Strategic Plan: Writing Instruction & Change Leadership

Unedited content from October 2014 – Ashford University

Problem Identification

Here in Hillsborough County, Florida, there is a significant difference in writing results as compared to years gone by. I chose writing because here at the school I teach, Gaither High School, it is one of our main objectives to increase in mastery. Too many of our students are coming to us — and leaving us — without the ability to write effectively and efficiently. It is our goal to make all students college and career-ready, as well as contributing members of society. How can we do that if our students are leaving without the ability to write up to the standard?

This morning, I was in the process of creating my Individual Professional Development Plan for school year 2014-2015. I know from personal experience in my classroom that there is a serious need for further education and instruction in writing in all areas (argumentative, explanatory, narrative, etc.). While writing my IPDP, I decided to focus on writing improvement and mastery and see where Gaither stands among the score cards against other schools in our area.

I took the liberty to seek out Gaither High School’s last five report cards for absolutely everything in order to determine what exactly it was that I wanted to analyze. Knowing that I wanted to increase my own students’ abilities and skill sets in writing, I chose to focus on writing mastery levels. As simple as this sounds, I took a piece of paper, sat down, and recorded each school year and the percentage of mastery according to the Gaither’s score card. Simply by looking at the numbers on the paper, there is an obvious and trending decrease in writing mastery at our particular school.

According to the Florida Department of Education, the last grade for writing mastery at Gaither High School was taken in the 2010-2011 school year. The writing mastery percentage at Gaither was an appalling 85% (Florida School Grades, 2014). Previous years have fluctuated but there is a trend in a decreasing level of mastery overall.

During the 2006 – 2007 school year, Gaither High School was meeting State Standards at a writing mastery level of 93% (FSG, 2014). In the 2007 – 2008 school year, Gaither was also meeting State Standards at a writing master level of 91%, however, we had fallen by 2% in only one year (FSG, 2014). For the school year 2008 – 2009, the writing mastery level fell to a low of 86% (FSG, 2014). That is a total of a 7% decrease since 2006 – 2007. In 2009 – 2010, we jumped back up to 91%, earning back our 5% we lost the year before (FSG, 2014). However, in 2010 – 2011, we ended up at 85%, a total loss of 8% since 2006 – 2007 (FSG, 2014).

I teach English III Honors and English III Regular. I see this in my own classroom every day and have made it my own priority to seek significant change, at least within my classes. As of the beginning of the year in my ENG III H and ENG III R classes, only 41% are obtaining a 60% or better in mastery of writing. That is 48 out of 117 students starting in the realm of where they are expected to be by their junior year in high school in the State of Florida. Only 29% are earning a 70% or higher.

It is absolutely necessary to increase and maintain a mastery level of 95% or higher within the school before our students exit into the “real world.” I would consider that a success. It is my personal goal to get 95% of my students at a mastery level in writing of 85% or better before they leave and graduate to the senior level in our high school, or wherever they attend for their final year in the K-12 educational system. Without this increase in writing mastery, there is little hope for future success in college– or career—for many of our students.

Identified Problem

Here in the School District of Hillsborough County, Florida, there is a significant difference in writing and reading results as compared to previous years. Gaither High School, for example, has decreased in writing mastery by 8%. We dropped from a writing mastery score of 93% to 85% in the span of only five years (Florida School Grades, 2014). Gaither has even created an objective for our school to increase literacy and writing mastery so our students exit prepared for life in college or career.

Writing is a serious issue here in Florida. A lack of mastery in this area has developed throughout the United States as a whole. From my own classroom, I know there is a need for further education and instruction in writing in all areas (argumentative, explanatory, narrative, drama, etc.) In order to gauge our students’ current ability level, all grade levels wrote a formative baseline essay that required students to cite evidence from a reading stimulus. Even in our Honors English classes, the average was a low six out of ten possible points. “Regular” English classes scored an average of only four points of the ten possible. With the above knowledge and findings in mind, I decided to focus on increasing my own students’ abilities and skill sets towards literacy and writing mastery.

