Saturday, January 28, 2012


No Books, Please
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
28 January 2012

In the most recent Quality Counts report from Education Week, Catherine Gewertz was kind enough to describe not only the high school student reading requirements from the U.S. Common Core Standards, but from the standards of several other countries as well. I quote from her report for its shock value to anyone who might still imagine that our secondary students could still be reading one complete nonfiction book during their four years:


“Global Readings: Nations vary widely in the selection of readings and other language arts material that finds a home in the curriculum. In some cases, these are required texts [but evidently never complete history books for some odd reason—WHF]; others show up on lists of recommended titles; and still others are offered as examples of literature [no history wanted—WHF] that can satisfy academic standards and curricula.

In the United States, students in states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards are required to read The Declaration of Independence, the preamble to The Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, and President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address [that should take them the entire afternoon—WHF]. Readings suggested for 11th and 12th grade include As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner; The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell; and “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry.

In Ontario, Canada, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is on the list of approved readings for grade 11 English classes.

New South Wales, Australia, requires 9th graders to read “The Lady of Shalott,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a poem based on Arthurian legend, and at least one work by William Shakespeare [one of the Sonnets, perhaps?—WHF]

In Hong Kong, students taking the English-literature section of a required secondary school exam must pick from an eclectic basket of selections, from Shakespeare’s Othello and short stories by James Joyce and Edith Wharton to the iconic 1974 Hollywood film “Chinatown” and poems by Sylvia Plath and Langston Hughes.

In England, required readings for the national English-literature exam taken by many 16-year-olds include Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck; To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; and Lord of the Flies by William Golding.”


It may be premature, and eccentric, to celebrate the dumbed-down reading standards of other countries when compared with our own, but perhaps on their non-Literature standards, if any, other countries do require the reading of complete history books, but this report doesn’t say.

For our own students, it would be hard to come up with a livelier set of low expectations for reading at the high school level. As I suggested, the “texts” [we don’t talk about books any more] are all short enough to be read together by most secondary students in an afternoon.

I don’t believe that sort of workload would be found in the standards for their Latin, physics, chemistry or calculus courses, and even in United States Literature classes at the secondary level, most students read actual books, as in novels, don’t they? Or has that now gone by the board, ignored as they seem to be by the Common Core Standards?

In history classes, of course, in the absence of the rare teacher with demanding academic standards of his or her own, the assignment of complete real history books, even by popular historians such as David McCullough, has long ago vanished.

In the 2010 NAEP test of high school history students, 55 percent of Seniors scored Below Basic, which would be impossible to do if they had opened one history book or listened in one history class. Our students do worse in history than in any other subject, but our new Common Core Standards seem very likely to ensure that such a level of achievement is not disturbed in the slightest degree.

The Common Core academic expository writing standards, it should be noted in passing, are even more vague and superficial...

So let our Literature students get ready for their Common Core Standards requirements, just make sure they never read a complete nonfiction book, so that when they, and of course our History students, encounter such books at the college level, it will be a nice surprise for which they are completely unprepared.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

END OF FAILURE; Houston, Texas

The End of Failure

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
January 18, 2012

Time magazine this week has an article about the failure of No Child Left Behind, and it highlights the failure of the Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, to get the last 5% of its student body to achieve grade-level competence in math and reading. This outcome stems from the failure of the teachers, the principal, the counselors, the special needs teachers, the curriculum coordinators, the reading specialists, the math specialists, the superintendent, the state department of education and its staff, the governor, and, of course, the legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia. While others, such as the federal government, publishers, professional development specialists and the like might share some of the blame, the first group is to be held mainly responsible for the failure of that 5% of the students at the school in question.

Is anyone left out of this analysis, which is the current analytic wisdom available for all school failures in the United States at present? Some might suggest some responsibility on the part of parents, but there is one group which always is, it seems, held blameless and harmless. The students.

I have heard of a time in this country, and even in some other countries, when, if a student failed in school, the failure was the student’s. Indeed, even now in Japan, according to Marc Tucker’s Surpassing Shanghai, there is the view that if a student fails academically, it is because he has not worked hard enough.

However, it is no longer possible to entertain the idea that a student is responsible for his or her own learning and academic progress in the United States. We like to think of a student in our schools as if under anesthesia on a classroom operating table, being operated on by our surgeon-teachers who are wholly responsible for the success or failure of the operation. Our passive students can not be held responsible for any part of their own education, because if failure occurs, it cannot be theirs. Our children cannot fail at anything, so if there is failure, as, apparently, there is, it must be ours—that is an axiom of our educational philosophy.

There are consequences that flow from this axiom, of course. Students who fail (my mistake)—students whose academic work is failing, understandably come to believe that the school and the teacher are supposed to “do” education to them, and that they have no responsibility for the outcome—whether they learn anything or not is not their problem.

Of course it is their problem, as they will discover when they go to community college or try to find a job, but we feel it is our duty to keep them from knowing that as long as we can.

Naturally, there is a sense of power and control for educators in accepting all the responsibility for student learning, and a noble sort of martyrdom when, in spite of all our efforts, students fail anyway. But in the process students are deprived of ownership of their own education and their own learning.

It was probably Alfred North Whitehead who wrote that “For an education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.” How quaint that idea seems to us, that the student must study or the failure will be his, not ours. How we, as legislators, educational leaders, teachers, etc., would hate to have to give up any of "our" territory of study and learning to mere students. What do they know?

