Wednesday, March 15, 2017


“Contentless Writing”

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

Educational Leadership
October 2006, Volume 64, Number 2, pp. 42-46

“Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.”
                                                          Francis Bacon, 1625

    Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, he had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized he had given his speech. Fortunately an alert reporter near the President had made notes and the words were taken down and preserved. But, short as it was, it began with a date and a fact, the sort of factual content which is being drained away from the writing of students in our schools.

    The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about the essays on her business school aptitude test being assessed by computer. She replied that she didn’t mind, because what was important was not what she said, but how she said it.

    Of course while style, fluency, tone, correct grammar and the like are important in writing, folks of the old school like me think that content has value as well. But the new SAT writing test guidelines for Readers say that they must not take off for mistakes of fact, and they are to score the essays “holistically” at the rate of 30 per hour.

    Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times, in an article last year, reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but “when it comes to the writing section, there’s one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point...making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL.”

    Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content (Think: A Million Pieces) is limited to the Left Coast, consider the comment of Lucy Calkins, Head of the Reading and Writing Program at Teachers College, Columbia, who was not too long ago described in Education Week as “The Moses of Reading and Writing” in American education. She teaches writing to huge numbers of classroom teachers, and has a long waiting list for her workshops. When I asked her if she could recommend to her teachers that they have their students write some short factual history essays, her reply was: “I teach writing. I don’t get into content that much.”

    Now, anyone reading this will no doubt think that all writing has to have some content, or the page would be empty, and they are right. So what does go on the page? The National Commission on Writing in the Schools, in their 2003 report on the absence of writing in our schools, gave a clue to the writing that they like in the only quotation from the work of a high school student in their report: They said that the following passage from Michael, a high school student, showed “how powerfully children can express their emotions.”

The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is seen as the gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in our schools, but here is an example of the sort of writing for which they gave an “Excellent” rating in their most recent test of writing by high school students (when most students are scoring “Basic” or “Below Basic” in writing). The student had been asked to write a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, he wrote:

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.

It appears that the sort of writing that is favored by Professors of writing, and the National Commission on Writing in the School, and Washington state, and NAEP, at least at the high school level, might be fairly described as emotional, personal, and/or fictional nonfiction.

If this was the sort of writing which will be required in college courses in history, economics,  political science and the like, not to mention in business, government and other lines of work, perhaps that would not matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, and others have substituted fiction for fact in their professional lives, for instance in journalism.

The problem is that students must be prepared to know facts, dates, and the actual views of real experts and authors, in order to write the term papers they will be asked for in college and beyond, and The Boston Globe has reported that of those students who receive diplomas in Massachusetts high schools and go to community colleges, 63% are in remedial courses, and of those who go to four-year colleges, 34% are in remedial courses.

The Business Roundtable in 2004, reported that in a survey of member companies, they said they were spending over $3,000,000,000 (3 billion dollars) each year in remedial writing courses not just for their hourly employees, but for equal numbers of their salaried employees as well.

As it happens, there are teachers and students in our high schools who know that writing serious factual research papers in history is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, as well as a superb way to learn history and to see what it is like to be a scholar. The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students, has published 726 (1,230) history essays by students from 44 states (and 40 other countries) since 1987. 

What sort of writing are these students doing? Jessica Leight, for example, got interested enough in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s to spend several months on an independent study in her Junior year at a public high school in Massachusetts, and she wrote a 13,000-word paper which won a Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize after being published in The Concord Review. She has now graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford [She since earned a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT, and is now teaching at American University]. She found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring, and admired her defense during the excommunication trial:

...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

    The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson’s disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one’s father and one’s mother by not submitting to the ‘fathers of the commonwealth,’ as Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson’s meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger. In the debate of these points, Hutchinson’s scintillating wit showed itself to best advantage; eventually, Dudley jumped in to rescue Winthrop, who was undoubtedly getting the worst of the argument, and quite simply accused Hutchinson of fomenting all discontent in the colony by deprecating the ministers as under a covenant of works. It was stated that she had aired these unacceptable views at the conference held at Cotton’s house the previous December [1637].

This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the medium here, nor was it looked for during this seminal trial. The author’s emotions, and her “experiences in high school,” were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.

Some readers of this article may assume that writing with content is common in our schools, but a study done for The Concord Review by the Roper Organization found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper (8,000 words shorter than Jessica Leight’s paper) and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. There are many reasons, of course. While 95% reported that they believed research papers were important or very important, most do not have time to assign and grade them.