After completing my own investigation into current issues facing our school, I needed to see what other teachers and administrators thought were primary concerns. I sent written interview questions to three administrators and four teachers asking the following questions:

  1. What do you think is the most important issue facing our school, and why do you believe it is the issue most in need of attention?
  2. If you could change on thing about the curriculum we teach, what would it be, and why?
  3. What are some professional development topics that would most benefit teachers at our school, and why?
  4. Why do you think writing in the State of Florida overall has declined since the 2006-2007 school year?
  5. What would you consider using as a solution to the literacy issue facing students and educators in the State of Florida?

Each interview returned pointed towards issues concerning literacy, comprehension, and writing mastery. Concerns lie within issue in the curriculum, standardized testing, and educator consistency, according to the interviews. Ultimately, we are failing our students. Our current initiatives are not working. We are not creating solid, college and career-readying citizens.

Analysis of Possible Solutions

Most disputes in teaching writing skills rest only in second-language acquisition and writing (Mangelsdorf, 2006). Instead of controversies, there are multiple ideas for solutions. Possible solutions range from instituting required writing courses in high schools, installing automated feedback software programs, to peer reviewing, and more. But, what is the most viable option that will effectively and efficiently raise literacy and writing mastery skills for all students in the State of Florida– and possibly– the United States?

Similarities have been established through my research of current literature on solutions to writing mastery concerns. Researchers claim that two things impact the effectiveness of writing instruction: immediate feedback and, for lack of a better phrase, a lot of writing (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011 and Bruning & Horn, 2000). One article I found lists a third and very important need when it comes to successful writing instruction: motivation (Bruning & Horn, 2000).

“Although there is a wealth of practical knowledge about writing instruction, there is still relatively little in the way of scientific analysis aimed at the motivational factors critical to writing development,” (Bruning & Horn, 2000).”

The majority of researchers claim that immediate feedback on students’ writing leads to the quickest skill acquisition, but is also the lowest solution utilized by educators due to the time it takes to grade, provide thoughtful and instructional commentary, and discuss areas of opportunities with students (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011). I have seen this in my own school, in my own English department. Too many teachers give too few writing assignments because they do not want the “burden” of having to grade “all of those horrid papers.” However, I, like many, believe that the solution is in the problem. Educators, especially those in secondary institutions, need to assign more writing. It is a well-known fact that the more one practices at something, the better one gets. Add timely feedback to the scenario and we have a recipe for a possible solution. The biggest pain point is educator buy-in.

Research-Based Recommendations

As stated above, I have seen a lack of consistency and interest in building writing skills in my own school, in my own English department. Too many teachers give too few writing assignments because they do not want the “burden” of having to grade “all of those horrid papers.” However, I, like many, believe that the solution is in the problem. Educators, especially those in secondary institutions, need to assign more reading. It is a research-based proven fact that the more an individual works at something, the more that individual is likely to improve and succeed. With timely, constructive, and consistent feedback, the solution to our literacy concern and writing mastery decline is there.

“Researchers have questioned the effectiveness of feedback. The intention of written messages can become garbled and ultimately may not result in the desired improvement in student writing. For example, students may misinterpret the meaning of comments, and although they may believe feedback is valuable, its helpfulness can vary greatly,” (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011).

With this in mind, educators have to remember to provide thoughtful and constructive feedback instead of the rushed, limited feedback we wish we could get away with. Usually, instruction is provided in class, and the students then write the paper outside of the classroom without teacher supervision. The only way to get information to students is to grade the papers in a timely manner, provide thoughtful and constructive feedback and then discuss the paper with the student as to what areas of opportunity the student may have. Comments should preferably be limited to one or two things to work on at a time from my own experience and many researchers agree with this method (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011). It is also important to point out what students are doing well in order to assist in keeping up motivation to continue writing (Bruning & Horn, 2000).

Electing to have students write and read more with the addition of timely, constructive, and consistent feedback is my chosen method of solving the literacy and writing mastery decline because students are engaged in what they are doing, as well as provided with how to improve. The idea is to create a thoughtful conversation via paper that the student can respond to in his or her next writing assignment, or even revise the current paper if time permits (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011). This method gives students the practice they need, the insight from the educator they require, and the confidence and motivation to keep trying without fail (Bruning & Horn, 2000 and McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011).

