Friday, April 23, 2010

HISTORY/WRITING TALENT SEARCH, Madison, Wisconsin, April 23, 2010

“The Review embodies Will Fitzhugh’s idea about how to get students thinking and writing. In supporting him, you would be helping a person who is building what should and can become a national education treasure.”

Albert Shanker, 1993

“What is called for is an Intel-like response from the business and philanthropic community to put The Concord Review on a level footing with a reasonable time horizon.”

Denis P. Doyle, 2010

271 Literacy: Backward Mapping;
By Denis Doyle
31 March 2010


With recent NAEP results (holding steady) and the RTTT announcements (DE and TN are the two finalists in this round) everyone’s eye continues to focus on the persistent problem of low academic achievement in math and English Language Arts. And that’s too bad; it’s time for a change.

Instead of looking exclusively at the “problem,” it’s time to see the promise a solution holds. It’s time to “backward map” from the desired objective—universal literacy—to step-by-step solutions. Achieving true literacy—reading, writing, listening and speaking with skill and insight—is, as Confucius said, a journey of a thousand miles; we must begin with a single step. Let’s begin at the end and work our way backwards.

How might we do that? Little noted and not long remembered is the high end of the literacy scale, high flyers, youngsters who distinguish themselves by the quality of their work. By way of illustration, young math and science high flyers have the Intel Talent Search to reward them with great fanfare, newspaper headlines and hard cash (the first place winner gets a $100,000 scholarship) and runners-up get scholarships worth more than $500,000 in total.

That’s as it should be; the modern era is defined by science, technology and engineering, and it is appropriate to highlight achievement in these fields, both as a reward for success and an incentive to others.

But so too should ELA receive public fanfare, attention and rewards. In particular, exemplary writing skills should be encouraged, rewarded and showcased.

It was the Council for Basic Education’s great insight that ELA and math are the generative subjects from which all other knowledge flows. Without a command of these two “languages” we are mute. Neither math nor English is more important than the other; they are equally important.

Indeed, there is a duality in literacy and math which is noteworthy—each subject is pursued for its own sake and at the same time each one is instrumental. Literacy serves its own purpose as the fount of the examined life while it serves larger social and economic purposes as a medium of communication. No wonder it’s greatest expression is honored with the Nobel Prize.

What is called for is a Junior Nobel, for younger writers, something like the Intel Talent Search for literary excellence. In the mean time we are lucky enough to have The Concord Review. Lucky because its editor and founder, Will Fitzhugh, labors mightily as a one-man show without surcease (and without financial support). We are all in his debt.

Before considering ways to discharge our obligation, what, you might wonder, is The Concord Review?

I quote from their web site: “The Concord Review, Inc., was founded in March 1987 to recognize and to publish exemplary history essays by high school students in the English-speaking world. With the 81st issue (Spring 2010), 890 history research papers (average 5,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography) have been published from HS authors in forty-four states and thirty-seven other countries. The Concord Review remains the only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic work of secondary students.” (see

Lest anyone doubt the importance of this undertaking, permit me to offer a few unsolicited testimonials. The first is from former Boston University President John Silber, “I believe The Concord Review is one of the most imaginative, creative, and supportive initiatives in public education. It is a wonderful incentive to high school students to take scholarship and writing seriously.”

The other is from former AFT President Al Shanker: “The Review also has a vital message for teachers. American education suffers from an impoverishment of standards at all levels. We see that when we look at what is expected of students in other industrialized nations and at what they achieve. Could American students achieve at that level? Of course, but our teachers often have a hard time knowing exactly what they can expect of their students or even what a first-rate essay looks like. The Concord Review sets a high but realistic standard; and it could be invaluable for teachers trying to recalibrate their own standards of excellence."

Can an enterprise which numbers among its friends and admirers people as diverse as John Silber and Al Shanker deserve anything less than the best?

What is called for is an Intel-like response from the business and philanthropic community to put TCR on a level footing with a reasonable time horizon. Will Fitzhugh has been doing this on his own for 22 years (he’s now 73) and TCR deserves a more secure home (and future) of its own.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


In this post, Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, explains why it is important for high school students to write research papers and read complete nonfiction (history) books. The Review is the world’s only quarterly journal for the academic history research papers of high school students.

By Will Fitzhugh

Professors E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia have continually, and most usefully, pointed out that tests of reading are really tests of knowledge.

They have also campaigned, somewhat quixotically, to encourage educators and "literacy pundits" to recognize that knowledge has a lot more to do with whether students can understand what they read than does those pundits' heavy-laden toolbelt of gimmicks and techniques to teach "literacy skills.” 

Indeed, one major literacy study and report recently pointed out, in an aside, that the idea that reading books will do a lot for the literacy of students is sadly misguided. What students need, it was felt, is lots more technique and process classes, K-12, on “finding the main idea,” “identifying the author’s audience,” and many other literacy-lite shortcuts (no knowledge required). 

I would argue to the contrary.

Not only does reading books contribute powerfully to the knowledge that students need in order to read more and more difficult material (such as they should face in high school and will certainly face in college), but, also, the work of writing a serious research paper will lead students to do a lot more reading and to gather a lot of knowledge in the process. 

A study done for The Concord Review Institute some years ago found that the majority of U.S. public high school teachers no longer assign serious research papers, because teachers do not have the time (or perhaps the knowledge) to guide students through them and to assess them when they are handed in. 

It is clear that working with students on term papers would be less time-consuming than layup drills for basketball, tackling drills for football and batting practice for baseball, to which countless hours of students and coaches are devoted every year on a regular basis.

But as long as educators do not see that writing serious term papers will lead to more knowledge, which leads students to read better and understand more, such papers will continue to receive the small notice they now do. 

The California State College System people, at a conference last November, reported that 47% of their freshmen are in remedial English classes, just one bit of evidence that those students have not done the serious reading and writing or acquired the knowledge they should have to get ready for college work. 

There are those who say that high school students are really not capable of writing serious research papers—and one student even told me that at her school the assumption was that students would learn to write in college!—but they are quite mistaken, as it turns out. 

This view, when made known to college professors, does not make them happy. A Chronicle of Higher Education poll a few years ago found that 89% of college professors reported that the students they were getting were not very well prepared in reading, doing research, and writing. 

Since 1987, I have published 890 history research papers (averaging 5,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography) in 81 quarterly issues, by high school students from 44 states and 37 other countries. Samples of this exemplary work may be found here.

As has so often been reported, and as famed teacher Jaime Escalante used to say, students will rise to the level of the academic expectations we give them. And this is true for serious term papers as well as for history books, calculus, science, foreign languages and the rest. 

I hope that those who have written so convincingly of the need for students to have more knowledge in order to be able to understand what they are reading, will come to agree with me that in the process of writing serious term papers, students are very likely to gain some of that knowledge, as they read and work on their own [independently] to produce informative and readable history papers of the sort I have published over the last 22 years or so.

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.