So it appears that a large fraction of our high school students now enter college having written only a five-paragraph essay, and perhaps one with made-up facts and their emotions about this and that for content. No wonder so many are in remedial courses and so many drop out.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at Northeastern University and author of Losing Our Language gave an example of a Boston high school student unready for college work, in her  report on Social Studies standards in the U.S. for the Fordham Foundation:

An overabundance of personal writing may also reduce students’ experience with informational writing and the modes of reasoning and organization it calls forth. This possibility is unwittingly suggested by the writer of a Boston Globe article on the reflections of a recent graduate of a Boston high school, described as a top student and the winner of several writing awards. Carol Figueroa was stunned by the writing demanded of her at a Boston-area college during her freshman year. The reporter noted that although Figueroa believed she had ‘received plenty of support and encouragement’ from her teachers and that she is now a ‘self-confident leader because of that,’ she now wishes she had gone to a high school with ‘more challenging school work.’ She had discovered that ‘moral support is different from academic rigor.’ Yet the reporter approvingly quoted an English teacher at another Boston high school who had had her students ‘write a short story about their lives’ because, in the teacher’s words, it allowed them to show ‘a high level of writing ability’ and to realize that ‘their own experience is valid and useful.’ This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her ‘high expectations’ for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol Figueroa are not prepared for college-level writing.

The National Governors Association has recently taken an interest in the high schools, and they were surprised when they asked a large sample of recent high school graduates about their experiences, and the majority said they wished they had been given more challenging work in school. They said they would gladly have done more school work if they had been asked to.

The Indiana Survey of High School Student Engagement, in a study of 80,000 students, found last year that 55% said they did less than three hours of homework each week and most still got As and Bs.

While I have not found the grant to allow me to commission a study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in our high schools, I remain of the opinion that as long as the English Departments determine the reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction and the writing personal, ‘creative’ or the five-paragraph essay.

Of course the assignment of serious nonfiction books and research papers is time-consuming, and public schools where teachers are given 150 or more students are not given any extra days to review such reading or to supervise and evaluate such papers, but there are other reasons for the evident retreat into frivolity and fiction.

Heather Mac Donald describes the teaching philosophy of Teacher’s College as “Anything But Knowledge,” and this philosophy is upheld by confining student writing to their own immediate experience, mostly of themselves. Even The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates young student essays on Courage, publishes the short pieces of students who write, not about Anne Hutchinson, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Horatius at the Bridge, or even one of our own Medal of Honor winners, but instead about their own courage in some one of their personal life situations. So Solipsism is the order of the day. Writing about oneself of course can be the work of genius as Marcel Proust has demonstrated so well, but when our students are limited to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school, there are serious consequences, which I would argue show up not only in studies showing the aliteracy of too many of them, but also in college remedial classes and college dropout rates.

    Stephen Colbert, I understand, has introduced the idea of “Truthiness” into our language. This is meant to indicate speech, and probably writing, which although false or comical, is given the appearance of accuracy and seriousness. In college, I was taught that it is one of the tasks of thought to help us distinguish appearance from reality, but the goal of “truthiness” is to blur that distinction, not to clarify it. On fake news programs, such as “The Daily Show” this practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, and elsewhere it seems, it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing of “nonfiction.” Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK just to make things up, for instance to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

    I believe that our high school students who write “truthy” fictitious nonfiction about themselves are being led to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. The personal writing that they do is not held to much of a standard, so too many graduate from school having had little or no experience in acquiring knowledge and organizing and presenting it in an academic paper. If colleges continued this focus on the student herself, and many college expository writing programs do, including some of the ones at Harvard, then this might not be as much of a problem. But college students are still expected to read nonfiction books of which their own personal life is not the subject, and they have to write research papers on what they have learned and thought about besides themselves. And many too many are not being prepared to do that, and this is one contributing factor in college dropout rates. What a terrible waste of hopes and opportunity!



Achieve (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available:

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available:

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas. The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected ‘R’; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders.

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). WASL writing: Make it up as they go along. The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors. The New York Times.


“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board [1998]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
Varsity Academics®

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


     The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level...To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma...The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills....


Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. For two decades, his research has focused on the policies and practices of the countries with the best education systems. His latest book is Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems. Follow NCEE on Twitter.