“Feedback with a developmental focus was most strongly associated with perceptions of feedback effectiveness. Feedback that is developmental in nature provides students with strategies and information to guide the writing of current assignments but that is also transferable to other tasks,” (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011).

In Writing Helpful Feedback: The Influence of Feedback Type on Students’ Perceptions and Writing Performance, the authors note that:

“In this study, both undergraduate and graduate students noted the importance of feedback that was clear, provided positive comments, and was constructive. Specifically, participants appreciated feedback that provided information on the overall structure and approach of their essays and that focused on the key points of their work. Positive comments were recognized as motivating, and students reported being receptive to a balance of positive and critical comments if the focus was improvement,” (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011).

There are multiple studies on how to improve writing mastery and even literacy. With writing mastery, it all comes down to writing more for practice, and receiving helpful, constructive, and positive feedback on students’ work. Commentary such as, “writing needs work” or “refocus your thesis statement” is not enough to improve students, and may actually confuse and frustrate them. This disengages students immediately.

Instead, educators should focus on a few key points at a time, provide thoughtful commentary that produces a conversation—for example: “Why do you believe this is the case instead of that.” Including positive statements regarding student work does not hurt, either. In fact, it motivates students to do even better the next time around and builds confidence in their work. In my classes, a simple “seal of approval” stamp (the stamp is a seal, like the animal) is all that is needed to put a smile on their face and get them to give it a go again. The only trick to this solution is for teachers to buy-in to the method and remain consistent.

Technology Solutions

There are many pieces of technology that could help students with reading literacy and writing literacy. It has been proposed, however, that reading via digital screen initiates a loss of information and comprehension of what is being read. I prefer that reading remains on paper when it comes to my students, until the build the skills required to interpret and comprehend enough information from the reading stimulus. Writing mastery can also be facilitated through software programs on computers and websites. There are an abundant amount of resources for students to “play games” that increase their writing skills, too.

Here at the Gaither, we implement a program called Reading Counts. RC is used by the Media Center to earn prizes which motivates students to participate. In most cases, English and Reading teachers also utilize this program for extra credit and bonus points in the classroom. Reading Counts allows students to take a ten question quiz after reading a book of their choice. Once the student has completed the quiz, the score is reported and printed out. I have my students bring in their reports so that I may provide them with bonus points for reading outside of the classroom. This motivates students to read more, which in turn, increases literacy and reading comprehension without them really knowing they are completing extra work that is increasing their skills. This program is more of an Evening Learning Opportunity that occurs outside of the classroom, but helps with further work inside the classroom.

One piece of technology that could assist with writing mastery is a software program that automatically corrects and grades students’ work based on a specific prompt with explicit instructions. One such program has been created by EdX, a nonprofit organization created by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (Markoff, 2013).

“EdX… has just introduced such a system and will make its automated software available free on the Web to any institution that wants to use it. The software uses artificial intelligence to grade student essays and short written answers, freeing professors for other tasks,” (Markoff, 2013).

Essentially, students type their written essay according to detailed instructions according to a rubric, format it properly, and turn it in by sending it into the software program. The software then grades the essay, paper, paragraph, sentence, etc. The software send back and automatic report with what needs to be corrected according to the prompt, as well as the rubric in place for the grading. This provides instant feedback (as stated above in necessary solutions) (Markoff, 2013).

Dr. Anant Agarwal, president of EDx, stated that, “There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback. Students are telling us they learn much better with instant feedback,” (Markoff, 2013). This type of software program would be very helpful in the classroom. Teachers would benefit by having more free time to accomplish other tasks, such as professional development courses and trainings. Students have the benefit of receiving a response regarding their work immediately. Instead of waiting an entire school day, or over the weekend when students have already forgotten what they may have written about, the software instantly provides them with feedback on their work. This would also give students the opportunity to allow them to earn a higher grade by revising their work and resubmitting (Markoff, 2013). Instant feedback is the key to student success in writing mastery (Lowe, 2014).

