Thursday, October 28, 2010

Curriculum Matters; Education Week

Why Students Don't Write Research Papers in High School

By Catherine Gewertz on October 25, 2010 11:53 AM

Those of you who lament the state of high school students' research and writing skills will be interested in a discussion that's been unfolding at the National Association of Scholars. It began a couple weeks ago with the publication of a previously undisclosed report on why students are not learning—let alone mastering— the skills of crafting substantial research papers.

The report is here, and the explanation of its origins and disclosure is described in the press release here. A response from a frustrated high school English teacher is here.

The report found that most social studies/history teachers never assign moderately long research papers. Most of the teachers—whose student loads often surpass 150—said they can't afford the time necessary to grade such papers.

This is hardly a new conversation. Consider the work done by Achieve and ACT on this issue, and the look Cincinnati took at it last year. And Will Fitzhugh, who was the driving force behind the recently disclosed paper, has been tirelessly advocating for rigorous high school research papers for years. A former history teacher, he runs The Concord Review, the only journal [in the world] that publishes high school students' history research papers, and blogs as well. (He sums up his views on the importance of research papers in this EdWeek commentary, from a few years ago, and more recently on The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog.)

On a related note, another recent paper pinpointed a fragmented high school English curriculum and a neglect of close-reading skills as key explanations for teenagers' poor reading skills. That paper was written by one of the architects of Massachusetts' academic standards, former state board member Sandra Stotsky, and published by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW).

While the reflections on students' mastery of reading, writing and research skills are hardly new, they take on an interesting dimension (and more urgency, perhaps?) with the widespread adoption of common standards that envision a significant shift in how literacy skills are taught.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Digital Dilettantism

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

The Kaiser Foundation, in its January 2010 report on the use of electronic entertainment media by U.S. students, aged 8-18, found that, on average, these young people are spending more than seven hours a day (53 hours a week) with such (digital) amusements.

For some, this would call into question whether students have time to read the nonfiction books and to write the research papers they will need to work on to get themselves ready for college and careers, not to mention the homework for their other courses.

For the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, however, the problem appears to be that we are not paying enough attention to the possible present and future connections between digital media and learning, so they have decided to invest $50,000,000 in grants to explore that relationship.

One recent two-year grant, “for $650,000 to study the effect of digital media on young people's ethical development and to develop curricula for parents and teachers,” went to the Harvard Education School, which has distinguished itself for, among other things, seeming to have no one on its faculty with any research or teaching interest in the actual academic work of high school students, for example in chemistry, history, economics, physics, foreign languages, calculus, and the like.

The Harvard Ed School faculty do show real interest in poverty, disability, psychological problems, race, gender, ethnicity, and the development of moral character, so they may take to this idea of studying the relation between electronic media and student ethics. A visit to the Harvard Ed School website, and a review of the research interests of the faculty would prove enlightening to anyone who thought, for some odd reason, that they might be paying attention to the academic work of students in the schools.

Whether Harvard will conclude that seven hours a day doesn’t help much with the ethical development of students or not, one could certainly wish that they would discover that spending a lot of their time on digital media does very little for student preparation for college academic work that is at all demanding, not to mention the actual work of their careers, unless they are in the digital entertainment fields, of course.

The National Writing Project, which regularly has received $26,000,000 each year in federal grants for many years to help thousands of teachers feel more comfortable writing about themselves, has now received $1.1 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation, presumably so that they may now direct some of their efforts to helping students use digital media to write more about themselves as well.

Perhaps someone should point out, to MacArthur, the National Writing Project, the Harvard Ed School, and anyone else involved in this egregious folly and waste of money, that our students already spend a great deal of their time each and every day writing and talking about themselves with their friends, using a variety of electronic media.

In fact, it is generally the case that the students (without any grants) are already instructing any of their teachers who are interested in the use of a variety of electronic media.

But like folks in any other self-sustaining educational enterprise, those conversing on the uses of digital media in learning about digital media need a chance to talk about what they are doing, whether it is harmful to serious academic progress for our students or not, so MacArthur has also granted to “the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (in Monterey, California) $2,140,000 to build the field of Digital Media and Learning through a new journal, conferences, and convenings (over five years).”

The MacArthur Foundation website has a list of scores more large grants for these projects in digital media studies and digital learning (it is not clear, of course, what “digital learning” actually means, if anything).