College Readiness: Are Different Definitions Driving Inequality?

By Marc Tucker on January 19, 2017 6:24 AM

Years ago, the best students were encouraged to take two or three Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  Now they are told that they don't stand a chance of getting into a really selective college unless they start taking AP courses in their sophomore year and then pretty much fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  To get into the best colleges, students have to take and do very well on a full slate of AP courses and, if they are required to submit them, their ACT or SAT scores need to be very high.  To be fully competitive, they also need to have a solid record as a leader in their school and a contributor to their community. 

This, of course, suggests that the standard for being "college-ready" at the elite colleges has been moving steadily up in recent years, to the point that only superb achievers need apply unless their parents are prepared to become multi-million dollar contributors to these schools' endowments.

But regular readers of this column will remember me telling you about a study that NCEE did a few years ago of what it takes to be prepared for the first year of the typical two-year college in the United States.  We found that the most often required first-year mathematics course for most students, regardless of major, is a course called College Mathematics or College Algebra.  But, notwithstanding its name, it is really Algebra I with a bit of geometry or statistics—content that is supposed to be taken in middle school.  Most high school graduates, however, are not ready to succeed in that course.

The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level.  The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills.

One could reasonably conclude from this study that the majority of high school graduates are not ready for what used to be a high school curriculum.  But one could also conclude that most of our colleges have decided to take whatever they can get, as long as they can fill their seats.  Judging by the reports we have gotten from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average performance of our high school students has hardly changed at all in forty years.  But this overall conclusion may mask a steady decline in standards for most high school students and a dramatic rise in standards for our top high school graduates.

But how can it be that the requirements of success in college have been greatly ratcheted up in our elite higher education institutions and, at the same time, been eviscerated in the majority of our colleges?  And how can it be that we are able to create an adequate supply of young people who can meet the soaring requirements of the elite institutions, and, at the same time, fail to enable our high school graduates to meet the puerile standards of most institutions?  And, finally, if this portrait is accurate, what does it mean for the future of our country?

Here's what I think may have happened.  What I am about to share is not a research finding.  It is sheer speculation. I believe two things might have happened at much the same time.  First, as the baby boom generation worked its way out of our colleges and universities, the institutions, determined to keep up the level of their enrollments in the face of a steeply declining supply of applicants, lowered their standards of admission in order to keep enrollments up.  The majority of institutions took anyone who had a high school diploma and, in most cases, the diploma was little more than an attendance certificate.  To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma.

Because their funding was based on enrollment, these institutions decided it was more important for their long-term fiscal well-being to fill their seats than it was to limit enrollments to any specific standard of literacy. Once that decision was made, the die was cast and there was no incentive for either high school students or high school faculty to raise their game or even to maintain their prior standards.

But, at the same time, in the real economy, low-skill, high-wage jobs were disappearing fast.  The demand for relatively low-skill workers was rapidly declining, first because of outsourcing, later because of advancing automation and rapidly increasing demand for highly-skilled, creative and very well educated people.  The people who had these skills were increasingly concentrated in a limited number of states, cities and suburbs that are home to leading universities and high technology firms.  These are people that Richard Florida has dubbed "The Creatives."  Florida describes them as searching for enclaves where they could find people very much like themselves, intellectual stimulation, rich cultural resources and, not least, spouses who were also well-educated and highly skilled.  These people, who were in high demand and could live, more or less, wherever they wish, looked for public school districts that could get their children into the world's leading universities so they could grow up to live as well as their parents.

Voila!  Those are the parents whose children begin to take AP courses in their sophomore year and fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  They use their excellent connections to get their children high-profile internships and opportunities to build health care clinics in Haiti in their summers and, in between, they get them the equipment and coaching they need to make it onto the varsity teams for competitive sports.  These hugely ambitious people communicate very high expectations to their children, who have virtually unlimited support as they seek to meet those expectations.

I am no romantic.  It is certainly true that the opportunities for the children of the wealthy have always been quite different from the opportunities for the poor in this country, and those differences have been compounded by race and ethnicity.  But the evidence is accumulating that those differences are being magnified many times over by forces that are shaping a society that is different, not just in degree but in kind, from the one many of us grew up in.

