Monday, May 28, 2012

EDUCATION LITE; Houston, Texas


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
28 May 2012

When I read about education in Finland, where they accept only one of every ten applicants for teacher training, require those to earn a master’s degree in a (content) subject area, and then support them and trust them to do professional work, I have to agree with Diane Ravitch that our practices—of accepting anyone into teacher training, putting them through several years of edubabble on pedagogicalisticalism, and then treat them like untrustworthy assembly line workers whose jobs hang on each year’s student scores on bad tests—are mistaken.

We do mistrust and mistreat the teachers we have, and we have lost sight, in the race to the bottom of “objective” tests, of some very simple facts, such as that classes usually differ in their performance from year to year, even with the same teacher, and that students bear the main responsibility for their own learning.

Our teachers have responded to this dismal situation, on many occasions, by saying that the current punch-card, standardized regimens for curriculum and “assessment” (if you want to dignify it with that label) are limiting the time and opportunity for them to exercise their creativity in teaching.

Now, who, other than Samuel Johnson, who wrote that “The irregular combinations of fanciful invention may delight a-while, by that novelty of which the common satiety of life sends us all in quest, but the pleasures of sudden wonder are soon exhausted...,” could be against creativity in teaching?

The question for me, however, is how do so many seem to want to apply that creativity? Too often, in my view, it is in the service of FUN, and “hands-on” (and brains-off?) activities to entertain students in an age-appropriate and “relevant” way, to make everyone feel good about themselves, no matter how little they know and how little academic competence they have achieved.

The Chief Academic Officer of a major educational publisher recently spoke in an interview about all the Summer reading activities that could help students lose less knowledge and skill in that gap. But the emphasis, along with using a stopwatch to keep track of “reading minutes” (shades of industrial management practice), was on digital games to provide FUN. has a regular feature of suggested activities for high school students, and for some reason, they never suggest that students read a complete nonfiction book or work on a long serious history research paper, as some of their more diligent peers are doing. Instead, they recommend group games which they hope will provide, above all, relevance to teen lives, and, of course, FUN.

For comparison, think about the approach taken by high school coaches with their athletes. It is true that sometimes they urge their athletes to “have fun out there,” but it is always after hundreds of hours of grueling and un-fun training and practices. They may want their players to be “loose” and upbeat, but they mostly want them to know what they are doing and to be as competent as possible at doing it. One local sports shop where I live sells sweatshirts for high school athletes, which say “Work all Summer, Win all Fall!” And it means training work-outs, not summer employment.

I am not sure where our educators’ obsession with FUN comes from. Where went the old view that “hard work never hurt anyone”? Is it the result of laying aside the time-honored authority and role of “The Old Battleaxe,” who represented to students the goals and hopes of the community, and whose academic expectations and standards were not only high, but remembered for years after graduation, usually with profound gratitude? Perhaps too many now seek to be a good friend to students instead? They should try to remember that friends don’t let friends drive drunk, and they don’t put FUN before a teacher’s job to take academic work seriously practically all the time.

The sad thing is that usually Education Lite, with its digital games, etc. turns out not to be much FUN, and, in the end, students really do want to grow up and gain a good deal of knowledge and competence, in academics as well as in sports.

If educators labor to keep it Lite, they will rightfully earn, not the friendship of their students, but their contempt, for laying down their responsibilities, and they lose the respect of the community, as well. In Finland, a Lower Education teacher is held in high regard by the society, just a bit behind that for doctors. In the United States, it is otherwise. Where I taught, in Concord, Massachusetts, it was quite clear that while parents and others in the town thought “the world” of their teachers, they would definitely not want their son or daughter to be one, or to marry one.

Keep in mind the Disney version of Pinocchio, where he is led off to a place where he could have nothing but FUN, and was turned into a jackass. It would be nice if our teachers used their creativity on serious academic work with students, and let somebody else do the “friendly and FUN” work of turning our students into jackasses.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


Bertrand Russell, after his first disastrous experiment in organizing a school, 
observed that the first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local and immediate over the child’s imagination.


Kieran Egan
“Social Studies and the Erosion of Education”
Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC, Canada
Children’s Minds, Talking Rabbits & Clockwork Oranges
Teachers College Press, 1999, pp. 131-146



“Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present.”

Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death
New York: Penguin, 1985, p. 146


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

SPEED KILLS; Madison, Wisconsin

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
16 May 2012

Modern man (and woman?) is very interested in speed, on land and sea and in the air, but also in “scoring” student writing, it appears. Educational Testing Service recently praised its computer program’s ability to score 16,000 samples of writing in 20 seconds.

I should probably explain my bias against too much speed, and not just where it helps to kill thousands of people on the highway.  Several decades ago, I took a speed reading course from Xerox Learning Systems. They gave a pre-test on reading and comprehension, and the tests after the course showed that I had doubled my reading speed and cut my comprehension in half.

