Friday, May 27, 2011


That’s why Chetan Singhal, a senior at United World College of S.E. Asia in Singapore, was inspired to turn his interest in medieval history into a research paper on the trial of the Knights Templar. After literally stumbling across a volume of The Concord Review in his library a year ago, he became intrigued by the fact that such high-quality work was being done by other high school students. “It was then it struck me, that even I could produce a work like this, and that even if it doesn’t get published, it will definitely be worth the effort,” says the 17-year-old.

University of Pennsylvania; The Wharton School
Knowledge@Wharton High School
Adventures in Intellect: The Value of a Good Research Paper

Published on May 25, 2011

“Researching allows me to pursue what I really want to learn and forces me to think creatively to answer questions that I have posed”– Caroline Tan, freshman, Yale University, Connecticut

“I think the thought process involved in writing a research paper definitely got me thinking critically of the knowledge around me, and asking questions instead of just accepting other people’s opinions” – Chetan Singhal, senior at United World College of S.E. Asia, Singapore

“Researching [Alexander] Hamilton would allow me to analyze issues in politics, economics and even constitutional law, subjects in which I have a very strong interest. I found the challenge of constructing a scholarly paper of my own to be enticing in terms of the intellectual adventure and sheer joy that it promised” – Tianhao He, senior, Walter Johnson High School, Maryland

Nothing makes William Hughes Fitzhugh, a former high school history teacher, happier than hearing students talk about their love of research. It is what inspired him to launch a small academic journal 24 years ago in Sudbury, Massachusetts, that is highly revered today as The Concord Review. “I felt there was a need to recognize diligent high school students who were going above and beyond their school’s academic requirements to research and write quality history papers,” says Fitzhugh.

In keeping with that mission, the Review has published 945 research papers from teenagers in 44 states and 38 other countries, ranging in topics from the history of IBM and the Asian financial crisis to Christianity in Korea and the American philosopher George Ripley. “My goal has been to not only recognize these students for their achievements, but to encourage others to follow in their footsteps,” says Fitzhugh.

Definitely Worth the Effort

That’s why Chetan Singhal, a senior at United World College of S.E. Asia in Singapore, was inspired to turn his interest in medieval history into a research paper on the trial of the Knights Templar. After literally stumbling across a volume of The Concord Review in his library a year ago, he became intrigued by the fact that such high-quality work was being done by other high school students. “It was then it struck me, that even I could produce a work like this, and that even if it doesn’t get published, it will definitely be worth the effort,” says the 17-year-old.

Singhal’s essay was published in the Review—an accomplishment that helped him gain acceptance at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he will be going in the fall.

Not everyone is as fortunate to make the same self-discovery as Singhal. According to Fitzhugh, reading nonfiction books and writing a research paper still remain foreign concepts to most high school students.

Tianhao He, 17 and a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, has grown used to the puzzled looks on people’s faces when they discover he researched and wrote an 11,200-word history paper—not as homework or extra credit, but for the sheer enjoyment of learning something new. “The first thing I tell people is that I wrote it because it was fun,” says He, whose essay focused on Alexander Hamilton and his contributions as the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. “I realized that researching Hamilton would allow me to analyze issues in politics, economics and even constitutional law, subjects in which I have a very strong interest.”

As He looks forward to attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the fall and studying economics, he feels better prepared to tackle the in-depth studying the college requires. “I know that I will continue to hone the critical thinking skills that I learned through writing this research paper in college and beyond,” says He.

Skillful Library Navigation

Kristy Henrich, a freshman at Stanford University in Stanford, California, also values the chance to strengthen her research skills before arriving at college, especially since all freshmen are required to write a 12-to 15-page research-based argument. Thanks to the [Emerson Prize] essay she wrote on Civil War Medicine for The Concord Review, Henrich says she developed a number of skills, such as organization, time management, analysis, development of original ideas, creativity and diligence. “While tackling a research paper is always challenging, it is not nearly as daunting for me as it has been for some of my classmates who have never had this experience before,” says Henrich.

Caroline Tan, a freshman at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, agrees. She, too, credits the research paper she wrote in high school for the Review, which was on President Wilson’s influence on student-led demonstrations in China, for better preparing her for coursework at Yale.

“When professors assign research papers in class, I know how to use academic databases to find scholarly articles or navigate libraries to find relevant books,” says Tan. “I know how to brainstorm, structure and ultimately churn out thousands of words regarding a particular intellectual topic.”

As more businesses, such as law firms, report spending money on remedial writing courses for their employees, writing a research paper may prove to have a positive impact on building skills necessary for the workforce as well. “You won’t get anywhere in a career by just talking about yourself,” says Fitzhugh. “Accumulating and communicating information are essential skills for any job.”

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

[Houston, Texas]


Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

There are many important variables to consider in evaluating the causes for academic failure or success in the high school classroom. The training of the teacher, the quality of the curriculum, school safety, availability of books, etc., etc., are extensively studied, and all these have a part to play.