Robert Putnam, in his wonderful book Our Kids, describes how he grew up in a town in which the children of the wealthy mill owner went to the same schools, played on the same teams, and went to the same ice cream parlor as the children of the people who worked in the mill, people who taught their own children that it was just plain wrong to flaunt their relative wealth in front of kids, like Putnam himself, who had much less money.  And Putnam describes how that kind of real democracy died in his hometown and was replaced by a community in which the children of the rich have little or nothing to do with the working-class kids.

Putnam's story is a story about changes in the relationship between owners and managers, on the one hand, and workers on the other.  Richard Florida describes, as I said above, how the rising professional class, of which Putnam is one, as Florida is himself, have been progressively cut off from the working class.

The rapidly increasing social class and racial isolation of the last four or five decades has been accompanied by another kind of isolation—a wide and growing gulf between those who go to 'college' but who enter with little more than middle school knowledge and literacy and those who have far more.  Increasingly, the people in the latter camp live apart, in their own enclaves, marry one another, and create a set of expectations and cultural supports for their children from birth forward that are simply not available to a large and growing class of people whose prospects are increasingly grim.  What I have just described has become the crux of our politics.

I used to think that it was the forces that account for widening income inequality that have resulted in increasing inequality of education opportunity and there is certainly much truth in that.  But what if it is no less true that widening inequality in educational standards is leading to widening income inequality?  What if these forces are strengthening each other?

So what does 'college ready' mean in the situation I have described?  I'll posit four different definitions: 1) the current functional standard for the high school diploma, which varies from a minimum of maintaining a sufficient attendance record for 12 years of schooling to the most widespread standard in the United States: the ability to reach an 8th grade level of literacy; 2) the ability to succeed in a typical first year community college or state college program, which would require the ability to read at the 12th grade level and to do mathematics at the middle school level (no state now demands this much to get a high school diploma); 3) the ability to function at a level that would give the student a reasonable chance of engaging in a career that would enable him or her to attain a middle class standard of living in an age of increasing automation (writes well; has a sound understanding of basic concepts in science and can apply them to complex problems, has a good command of the fundamentals of algebra, probability and statistics and understands why liberty, freedom and democracy are so important and what it takes to maintain and nourish them--I must point out that it is unclear whether most college graduates meet this standard) and 4) ready to be a serious candidate for admission to a highly selective college.

Here's my point: to the extent that states set graduation standards by specifying grades on standardized tests that students must take—some do, some don't—the standards are typically set by a political process in which state officials in the best of circumstances decide how high the standard can be set without generating too much pushback from the parents of students who fail to get a diploma. Compounding the problem, some states with test-based graduation requirements have waived them for students who simply complete their regular course work or who take online 'credit recovery' courses set to vanishingly low standards. Once standards are lowered, of course, it is far harder to raise them than it was to lower them.

I believe, for the reasons just offered, that the effective standards for most American high school students have been lowered over the last 30 years at the very time that the actual academic requirements for access to a middle class way of life have been steadily rising and can be expected to rise further in the years ahead. At the same time, standards at the upper end of the distribution have risen dramatically, but only for a relatively small band of highly advantaged elite students who, by virtue of having met those standards, will be uniquely positioned to ride the next wave even as the majority of students struggle for the rest of their lives.

The most responsible policy would be to raise dramatically the standards we set for most students, to the third definition of 'college ready' described above.  Paradoxically, we can expect the greatest resistance to such a move to come from the parents of poorly educated students who are afraid that raising the standards will disadvantage their children.  This is a democracy—we cannot raise the standards without first persuading those parents that their children have more to fear from standards that are too low than from standards that are too high.  Therein lies the core challenge for education leaders in the years ahead. 

Monday, January 9, 2017


NEHTA Newsletter   Fall 1998   Volume XI, Number 1


    Just as in the days, decades ago, when there was a big push to put a television set in every classroom, makers of technology now want to put new hardware in every classroom, not only, of course, to make money, but also to bring students and teachers out of the dark ages of reading and writing ordinary text on sheets of paper, and into the bright new dawn of full color multimedia productions.

    Taking notes can be replaced with the videocam and writing papers can be improved away by teaching students to use digital drawing and editing programs to “morph” their ideas into colorful and fast-moving pictures that can hold the attention of their fellow students for fractional seconds, and make them say “Wow!”