The arguments in favor of grading student writing by computer program are that it saves money and time and allows huge volumes of student responses-to-a-prompt to be “addressed,” as they would say.

I am not sure whether Abraham Lincoln wrote The Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train to Pennsylvania or not, but if he had taken one of the new bullet trains, no doubt the speech would have been shorter and quite possibly less immortal.

Other writers have found inspiration watching the land pass by their train windows, but that again has become less common, no doubt, as the speed of travel has increased. The Dreamliner may make it easier to sleep during the flight, but there is not much to see out the window.

E.T.S. may be able to make some serious money in “assessing” student writing at 21st century speeds, but the comprehension of that work will have been cut to zero, I am quite sure, because, as you understand, the computer program, and perhaps some of those who are promoting this scoring by machine, have no idea what the student is saying in any case.

Assessing short writing samples at blinded speeds may lead to encouraging more teachers to assign such brief pieces to their students, thus saving them from having to take the time in coaching and evaluating writing that could be spent on watching videos and talking about the Twilight series or The Hunger Games in class. Thus, students’ greatest writing efforts in high school could be devoted to their 500-word “college essay,” instead of, for example, a 4,000-word Extended Essay such as they would need to do for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

It should be noted that the College Board has recently announced a new Capstone Writing Initiative, by which they plan to begin to introduce academic expository writing, over a three-year Pilot program into a select few of our high schools. At first, papers will be produced by groups on limited topics, but perhaps in a few more years, students of this new AP program will be allowed to attempt the sort of serious exemplary history research paper that The Concord Review has published by more than 1,000 diligent secondary students from 39 countries over the last 25 years.

I would caution the AP, however, that if they are going to ask teachers and students to work on serious academic papers, they may very well have to slow down the assessments, unless, of course, computers have advanced enough in the next three or four years so that they can not only “evaluate” such papers at a rapid pace, but also begin to understand the very first thing of what the students are writing about (i.e. the subject matter). After all, Deep Blue did well at Jeopardy, didn’t it? So a future program, with hundreds of thousands of history books in its memory banks, may be able to make connections to allow it to at least seem to understand some of the history that the student has derived from their own reading and thinking.

These advances could make it easier at last to assign and assess serious student academic expository writing at the secondary level, at least enough to satisfy the College Board and those who buy the Capstone Project, but I am sorry to say that, for the student, the process of reading history and writing about it will be just as slow, and just as valuable, as it was for Thucydides and Tacitus and Edward Gibbon back in the day, and for David McCullough in our own day.

At a recent conference, David McCullough, who spent 10 years writing Truman, said that he is often asked how he divides his time between research and writing. He said no one every asks him how much time he spends thinking. The new computer scoring programs don’t waste any time thinking about the content of the work they are evaluating, and, in their rush to do a lot of writing “assessments” real fast and very cheaply, perhaps those promoting those programs don’t spend a lot of time on that part either.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: Robot Graders Behaving Badly?

Posted by Michael Shaughnessy EducationViews Senior Columnist; Houston, Texas, on May 1, 2012


Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Will, I understand that some of these testing corporations are using robots to grade real live human writing. Can you briefly tell us what this is all about?

Mike Winerip reports in the New York Times that “The automated reader developed by the Educational Testing Service, e-Rater, can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds, according to David Williamson, a research director for E.T.S.” In Concord, Massachusetts, there was a print shop that had a sign: Good, Fast, Cheap: CHOOSE TWO, the point being you could not have all three.

It seems clear to me that the Deeper Learning Project of the Hewlett Foundation is looking for writing assessment that is fast and cheap. It is hard to beat 16,000 “scores” in 20 seconds. The National Writing Board, which provides a unique assessment for high school student history research papers, takes three hours on each paper to provide a four-page report. I doubt if we could do even one of those assessments in 20 seconds, no matter how much foundation funding we were offered.

2) I guess the first thing that comes to mind is creativity—are these R2D2 graders going to be able to recognize a real creative writing sample?

As you know, my primary interest is in academic expository writing, but when it comes to creative writing, these programs don’t care if you are writing an “Ode to a Grecian Urn” or an Ode to an iPhone. The content is of no interest to the robo-graders. They are programmed only to “worry” about a small circumscribed set of writing skills, and the subject of your composition counts for nothing. You can write a dull composition which amply displays ignorance, and still get a good score from the computers.

3) Let’s move on to grammar—or better grandma. Here are two sentences: Let’s eat, Grandma. Lets eat grandma. In the first sentence, we have an apparently hungry kid ready to gobble some apple pie. In the second sentence, it sounds like the kid is a cannibal, plotting to have a tasty repast. What is the computer going to think?