There are downsides and negative responses to automated grading. The Professionals Against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment (PAMSSEHSA) has declared, “Let’s face the realities of automatic essay scoring. Computers cannot ‘read.’ They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others,” (Markoff, 2013). However, as of 2013, “The EdX assessment tool requires human teachers, or graders, to grade 100 essays or essay questions. The system then uses a variety of machine-learning techniques to train itself to be able to grade any number of essays or answers automatically and almost instantaneously,” (Markoff, 2013). Not to mention, the system is constantly being upgraded to allow for educators to submit specific guidelines, rubrics, etc., for grading purposes. The system is coming a long way (Markoff, 2013).

Implementation of this software would occur, for example, in my classroom after writing a rough draft of an essay. Students would then peer review their writing with a buddy. The next day, all classes would meet in a computer lab so that they would have the opportunity to type their essays, and submit it to the software program. I would then receive reports for each student who submitted an assignment, how many times they submitted the assignment, and what the final grade was so that I could place it in our online grade book. Students would also receive immediate feedback (including, but not limited to “whether an answer was on topic or not,”) and would be given the opportunity to revise their work to earn a higher score (Markoff, 2013). Not only would students get the immediate feedback they require and learn best from, they would also be learning more skills that lead to overall writing mastery.

In addition, students would be receiving practice on computers. At our school, we do not have computer or typing classes, and most of our students do not have access to computers in their homes. Colleges and careers require computer skills, as well as writing skills. Submitting assignments in this manner would also give them the skills they need to prosper in the 21st-century work and college/university environment. Training for this program is simple for teachers and requires little effort.

Moral Purpose

A moral purpose “means having a commitment to making a difference in the lives and outcomes of students as a result of their experiences at school,” (Bezzina, 2007). The moral purpose of this particular change is to enhance students’ lives and outcomes with increased rigorous reading and writing to establish a fluency in reading and completion of writing mastery prior to becoming a contributing citizen in our community. Students who can read and write well have a better opportunity to move forward in life than the students that have not mastered these basic fundamentals.

In order to procure buy-in, teachers and administrators would need to communication on the subject and change occurring. Teachers need to be heard, and administrators need to listen, as well as vice versus. Everyone needs to be on the same page prior to planning and making the change happen. Teachers need professional development courses to re-establish where they are at with grading based on a rubric, providing critical and thoughtful feedback on a timely basis, as well as understanding that there will be a help team in place should they start to fall behind.

I hear many teachers around me all day, every day, talking about how many weeks behind they are on grading essays. This does our students no good what-so-ever. It is proven that immediate feedback, as well as critical and constructive feedback with a hint of positivity is the best way for students to learn how to become better writers (McGrath & Pychyl & Taylor, 2011). Not only that, but it allows students to become more confident and motivated to write while they see they are progressing (Bruning & Horn, 2000). If teachers are lagging behind on grading essays, or providing useless feedback, students will not progress because they do not know what they are doing incorrectly. Thus, immediate and thoughtful consideration in the feedback is critical.

Mental Models

The mental models on reading literacy and writing mastery within the school are on the same page. Based on my interviews, all teachers view that reading and writing have been left behind for other areas considered more important: standardized testing being the number one. There is a negative view across the board with teachers that the standardized testing is decreasing the interest and motivation for our students to want to read and write better. There is a positive view across the board with administrators who think that standardized testing is the only way to get good, accurate data about reading literacy and writing mastery. But when is data too much? When are the stakes too high? Only one administrator noted that the standardized testing is decreasing our students’ motivation, confidence, and interest in school in general.

Teachers feel that more essays and more reading gets boring after a while for the students. Some teachers in my department also feel that they have too much to do already, let alone add more essays to grade on top of that. One teacher explicitly stated that he agreed with my notion: “The more we read and write, the better we will be. Practice makes progress,” (Lowe, 2014).

Essentially and personally, I feel that the other educators are being a little lazy and stuck in their old ways of marking papers and eventually handing them back. However, this completely negates the idea of what we are here to do. We are teachers, educators. We are here to educate our children and help them become productive members of society. If we are not returning papers with thoughtful feedback within a timely manner, how are they going to be able to revisit their errors, and make corrections prior to the next essay? The answer is that they will not be able to. Students will continue to make the same mistakes until someone tells them they are doing something incorrectly. This is where we have the most influence when it comes to confidence, motivation, and learning.