But I would argue that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work, including classroom work. Why do so many of our high school students do so little academic work? Because they can get away with it.

A close study of the academic demands on students in the vast majority of our high school classrooms would disclose, I feel certain, that one of the principal reasons for their boredom is that they really have nothing to do but sit still and wait for the bell.

In most classrooms the chances of a student being called on are slight, and of being called on twice are almost nonexistent. If a student is called on and has not done the reading or other class preparation, most probably the teacher will just call on someone else. There are no real consequences for being unprepared, and as a result many, if not most, students are unprepared, and that also contributes to their boredom.

By contrast, on the football or soccer field, every player is called on in every practice and in every game. Even if a player is on the bench, there is a constant risk for most of them that they may be called on at any time, and if they do not know what to do, the disgrace and disapproval will be obvious and swift. The same may be said for Drama productions, Chorus, Model UN, and most of the students’ other activities.

In extracurricular activities, the student will often face a peer pressure to do well that is usually lacking in the classroom. Peers in the classroom may even think it is cool for another student to “get away with” having done no preparation for the class.

It is these circumstances, among others, that lead, in my view, to the findings, by the Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement (2005), that of the 80,000 students they questioned, 49% do only three to four hours a week of homework, and they still report getting As and Bs. I can not think of a single high school sport that asks for only three to four hours a week of practice, and so little time would easily lead to an athletic failure to match the academic failure of so many of our students.

The absence of serious academic demands on the attention and effort of students in our high school classrooms means not only boredom and daydreaming, but allows students outside of school to spend, according to the Kaiser Foundation study (2005), an average of 6.5 hours a day (44.5 hours a week) with various electronic entertainment media—not homework on the computer—but entertainment.

Somehow, in addition to all that time spent entertaining themselves, high school students usually find time for an active social life, perhaps a job, and often sports or other student activities.

While we have lots of research studies on test results, teaching training, per-pupil expenditure, new curricula, professional workshops, and many other subjects, I believe there is a striking need for a close study of what students are actually being asked to do while they are in class. The remarkable thing, to me, is not that 30% to 50% of our students drop out before graduating from high school, but rather how the other 50% to 70% of them stay in a situation in which so little is asked of them that they are often bored, and in which they are usually very tired of sitting and waiting for the bell.

We sometimes claim that if only the teacher is brilliant or entertaining enough, boredom can be banished, or if we show enough movies, PowerPoint presentations and DVDs on “relevant” subject matter, the students will not sleep in class, either with their eyes open or closed. But imagine how absurd it would be to expect students to stay committed to a sport where they spent all their time sitting in the stands while the coach told wonderful stories, showed great movies and talked amusingly about her/his personal athletic history. The students come to play, as they should, and their motivation to participate is rewarded by their chance to participate, often with sweat, strain, and even potential injury.

When we make so few demands on students in the classroom we should not wonder why so many check out, and are really “absent from class,” whether they are sitting there or not. If they have nothing to do, and nothing is asked of them, and they are not challenged academically, then really they are better off if their attention and their minds are on other things that may offer them greater rewards than sitting still and doing nothing.

I hope the education research community will consider comparing the academic demands on students in the typical classroom with the demands of other activities in which students take a more active part. Let us discover which high school classrooms are like law school and business school classrooms, where students are expected to be prepared and are at risk to be called on for clear proof of their readiness at a moment's notice, as they are in the games and matches in which their energy and commitment are so commonly understood to be essential. If we want our high school students to do more academic work, let’s try to figure out how to stop boring and ignoring them in our classes. Let’s give them better reasons not to be “absent from class.”

Thursday, May 5, 2011


New York Sun
September 13, 2006 Edition
Section: Opinion

They Can Write

September 13, 2006


In the 1980s, when I was teaching history at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, there was increasing concern about measuring the outcomes of education. It occurred to me that a journal of exemplary high school history essays might show other students and teachers what was possible.

So I established a quarterly journal in 1987, and students started to send in their work. Each year for the past 12 ]16] years The Concord Review has given out at a prize, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize, for outstanding academic promise seen in the 44 published research papers [five prizes each year].

About a decade later I founded the National Writing Board to provide an independent assessment of high school research papers. [The main high school writing assessment is now the superficial SAT essay, a 25-minute test on which factual errors do not matter to the score.]

Since 1987, I have been privileged to publish 737 [945] exemplary high school history research papers from 34 [39] countries in The Concord Review. None of these papers would have met the standard English department guidelines, or for that matter the requirements for a high score on an SAT essay. They are all too long, too concerned with historical accuracy, and not personal enough.