Or in the old example, “It’s not what you think you are, but what you think, you are.” Again, the computer is not “interested” in the meaning of anything it is scoring. At the New York World’s Fair years ago they showed a computer translator that took English and turned it into Russian and then back into English. One example was “The Spirit is Willing but the Flesh is Weak.” After going into Russian, it came back into English as “The Ghost is Ready, but the Meat is Bad.”

4) I know a bit about how these testing services work. Here is an example of a question: Discuss three books that you have recently read and how they impacted you. Now, how will the computer differentiate between one response listing Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games, and another response listing Great Expectations, The Three Musketeers and Don Quixote?

By the way, I just read Great Expectations for the second time a month ago, and I was surprised to find how much wonderful stuff there is about friendship in it. I had not noticed that the first time around. Again, the computer doesn’t care whether you are talking about Peter the Great or Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater, By removing any interest in knowledge or meaning, they can really speed up the scoring process to a very remarkable level—and save a lot of money, too. That is, after they finish paying out all the $100,000 grants and paying for all the new consultants, professional developers, computers, software, etc.

5) There are these two words, that seem to have been forgotten—quality and quantity. Certainly, the robo-evaluator can count the number of words. However, how can they ascertain the veridicality of the robust statements in the student’s rhetoric?

Back in the day, many courses in college taught us that it was important to try to find truth, to separate appearance from reality, to avoid being misled by the surface of things, but to go deeper to find lasting meaning and value. All of this is of no interest to the computer, or perhaps to those who fund these robo-scoring studies either. Otherwise they could not be satisfied with and even proud of so much speed at so little cost, with so much absence of quality or meaning.

6) Will, you have published, QUALITY high school papers for years. I put QUALITY in capital letters, but I am not sure if the robo-graders would understand the concept. Can you tell us a little about The Concord Review, and the consistent quality that you have recognized?

In the last 25 years, I have found nearly one thousand high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries who were willing to write exemplary–average 6,000-word––history research papers on a huge variety of topics that computers have no interest in. The longest paper was 22,000 words on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, but I have published a 15,000-word paper on the Soviet-Afghan War, a 13,000-word paper on the Needham Question by a student from Hong Kong, and so on. I have found that many HS students, presented with the challenge of the exemplary work of their peers, will rise to the challenge and write longer and more serious papers than I thought possible when I started The Concord Review in 1987. I am happy to send examples to anyone who sends me an email at, and there are a number of them on our website at

7) Will, you and I used to use typewriters, and probably white out when we made a mistake, and often re-typed our high school and college papers. Nowadays, they have these word processors that automatically correct and identify grammar and spelling errors. Yet, high school kids seem to write less and less. What’s going on?

Most teachers in high schools now either do not have, or are unwilling to take, the time to read serious academic papers by students in the high school, so they do not assign them, and with the exception of the few students who seek out the opportunity of The Concord Review, and the ones who must write an Extended Essay for the IB Diploma, students do not do much academic expository writing. Even some elite private schools are cutting back the academic expository writing they ask students to do.

Most writing competitions ask for very short personal stories, or very short pieces on set topics, or what is called “creative nonfiction” which is a form of self-centered diary writing. If nobody is asking students to do writing that requires reading of nonfiction books, or knowledge of history, or which is the length of an IB Extended Essay, then they won’t do it. So they don’t write. Everyone complains about their writing, and students still aren’t asked to write much in high school.

 8) Sadly, the Spell check machine, like the robo graders, probably does not recognize the difference between to, two, and too as well as there and their. Or can they?

I am not sure. It is possible that computers can be programmed to look for the probable correct position of various parts of speech, but again, they have been designed to have no interest in, or understanding of, what the student is writing about. Writing for a computer may yield a “score”of some sort, but as far as meaning goes, the student might as well be talking into a dead phone. After all, coming to understand the meaning of what someone is saying takes time, and that would mess up the path to polishing off 16,000 writing “samples” in 20 seconds, right?

Marc Bousquet of The Chronicle of Higher Education makes the excellent point that: “It’s reasonable to say that the forms of writing successfully scored by machines are already—mechanized forms—writing designed to be mechanically produced by students…”

9) What have I neglected to ask?

It is a great enduring puzzle to me why we when we know that nearly 90% of college professors say their new students are not very well prepared in reading, doing research or academic writing, and yet we continue to give our high school students mostly fiction to read and ask them to do only personal writing, the five-paragraph essay and/or the 500-word “college essay.” In general I feel sure we don’t hate our students and we are not determined to have them fail, but when 47% of Freshmen in the California State College System need to enroll in remedial Reading courses, it is hard to see how we could serve them much worse if we did hate them.


“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
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