Friday, April 2, 2010; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
2 April 2010

In the 1980s, when I was teaching history at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, one day there was a faculty meeting during which some of my colleagues put on a skit about one of our most intractable problems: students wandering in the hallways during classes. One person played the principal, another the hall monitor, and others the guidance counselor, the vice-principal, and I can’t remember who else from the staff. One teacher played the student who had been in the halls.

They did a good job on the acting and the lines were good, but as it went on, I noticed something a bit odd. Everyone had a part and things to say, but the only passive member of the show was the student, who had nothing much to say or do.

I notice a parallel to this in the majority of discussions about education reform these days. With some exceptions, including Carol Jago, Diane Ravitch, Paul Zoch, and me, edupundits seem occupied with just about everything except what students do academically.

There is a lot of discussion of what teachers do, and what superintendents, curriculum coordinators, principals, financial officers, mayors, legislators, and so on, do, but the actual academic work of students gets very little attention (perhaps especially in history).

This observation was reinforced for me when the TCR Institute did a study in 2002 of the assignment of serious term papers in U.S. public high schools. It was the first (and last) study of its kind, and it found that the majority of HS students are not being asked to do the sort of academic writing they need to work on to prepare themselves for college (and career).

In the last eight years, I have sought funds for a study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in U.S. public high schools, but no one seems interested. Of course, many billions have been spent since 2002 on school reinvention and reorganization, assessment plans, teacher selection, training and retention, and so on, but again, the academic work of the students (the principal mission of schools) is “more honored in the breach than the observance.”

My perspective on this is necessarily a bottom-up, Lower Education one. I publish the serious research papers of high school students of history. Most of the 20,000+ U.S. public high schools never send me one, which is not a great surprise, because most history departments, other than in IB schools, do not assign research papers.

But it gives me a curiosity over the neglect of student work which does not seem to be present in those whose focus is at a Higher Level in education. Those who live on the Public Policy level of Education Punditry can not see far enough Down or focus closely enough on the activity of schools to find out whether our HS students are reading history books and writing term papers.

I believe this is because foundation people, consultants, education professors, public policy experts, and their tribes mostly talk to each other, not to students or even to teachers, who are so far far beneath them. They hold conferences, and symposia, and they write papers and books about what needs to be done in education, but from almost none of them come suggestions that involve the academic reading and writing our students should be doing.

Of course what teachers do is vastly important, as well as very difficult to influence, but surely it cannot be that much more important than what students do.

Naturally, we should design curricula rich in knowledge, but if they don’t include serious independent academic work by students, the burden will still be on the teacher, and many too many students can slide through under it and arrive in college ready for their remedial classes in reading, math and writing, as more than a million do now each year.

Tony Wagner, the only person I know at the Harvard Education School who is interested in student work, did a focus group with some graduates of a high school he was working with, and they all said they wished they had been given more serious work in academic writing while they were in the high school. I asked him how many schools he knows of which take the time to hold focus groups with their recent graduates to get feedback from them on their level of academic preparation in school, and he said he only knew of three high schools in the country which did it.

We do need improvements in all the things the edupundits are working on, and the foundations and our governments are spending billions on. But if we continue to lack curiosity about and to ignore what students are doing academically, I feel sure all that money will continue to be wasted, as it has been so many many times in the past.

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