    Some problems remain, naturally. Just as Peter Jennings depends almost entirely on pictures to present his view of the 20th century on ABC News (and spinoffs), and is thus somewhat limited in the knowledge he can convey, as compared to that offered, for example, by Martin Gilbert’s three-volume history of the same century, so other events and writings which do not lend themselves to easy summary in pictures will get lost as well.

    Take, for example, George Washington’s Farewell Address. On paper it reads, in part,

The impressions, with which I first undertook the arduous trust, were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say, that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the Organization and Administration of the government, the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps more than in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the encreasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.

    How would we go about rendering those remarks in an exciting, graphic, colorful, multimedia sort of way? How can we employ Canvas, Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark, PowerPoint and any other among the tools of the multimedia fan to enhance these mere words by a long dead President? How can we free our feelings of being creative from the diffidence he expresses and the sense of duty which constrained him?

    Or to take another example, from Jefferson:

During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

    Could this be improved by the application of multimedia? Only in the minds of those whose experiences with literacy left them unaware of the majesty and evocative powers of the written word. For those who read little and poorly, and yet teach in the schools, and for those who may be literate themselves but see no way to pass that gift along to the new generations, the primrose path of multimedia lies sparkling before them, and many take it. I was told at a conference recently that term papers are things of the past, replaced for ever by the visual aids of the new illiterates and the multimedia tools they are being sold. One History department chair said he no longer assigned papers, but PowerPoint presentations instead. The wonders of books will not be offered in his classrooms. We all lose when great writing is left behind. 

Will Fitzhugh

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


[Will Fitzhugh] I remember Pearl Harbor. I was five years old and my sister had her 11th birthday party on December 7, 1941. We went to the movie—Sergeant York with Gary Cooper—about a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. 

In the middle of the film it stopped and the manager brought a mic out on the stage and said: “All servicemen report to your bases.” And all over the theater soldiers, airman, sailors and marines got up and left. When we got out of the movie there was an extra edition out saying Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

This December 7th, 2016, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack wrote in The Boston Globe that when he asked a high school girl what she knew about Pearl Harbor, the girl said, “Who is she?”

Thursday, November 17, 2016


Fight Autodidacticism!!

It is important to consider what might happen if educators, consultants, EduPundits, etc., find out that our secondary students are capable, if not prevented, of reading complete History books on their own, and not only that, they can, if not advised against it in time, write long serious History research papers (average 8,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography) on their own as well.

At first, this might seem a fine way for high school students to learn History and to improve their academic expository writing abilities. But this simplistic early impression fails to take into account the potential harm to all our educational efforts. Only think! They are choosing their own topics to study! They are writing based on their own research in History, and not waiting for our ELA prompts!

What real damage this could cause to the Social Studies and Literacy empires in American education! In fact, it now appears there is a quarterly journal* in existence which publishes such exemplary History research papers by students (from 41 countries since 1987), and this journal could, if we don’t act to prevent it, actually appear in secondary classrooms and even in the homes of students, to allow them to read the exemplary work of their peers!

Our defenses are wide and strong enough to stop this sort of thing from happening, except in a few isolated cases. We can refuse to allow such exemplary student writing in History into our classrooms. We can say it is not really Social Studies. We can say it is not really our Curriculum. We can say it is not really teacher-directed. We can say it is not really personal writing, creative writing or the five-paragraph essay.

If colleges are asking for 500-word personal essays from their applicants, why would we want students to be distracted, even as Seniors, by 8,000-word History research papers by their peers? The risk exists that reading such work could tempt some of our students to try their hand as Autodidacts! And it need not be pointed out what, if that practice became widespread, this could do to the foundations of the entire educational enterprise in this country. Beware! And Defend!

One Benjamin Franklin is enough!!


Thursday, November 3, 2016


[NOW it's SEL for ALL—WHF]

In large part, this is because instead of clearly stated, verifiable outcomes, OBE goals are often diffuse, fuzzy, and ill-defined—loaded with educationist jargon like “holistic learning,” “whole-child development,” and “interpersonal competencies.”