This very expensive and time-consuming distraction from any effort to advance respectable common standards for the actual academic work of students in our nation’s schools must be enjoyable, both for those giving out the $50 million, and, I suppose, for those receiving it, but the chances are good that their efforts will only help to make the college and career readiness of our high school students an even more distant goal.

Saturday, October 16, 2010


The consensus among Edupundits is that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement.

I argue that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review, 29 March 2007
Columnist, Houston, Texas

Edupundits have chosen very complex subject matter for their investigations and reports. They study and write about dropouts, vouchers, textbooks, teacher selection and training, school governance, budgets, curricula in all subjects, union contracts, school management issues, and many many more.

Meanwhile, practically all of them fail to give any attention to the basic purpose of schools, which is to have students do academic work. Almost none of them seems inclined to look past the teacher to see if the students are, for instance, reading any nonfiction books or writing any term papers.

Of course all of the things they do pay attention to are vitally important, but without student academic work they mean very little. Now, I realize there are state standards in math and reading, and some states test for writing after a fashion, but no state standards ask if students have read a history book while they were in school or written a substantial research paper, and neither do the SAT, ACT, or NAEP tests.

Basic math skills are important, and current standards try to find out if those graduating from our high schools can do math at the 8th-grade level, and a similar standard is in place for reading, but for the time being, higher education and the workplace are still not well designed for students with 8th-grade math and reading skills.

Students in Massachusetts who pass the state test for graduation, the MCAS, find out when they take their college placement tests that they have come up against a different level of expectation. In Massachusetts, more than 60% of those who go to community colleges have to take remedial courses and 34% of those who go to the four-year colleges have to take remedial courses. As the Chancellor of Higher Education in the Commonwealth has pointed out, the state is now paying for high school twice. The students have to learn to do in college what they should have learned to do in the high schools.

Once they are allowed into college courses for credit, they encounter nonfiction books and term paper requirements which they hadn't been asked to manage in high school.

After college, there are tremendous efforts at remediation required as well. The Business Roundtable has reported that their member companies are spending more than three billion dollars [>$3,000,000,000] every year on remedial writing courses for their employees, both hourly and salaried, in about equal numbers.

One of the sad and damaging consequences of this myopia among Edupundits is that everyone but students is imagined to be responsible for student academic work. As Paul Zoch has so regularly pointed out, the message that sends down the line to students is that their job is to get through high school with a minimum of work, while it is someone else's responsibility to educate them. The result is that, whatever gets decided about dropouts, vouchers, union contracts, budgets, textbooks, teacher selection and training, school governance, curricula in all subjects, school management issues, and the like, our students are not working hard enough on their own education.

Of course there are exceptions, students whose teachers demand that they read history books and write research papers, and there are students who do that on their own, in independent studies, partly because they have become aware that they must meet more rigorous academic demands down the road, and they are determined to get themselves ready.

But far too many of our high school students are waiting for someone else to set demanding academic standards, and when they don't, the students accept that, and get jobs, play sports, lead an active social life, spend hours a day on video games, and so forth. But after they slide through high school and emerge, they are mightily sorry they were not asked to do more and held to a higher standard for their own academic work.

We should not kid them about the need for serious reading and academic expository writing, and when we do, we are not educating them, we are cheating them. Edupundits should heed the old Hindu saying, "Whatever you give your attention to, grows in your life." The actual academic work of students while they are in school deserves a lot more attention than it has been receiving from them so far.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Association of Scholars

Peter Wood, President
Princeton, New Jersey

October 14, 2010

Why aren’t our high schools doing a better job of preparing college-bound students in academic expository writing? And in particular, to master the research paper?

The question was raised in a research project a decade ago by Will Fitzhugh, one of the great unsung champions of school reform in the United States. If ever there were a person who deserved a MacArthur “genius grant” and was doomed never to get it, Fitzhugh would be the man. A retired history teacher living in Sudbury, Massachusetts, he has dedicated the last twenty-three years to publishing The Concord Review, a quarterly journal dedicated to showcasing the best history papers written by high school students (from 39 countries so far). He dreams of making academic excellence as important to American schools as varsity athletics. And he has been tireless in making his case....

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


"Mankind needs more to be reminded, than informed."
—Samuel Johnson

"We must change our attitudes about school, the nature of young people, and how one achieves in academics. No school reform will succeed without a far-reaching transformation that goes beyond teachers and curriculum."