Perhaps this folly will soon run its course. One is permitted to hope. Perhaps we will take another look and see that it is the student who decides whether to come to school or not, whether to pay attention or not, whether to do the homework or not, whether, finally, to take his education seriously or not.

You can tell a born teacher by the earnest way he or she turns to a serious student who has a question, and, yes, “a teacher affects eternity.” But as Buddha pointed out 2,500 years ago, the student who makes the most progress “must be anxious to learn.” He was a good teacher and affected lots of people, but he knew better than to try to outlaw failure by removing all responsibility for learning from the students themselves, as we have seemed so dumbly determined to try to do in recent years.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
10 January 2012

Historian David McCullough was asked by a reporter recently if he started writing any of his books with a theme. He said that when he became interested in a subject he started reading to see what he could find out about it, but he had no advance idea of what would result.

Even those of our teachers who do work with students on research papers too frequently indulge in the science envy of requiring them to have a thesis. Students are asked to have some prior notion of the history they will read which they will test to see whether it is falsifiable or not.

Science is rich, famous and powerful, so it is not surprising that it is envied in our culture, but it should be remembered that its practice is to reduce, as much as possible, reality to numbers.

History does not lend itself well to a reduction to numbers, as it is about human beings, who also cannot very well be competently encompassed by numerical descriptions.

Words are the numbers of history, and words connote as much as they denote, they contain and evoke possibility and ambiguity in ways that the number users of science sometimes find annoyingly imprecise and quite uncomfortable.

The study of history should begin with curiosity about people and events: What was that person really like? How did that event come to happen and what resulted from it? These are the sort of non-thesis questions that our students of history should be asking, instead of fitting themselves out for their journey of learning about the past hampered with the straitjacket of a thesis.

Serious history students are often curious over something they have read about. They want to know more, and, when they have learned quite a bit, they frequently want to tell others what they have discovered. Like scientists, they are curious, but unlike them, they are willing to live with the uncertainties that are the essential ingredients of human experience.

Science has earned our admiration, but its methods are not suitable to all inquiries and we should not let envy of the success of science mislead us into trying to shrink-wrap history to fit some thesis with which students would have to begin their study of history.

David McCullough has reported that when he speaks to groups very often he is asked how much time he spends doing research and how much time he spends writing. He said he is never asked how much time he spends thinking.

The secondary students of history published in The Concord Review do not generally begin their work with a thesis to prove or disprove, but rather with wonder about something in history. The quality of their papers reveals that not only have they done a good deal of reading and research—if there is any difference there—but that they also have spent some serious time thinking about what they have learned, as well as how to tell someone else about it.

They have inevitably encountered the complex causes of historical events (no control groups there) and the variety of forces and inclinations both within and without the historical figures they have studied.

Some of these students are very good in calculus, science, and so forth, but they realize that history is a different form of inquiry and provides a non-reductionist view of the truth of human life, but one that may be instructive or inspiring in several ways.

So I urge teachers of students of history, who are asking them to write serious research papers, to let them choose their own topics, based on their own wonder and curiosity about the past, and to relieve them of the science envy of a thesis requirement. Let them embark on their own study of some part of the immense and mysterious ocean of history, and help them return with a story and an understanding they can call their own and can share, through serious research papers, with other students of history.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012


Date: January 3, 2012 10:35:07 PM EST
Subject: Elementary Academics

Good Evening Mr. Fitzhugh,

I read your article in American Educator, “Meaningful Work” with great interest. As I was reading the article, I felt myself cheering quietly inside as I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusions. I teach 4th grade reading and writing and have high expectations for my students. Your suggestion that a student be assigned a research paper, one page per grade level with the same number of resources, should be a requirement in every elementary through junior high classroom.

In the article, you also state K-12 teachers have been focusing on reading comprehension strategies—main ideas and audience—without texts which build knowledge and vocabulary. I too tire of the endless rhetoric from our ISD curriculum advisers telling us that we should be constantly utilizing summarizing, character traits, and so on in fiction short stories which are part of “diversity” education. Teachers must center on learning objectives being certain the students “get” what is trying to be taught, and “turn and talk,” “best practices,” and other pedagogy which have overtaken discussion and reason. If a teacher digresses from the supposed best practices and objectives, we are marked as unwilling supporters toward pursuing measurable goals for “achievement.” Thus, as you well know, the student is left behind in the foray of verbiage, rankings, and “performance” levels.

We need to get back to the basics. Yes, the social media and technology have severely changed students’ attention levels which in turn affects performance, like it or not. Do we as educators need to give in to media-tizing, or do we educate as perhaps we have learned by hard work and dedication to learning for learning’s sake?

Therefore, I have a question for you. I want to enable my 4th graders to read and write at a level which would aid them to eventually be college ready. I want to lay the necessary foundation for them to build their knowledge and vocabulary. Instead of practicing reading comprehension strategies for main idea and audience, what can I do? Where do I begin as far as life-long comprehension skills to teach my 4th graders? I need them to be reading more nonfiction and serious fiction, but our district has tight guidelines we must follow. How can I impart love for learning along with true life skills? I have always made it a practice to tell my students why we are learning/doing a skill and how it relates to the real world. Where else do I start?

Have you heard of the Core Knowledge Curriculum by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.? What do you think about it? My feelings are it is a great method of learning sequence, but department heads in our ISD have not even heard of Core Knowledge.

I would really appreciate your feedback as I would like to be the best possible teacher for my students. Thank you and have a blessed day—