There are challenges for this change. This is no different from any other change process. But how can we overcome these obstacles? Allow teachers in on the change. Let them have a voice, because that is important for us. Also, provide professional development as stated above. Maybe some teachers do not know how to provide thoughtful feedback. Maybe some do not understand how to grade based on the current rubric. Also, the creation of the help team within the department would create more buy-in as long as it is used properly and not abused.

Peer-Reviewed Research

According to Arthur Denzau and Douglass North in Shared Mental Models: Ideologies and Institutions, one way to strengthen any change process, or even change existing mental models, is to share your own mental model and discuss it with your peers (Denzau & North, n.d.). This could be as easy as asking everyone to close their eyes and picture their students’ progress as they move from essay to essay, continually increasing their scores all because you took the time to do the job. Make it positive. Make it exciting. Allow teachers to voice their opinions and statements and move forward.

Another way to change existing mental models on the process itself is to provide “substantial rationality” for the reasoning. Proof that this plan will work. Evidence that the research has been done and it has changed the curriculum for the better. This goes hand-in-hand with the moral purpose. We are here to be teachers. We educate our children so that they can become responsible, effective members of our own society. We want our students to succeed in life outside of high school. Without literacy and writing mastery, how would that be possible?

There is very little in the way of making our students better. The plan has to be discussed in full. All factors must be considered: “complexity, motivation, evidence, choices, and resources,” (Denzau & North, n.d.). The teachers and administrators need to buy-in. The plan is implemented. Students begin to progress and ultimately succeed with our support as outlined.

Leadership Styles

I believe that there are quite a few different leadership styles embodied by this approach to facilitation of this change process. A few to mention would have to be charismatic, innovative, pace-setter, servant, situational, and transformational (Blanken, 2013). A combination of all of the above would be best-suited for the entire change process.

Charismatic leaders “influence others through power of personality, act energetically and motivate others to move forward, and inspire passion,” (Blanken, 2013). However, there are some downsides. This type of leader is often selfish, and takes too many risks (Blanken, 2013). This particular leadership style could help with the motivation and confidence of the educators involved in this change process, just like the students at The City Academy Bristol community-oriented projects.

In 8 Common Leadership Styles (2013), Blanken states that the innovative leader “grasps the entire situation and goes beyond the usual course of action and can see what is not working and bring new thinking and action into play.” Unfortunately, risks are higher with this type of leader, but at the same time, “failures don’t impede progress, the team gains job satisfaction and enjoyment, and an atmosphere of respect for others’ ideas is present,” (Blanken, 2013). This leadership style would allow for mistakes to be okay, as is represented by The City Academy Bristol, and allow the educators and students involved to present their ideas and use their voices (Carnegie Young People Initiative, n.d.).

The pace-setter style of leadership is generally in charge for higher standards and is an overall amazing role-model for kids (Blanken, 2013). This would go hand-in-hand with what I am trying to make happen. Educators are role models and must buy-in to keep students involved, engaged, and interested (CYPI, n.d.). As with all leadership styles, a pace-setter could place too much pressure on students and educators/administration and cause early burn out (Blanken, 2013).

The servant leader would be required on The Help Team established for this change process because his/her main attributes are “putting service to others before self-interest, include the whole team in decision making, provides tools to get the job done, and stays out of the limelight” to allow the team to get credit for their outcome and results (Blanken, 2013). All of these are necessary. For example, the servant leader would allow the entire team to help make the decision (CYPI, n.d.). The students, educators, and administrators would be that team. Also, they would let the educators actually share the spotlight of success, as they were the ones who completed the initiative (with a little help and guidance). This leader also “creates a positive culture that leads to high morale,” (Blanken, 2013).

A situational leader is “direct and supportive, while empowering and coaching,” (Blanken, 2013). All teachers will need support and coaching. To empower the teachers means to give them confidence and motivate them to do their best. A leader like this would fit in well at Gaither High School and our change initiative for their insights into engagement and coaching skills. Sometimes, however, this type of leader can come off as confusing, or unpredictable (Blanken, 2013).