Doomed to Fail

Paul A. Zoch, Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2004, pp. 200-202

American schools must change student attitudes by making clear the purpose of being in school. Students must understand that going to school is their job, something most do not now realize. Many students, thinking it is the teacher’s job to do what will “make” them smart, feel little need to take their classes seriously. End-of-course tests and an altered view of how success is achieved would help students focus their efforts and give them a feeling that school is a real mission, one that demands seriousness of purpose, dedication, and diligence. If they study more diligently, they might even come to enjoy learning and the feeling of real accomplishment.

Students should be told in plain language why they must take academic courses in school, why society has decided that they must learn math, English, the sciences, a foreign language, history and social studies. Most students do not understand why they must learn these subjects; they tend to think of school only in terms of a future job. Some say they must learn such things in order to be well-rounded individuals, which is not a bad answer. But students should begin learning from their earliest school days that academic subjects are the primary means to understanding world civilization. These disciplines are essential to the development of an educated person who will be the equal of all other educated persons in America’s republican democracy. To many Americans, academic subjects seem to be required because of mere tradition.

Changing what is expected of students will simultaneously change the attitudes of teachers, improving the morale and status of the teaching profession. The knee-jerk tendency in the United States is to charge teachers with incompetence for any perceived failure of their students or their schools. Considering what teachers are expected to do—make students smart without causing them stress, and make their time at school a joyful, emotionally fulfilling experience—teachers cannot but fail and thus incur society’s contempt. Placing responsibility for learning on the students, and expecting teachers only to present competent lessons (as teachers in Japan and other countries are expected to do), might retain many of the large percentage of teachers who leave within the first three years, and might reduce the burnout factor among veterans.

At the same time we should change the relative responsibilities of teachers and students, we should reduce the number of hours teachers teach per day. So important is such a change that Stevenson and Stigler make it their first recommendation for changing the schools. Teacher in the United States should teach the same number of hours that teachers in other countries do—approximately four a day or slightly less, instead of five or more. Reducing teaching hours will relieve teachers and also make it possible to lengthen the school day so that teachers can require failing students to attend tutoring sessions. Many teachers do not tutor as willingly as they should, one reason being that at the end of the day they are exhausted and have lesson plans to make, tests and quizzes to grade, and paperwork to complete. With more time during the day for non-instructional work, teachers can be required to tutor students who want and need help. Mandatory after-school tutoring for failing students should take precedence over all extra-curricular activities.

Our educational system must look to students and what they do as the fount of success. A few of the authors quoted in this book have noted the irony that in the United States, though famous for our work ethic, in our schools we don’t expect students to work at their studies. One observer noted that to study the relationship between school success and character development, he had to go to Japan. We must change our attitudes about school, the nature of young people, and how one achieves in academics. No school reform will succeed without a far-reaching transformation that goes beyond teachers and curriculum. We need also to change the attitudes of the education experts, who continually promote an unworkable and unfeasible educational philosophy and then flay teachers for their inability to meet impossible expectations.

Education is so important in the United States that we expect teachers, who are professionals trained in pedagogical science, to get the job done. We sincerely want all students to learn so that they may lead good, productive lives. But teachers, parents, and adults cannot do it for them. The nation is looking for educational excellence in the wrong place, in the actions of teachers. We must instead expect students to create their success, give them our full support and guidance in their labors, encourage and expect them to try again with renewed effort and persistence when they fail, and reward them for their success...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

66th NACAC Conference

St. Louis, Missouri, October 1, 2010
Friday Morning Panel on the 500-word College Personal Essay
Panelists: Christopher Burkmar, Associate Dean of Admissions at Princeton;
Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review; Jonathan Reider, Director of College Counseling, San Francisco University High School

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

I propose a thought experiment for what it may be worth.

What if we change the name of our organization from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors to: The National Association of College Completion Counselors?

Note that the new name is more comprehensive, as Completion presupposes Admission, but, as is all too obvious these days, Admission cannot assume Completion.

You are all at least as aware as I am of the numbers about the need for academic remediation in Higher Education and the numbers of dropouts from college, but I will review a couple of them. Tony Wagner of Harvard reports that in general, including community colleges, half of college freshman do not return for a second year, and a huge percentage of our HS graduates take six years or more to complete a Bachelor’s degree, and four years or more to complete an Associate’s degree.

Students who need remediation in basic academic skills are more likely to drop out, and the more remedial courses they have to take, the more likely they are to drop out.

The California State College System reported at a conference last Fall that 47% of their Freshman students are in remedial reading courses.

We may assume that these students have had 12 years of reading in school already, but they still can’t read well enough to do college work, at least by California standards.