“A Semantic Hijacking”
Charles J. Sykes, Dumbing Down Our Kids
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995, pp. 245-247

         Ironically, “outcomes” were first raised to prominence by leaders of the conservative educational reform movement of the 1980s. Championed by Chester E. Finn, Jr. among others, reformers argued that the obsession with inputs (dollars spent, books bought, staff hired) focused on the wrong end of the educational pipeline. Reformers insisted that schools could be made more effective and accountable by shifting emphasis to outcomes (what children actually learned). Finn’s emphasis on outcomes was designed explicitly to make schools more accountable by creating specific and verifiable educational objectives in subjects like math, science, history, geography, and English. In retrospect, the intellectual debate over accountability was won by the conservatives. Indeed, conservatives were so successful in advancing their case that the term “outcomes” has become a virtually irresistible tool for academic reform.

        The irony is that, in practice, the educational philosophies known as Outcome Based Education have little if anything in common with those original goals. To the contrary, OBE—with its hostility to competition, traditional measures of progress, and to academic disciplines in general—can more accurately be described as part of a counterreformation, a reaction against those attempts to make schools more accountable and effective. The OBE being sold to schools represents, in effect, a semantic hijacking.

        “The conservative education reform of the 1980s wanted to focus on outcomes (i.e. knowledge gained) instead of inputs (i.e. dollars spent),” notes former Education Secretary William Bennett. “The aim was to ensure greater accountability. What the education establishment has done is to appropriate the term but change the intent.” [emphasis added] Central to this semantic hijacking is OBE’s shift of outcomes from cognitive knowledge to goals centering on values, beliefs, attitudes, and feelings. As an example of a rigorous cognitive outcome (the sort the original reformers had in mind), Bennett cites the Advanced Placement Examinations, which give students credit for courses based on their knowledge and proficiency in a subject area, rather than on their accumulated “seat-time” in a classroom.

        In contrast, OBE programs are less interested in whether students know the origins of the Civil War or the author of The Tempest than whether students have met such outcomes as “establishing priorities to balance multiple life roles” (a goal in Pennsylvania) or “positive self-concept” (a goal in Kentucky). Where the original reformers aimed at accountability, OBE makes it difficult if not impossible to objectively measure and compare educational progress. In large part, this is because instead of clearly stated, verifiable outcomes, OBE goals are often diffuse, fuzzy, and ill-defined—loaded with educationist jargon like “holistic learning,” “whole-child development,” and “interpersonal competencies.”

        Where original reformers emphasized schools that work, OBE is experimental. Despite the enthusiasm of educationists and policymakers for OBE, researchers from the University of Minnesota concluded that “research documenting its effects is fairly rare.” At the state level, it was difficult to find any documentation of whether OBE worked or not and the information that was available was largely subjective. Professor Jean King of the University of Minnesota’s College of Education describes support for the implementation of OBE as being “almost like a religion—that you believe in this and if you believe in it hard enough, it will be true.” And finally, where the original reformers saw an emphasis on outcomes as a way to return to educational basics, OBE has become, in Bennett’s words, “a Trojan Horse for social engineering, an elementary and secondary school version of the kind of ‘politically correct’ thinking that has infected our colleges and universities.”

The Concord Review 

Thursday, October 20, 2016


Escape from the Safe Spaces

High School students planning to go to college should know that they will face reading lists of nonfiction books and be asked to write research papers. The vast majority of American public high school students are not asked to read a single complete nonfiction book or to write a term paper before graduation. But they suspect that the safe spaces of fiction readings and personal writing will not prepare them well enough for college. In many cases their teachers have neither the inclination nor the time to help them with History research papers, and while some students, such as many of those published in The Concord Review since 1987, have set up Independent Study programs which let them write such papers, others may want to make use of the services we offer to serious secondary students of History:

One: The TCR Academic Coaching Service matches high school students working on a History research paper online with TCR Authors now at or recently graduated from Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Yale. Personal advice and guidance from a successful older peer (many are Emerson Prize winners) can be inspiring and productive for secondary students struggling with serious term papers. Contact (Manager of the TCR Academic Coaches).

Two: The TCR Summer Program offers a two-week course on the writing of serious History papers by secondary students, with two sessions in the United States and one in Korea in 2017. Contact: (Manager of the TCR Summer Program).

Three: The National Writing Board provides a unique independent assessment service for the History research papers of high school students. Our reports by two Senior Readers now average five pages. Inquire at

Four: The Concord Review can provide students with examples from the History research papers published by 1,200 high school students from 44 states and many other countries since 1987. This journal remains the only one in the world for the academic History research papers of secondary students. These papers have served many students as useful models of research and writing to inspire and guide them in their own reading, research and writing. Seek them at

Will Fitzhugh, Founder
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board;