Some of the best have come from students in New York City, including one of the first two Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize winners in 1995, a paper by Aaron Einbond, then a Sophomore at Hunter College High School, on the degree of originality in John Maynard Keynes’ The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

When I first read this 7,366-word paper, I thought it could not have been written by a high school sophomore. But I learned that Mr. Einbond had placed 5th in the Westinghouse [now Intel] Science Talent Search, was first clarinet in the New York Youth Symphony Orchestra and a legend around Hunter, so I published the paper. He went on to Harvard, became a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge, and is now getting a Ph.D. in music composition at Berkeley.

I also published two papers by Hana Lee, class of 2003 at Hunter, one on Tiananmen Square and one on Transcendentalism. She graduated first in her class at Hunter and she recently told me she was at Harvard, majoring in molecular biology and evolutionary genetics, and "working in a lab that studies a chaperone protein in Arabidopsis that may function to buffer the effects of genetic variation in phenotype."

Some of the papers by New York students have been about New York itself, including a great essay on the economic revitalization of Flushing by Amy Peltz at Hunter, who is now at the University of Chicago. Ms. Peltz wrote, “In these times of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, it is important to remember the valuable contributions immigrants can make. In Flushing, the Asian immigrants saved Main Street. Perhaps there are other immigrants waiting in the wings, and other Main Streets in need of saving.” There was a fine paper about the history of Jewish Harlem by Sarah Goldberg who went to the Horace Mann School and is now at Williams. There was a great paper on the Harlem Renaissance by Gabriella Gruder-Poni, an Italian girl studying in this country, who also attended Hunter.

There have also been fine history papers from the Bronx High School of Science, Poly Prep Country Day School, Great Neck North High School, Horace Greeley High School, and Paul D. Schreiber High School, among several other schools.

While this is some of the good news, there is some bad news as well. Part of the bad news is the low and non-academic writing standards of the College Board. With funding from the Albert Shanker Institute (affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers) The Concord Review commissioned a study of the state of the history research paper in public high schools in America in 2002.

We found that, while 95% of teachers praised the value of research papers, 81% never assigned a 5,000-word paper, and 62% never assigned a 3,000-word paper in history classes. Most teachers said they simply did not have time to assign, monitor, and read history papers, so they didn't have their students do them.

The English department in public high schools has its attention on fiction, personal, and creative writing or the five-paragraph essay. Nonfiction reading and serious research papers are not to be found there.

There are real consequences for students who go on to college or to jobs. The Business Roundtable reported on a survey of its member companies in 2004, in which it had found that they were spending $3,090,943,194 annually on remedial writing courses for their salaried and hourly employees, in about equal numbers. American College Testing (ACT) reported this spring that 49% of the high school graduates they tested were unable to read at the level of college freshman texts.

James Story, an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation reported in the September 2006 School Reform News, “Nearly 50 percent of Texas college freshmen require remedial or corrective courses.” Of course some of this remediation is in math, but a large share is in reading and writing.

The powers that be in college freshman composition courses are not doing much to raise standards for academic writing in the high schools either. Nancy Sommers, the director of Expository Writing at Harvard, told a Chronicle of Higher Education colloquium on writing that she was grateful to the high school teachers who had prepared students for Harvard by having them work on the five-paragraph essay.

Some Harvard students don’t see that as great help in preparing for college. Laura Arandes, Harvard Class of 2005, wrote, in a letter to me, that she was shocked by how poorly her public high school in California had prepared her for college papers. She had never been assigned anything more than a five-paragraph essay, at which, she said, she was quite good.

She commented: “This lack of forethought on the part of high school educators and administrators is creating a large divide among college graduates—and it's one that helps neither the students nor their alumni institutions. Modern public high schools have an obligation not simply to pump out graduates at the end of the year, but also to prepare their students for the intellectual rigors of college.”

Many forces are at work in dumbing down writing (and nonfiction reading) in our high schools. Teachers are too busy, most favor creative or personal writing, and nonfiction books are no longer assigned. Students have little to write about, and major organizations, like the National Commission on Writing in the Schools, have a lot of money and publicity, but serious nonfiction academic writing is not one of their goals for high school students.

The Concord Review has very little money and too few subscribers, and its funding future is always in doubt. I met with the Director of Education Programs at the National Endowment for the Humanities a couple of years ago and he told me that while he thought all of our efforts were truly wonderful, NEH could not provide any funding for us, and that has been the case at scores of other foundations over the years.

People are accustomed to thinking of high school student academic work, especially in history, as being of no value. I started The Concord Review in 1987 not only to recognize exemplary papers by high school students of history, but also to distribute them as widely as possible to give lots of other students a chance to read some history and to see what some of their diligent peers have been able to do.

A few teachers, like Broeck Oder at Santa Catalina School in Monterey, California, and Bill Rives, at the Singapore American School, have bought class sets, to make sure their history students see this good work, but most high school teachers seem to have neither the time nor the inclination to let their students know that some of their peers are meeting much higher expectations than they are. Their students will find that out soon enough in college, perhaps.

• Mr. Fitzhugh, a Harvard graduate, and one-time high school history teacher, is the founder and editor of The Concord Review.