue that teachers’ sense-making of the writing initiative was individualized and heavily mediated by the standardized assessments they used. This study has three major findings. First, at the school level, there was a “coherence gap” between how the multiple, conflicting purposes of the initiative were represented to teachers and lack of organizational structures to support streamlined implementation. Second, at the department level, the discourse about writing was constrained by the decontextualized nature of the CCSS and the standardized writing assessments, which oversimplified teachers’ understandings of writing as a social process. Third, at the classroom level, teachers relied on two particularized dimensions of their professional knowledge – their “reform knowledge” and their “relational knowledge” – to exercise agency in implementation. Overall, teachers made meaning of the writing initiative in localized ways consistent with their established writing instruction and their perceptions of students’ needs. This study underscores the central importance of particularized teacher knowledge in translating reform meaningfully to the classroom. Until school leaders and policymakers recognize teachers’ knowledge as valuable and create opportunities for teachers to share this knowledge with others, reforms are unlikely to be successful.