The transformational leader “expects a team to transform even when it’s uncomfortable, counts on everyone to give their best, and serves as a role model for all involved,” (Blanken, 2013). This leader would be perfect for educators, students, or administrators in need of motivation or optimism. The idea is to create innovative, positive self-image, confident, and proud students, teachers, and administrators. This leader could do just that. This leader “can lead to high productivity and engagement from all team members,” (Blanken, 2013). But, this team also “needs detail-oriented students to ensure scheduled work is done,” (Blanken, 2013).

Ultimately, all of these types of leadership styles would be necessary. Fortunately, it is a common fact that many people possess more than one leadership style, and can often adapt and adjust themselves according to the needs of the project, students, and team involved.


Literacy and writing mastery have significantly decreased in The State of Florida, especially in Hillsborough County at Gaither High School (the school in which I teach). Overall, with standardized testing, new curricula, and new protocols that are not followed through on, the decrease has continued. Portions of this can be blamed on lack of communication, resources, and training. However, the majority is just the fact that the two most fundamental skills have fallen by the wayside due to a feeling of need to “teach to the test” and “teach to the standards.” Unfortunately, these two do not go hand-in-hand with real reading skills or writing mastery.

Several solutions have been identified in this paper. We need to implement more reading, and more writing, because these two initiatives mean more practice for our students. In turn, we as educators need to provide immediate, productive, critical, and thoughtful feedback to our students. If there is too much time between the writing of the essay, and the return of the feedback, the learning opportunity has been lost once again.

The biggest challenge is to increase teacher buy-in. Unfortunately, mental models still exist that even educators adhere to. Instead of teaching from a book and sitting behind a desk, we need teachers to buy-in to ideas like writing conferences, free-writing, more essays, more challenging and critical thinking assignments. With that, we would have a team in place to keep the ball running, and assist educators who may fall behind. Technologies are rapidly appearing in the market to assist, as well.

In its simplest essence, we are not creating students ready for the real world. We are not creating college or career-ready citizens to unleash into our society. We are creating machines that can absorb just enough information to regurgitate onto a test, and then flush the information away, never really having learned anything. There is a saying that I really like, and it has everything to do with standardized testing. If we are taught, as educators, to adapt our teaching styles to each individual type of learning style our students have, then why would we create a standardized test in which very few students are best at this sort of demonstration of knowledge and skill? With each type of learning style comes a different product that can be produced to show what a student has learned, and what still needs to be covered. This negates the entire idea of the high-stakes standardized test. “Fair is not equal, and equal is not fair.”

In order for our community, society, students, city, and state to flourish, we need to better educate ourselves and our children. The first step is getting back to our roots. We need to refocus on writing mastery, reading comprehension (literacy), and less on standardized testing.


Blanken, R. (2013). 8 common leadership styles. Retrieved from

Bruning, R. & Horn, C. (2000). Developing motivation to write. Retrieved from

Carnegie Young People Initiative. (n.d.). Taking up the challenge of pupil participation: The City Academy Bristol. In Inspiring Schools: Case Studies for Change. Retrieved from—case-studies-for-change.pdf.

Florida School Grades. (2014). School Accountability Reports. Retrieved from

Lowe, A. (2014). Stage one: problem identification. (Unpublished graduate assignment). Ashford University, Online.

Lowe, A. (2014). Stage three: solution identification. (Unpublished graduate assignment). Ashford University, Online.

Lowe, A. (2014). Stage four: technology solutions. (Unpublished graduate assignment). Ashford University Online.

Lowe, A. (2014). Stage five: mental models. (Unpublished graduate assignment). Ashford University Online.

Markoff, J. (2013). Essay-grading software offers professors a break. Retrieved from

Mangelsdorf, K. (2006). Review of controversies in second language writing: dilemmas and decisions in research and instruction. Retrieved from

McGrath, A. & Pychyl, T. & Taylor, A. (2011). Writing helpful feedback: the influence of feedback type on students’ perceptions and writing performance. Retrieved from