A Letter to President Obama

Mr. President, I don’t understand.

On March 2, you signed an extension of the Continuing Resolution to keep the government running for the next two weeks.  The bill included $4 billion in cuts of discretionary spending.  Among the “wasteful” programs eliminated by this bill were Reading is Fundamental, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, Teach for America, and the National Writing Project.  The funding for these programs was not reduced; it was zeroed out.

In your State of the Union address, you said, “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” to “win the future.”  You have repeatedly spoken out in favor of making education a priority in America.    That’s why I can’t understand your agreeing to eliminate programs that help teachers become smarter and more effective, that have proven positive impacts on students’ performance.  I know that the current climate in Washington isn’t conducive to reasoned evaluation of federal programs, but you I hope you realize that the quick political deal to avoid a government shutdown threatens to unravel teacher networks that have taken decades to build.

Let me be more specific.  I’d like to tell you a little about the National Writing Project, a program I have been involved in since 1994.  NWP is the premier effort to improve writing instruction, student learning, and teacher leadership in America.  Many teachers, myself included, have said that NWP has transformed their professional lives.  The NWP experience begins with a summer institute in which a group of dedicated teachers come together to write, to explore educational research, and to engage in deep inquiry about their teaching practices.  They return to their classrooms renewed, reflective, and ready to share their learning with their students and colleagues.  But the growth doesn’t stop with one summer institute.  Institute fellows stay connected through continuity activities that deepen their understanding and improve their pedagogy.  They become teacher-consultants who design and implement professional development programs for other teachers and take leadership roles in their schools and districts, advocating for quality literacy education for all students.

This is happening at over 200 NWP sites all across the country, all of them partnerships between universities and regional PK-12 schools.  And that’s not all.  Because NWP is a national network, it can harness the insight and creativity of teachers from all over the country and sustain initiatives in a broad range of literacy-related fields – English Language Learning, urban and rural education, technology,  and teacher-research, to name a few.  NWP’s effectiveness has caught the attention of major foundations such as Carnegie and Gates, which have funded several major projects, including one on content-area literacy and another on developing rich curriculum from the Common Core standards.  If you’d like to learn more about NWP’s record, please take a look at the slide show compiled by Inverness Research or explore the NWP website.

To continue this important work, NWP needs a national infrastructure and a partial subsidy of local site activities.  NWP sites leverage the federal funding they receive with university support, state and local professional development contracts, student writing programs, and other grants.  The 2011 requested budget for NWP was $25,646,000.  Eliminating that funding reduced the projected  federal deficit by .00155% – or, rounded off, about two-thousandths of a percent.  Do you think the savings are worth the damage done?

We all know that solving the federal budget crisis will require bold actions.  This bill wasn’t one.  It makes no sense to undermine effective programs that advance our nation’s educational goals at a time when they are needed more than ever – especially since the effective on the budget deficit is negligible.  Better to strengthen proven programs like NWP and look to reform the real budget-busters.

It’s not too late, Mr. President.  A final 2011 budget has yet to be passed, and work on the 2012 budget has barely begun.  I strongly urge you to work to restore funding for the National Writing Project and other programs that advance the cause literacy for all.


Bruce Penniman

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