Reading is not calculus or chemistry, it is just a basic academic skill in which we expect that the schools have offered practice for 12 years.

Now, a youngster can start to play Pop Warner football at age 6. By graduation from HS, he could have had 12 years of practice at the basic skills of football. Imagine athletes reporting for a college football team, only to be told that they need a year of remedial blocking and tackling practice before they can be allowed to play. It seems unlikely that they would not have learned basic blocking and tackling skills in their previous 12 years of playing football.

I am not just talking about improvement here. Of course, students in college can learn to read more difficult material in new academic subjects. And of course college athletes can get better at all the skills needed for success in their sports.

But we are talking about basic, entry-level academic skills. 47% of freshmen in the California State College System don’t have them in reading, after 12 years of practice in school.

When I went into the Army in 1960, I had never fired a rifle before, but in a week or two on the range in Basic Training, I was able to meet the standard for “Sharpshooter.” I missed “Expert” by one target.

I am convinced that if I had had 12 years of practice with my M-1 Garand, I really could have scored “Expert”—perhaps even by the higher standards of the U.S. Marine Corps.

I have to confess I am stunned that so many of our high school students, having been awarded one of our high school diplomas, and having been accepted at one of our colleges, are found to be unable to read well enough to do college work.

The Diploma to Nowhere report of the Strong American Schools project said that more than one million of our high school graduates are now in remedial courses each year when they get to college.

It also notes that these students, having satisfied our requirements for the high school diploma, and graduated—having applied to college and been accepted—are told when they get there, that they can’t make the grade without perhaps an additional year of work on their academic fundamentals. Naturally this experience is surprising to them, given that they satisfied our requirements for graduation and admission to college, and embarrassing, humiliating and discouraging, as well.

As you may know, my particular interest since 1987 has been in student history research papers at the high school level. I have published 912 essays by secondary students from 44 states and 38 other countries over the last 23 years.

Some of the students who wrote the required Extended Essays for the IB Diploma and were published in The Concord Review, and some of our other authors as well, have told me that in their freshman dorms they are often mobbed by their peers who are facing a serious term paper for the first time and have no idea how to do one.

It is absurd to contemplate, but imagine a well-prepared college basketball player being mobbed for help by his peers who had never been taught to dribble, pass, or shoot in high school.

If even colleges like Harvard and Stanford require all their Freshmen to take a year of expository writing, that may not exactly be remedial writing, but I would argue that a student who has completed an Extended Essay for the International Baccalaureate Diploma, and a student who has published a 12,000-word paper on Irish Nationalism or a 15,000-word paper on the Soviet-Afghan War for The Concord Review, should perhaps be allowed to skip that year of remedial writing. The author of the Soviet-Afghan War paper, from Georgia, is now at Christ Church College, Oxford, where I believe he did not have to spend a year in an expository writing course, and the author of the Irish Nationalism paper is at Princeton, where she may very well have been asked to spend a year in such a course.

If so many of our students need to learn how to do academic writing (not to mention how to read), what are they spending time on in high school?

I believe that writing is the most dumbed-down activity we now have in our schools. The AP program includes no research paper, only responses to document-based questions, and most high school Social Studies departments leave academic writing tasks to the English Department.

Now, in general, English Departments favor personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, but college admission requirements have given them an additional task on which they are working with students. Teaching writing takes time, not only in preparing and monitoring students, but more especially in reading what students have written and offering corrections and advice. Time for one kind of writing necessarily means less time for another kind.

Personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay have already taken a lot of the time of English teachers and their students, but as college admissions officers ask for the 500-word personal essay, time has to be given to teaching for that.

While high school English departments work with their students on the 500-word personal essay, they do not have the time to give to serious term papers, so they don’t do them, and I believe that is why so many students arrive in our colleges in need of a one-year course on the expository writing they didn’t get a chance to do in school.

Lots of the public high school students whose work I publish simply do their papers as independent studies, as there is no place for serious academic writing like that in the curriculum.

I would suggest that if college admissions officers would ask instead for an academic research paper from applicants in place of the short little personal essay, while it would be more work for them, it would make it more likely that students they accept would arrive ready for college work, perhaps even ready enough to allow them to skip that year of expository writing they now have to sit through, and they could take an actual academic course in its place.

Making sure that our high school students arrive in college able to manage college-level nonfiction reading and academic expository writing might really help us earn our new credential as professionals who work not just to help students get accepted at college, but to help them complete college as well.