Tuesday, June 25, 2013


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An Interview with Emma Scoble: Reflecting on The Concord Review

Posted by Michael Shaughnessy EducationViews Senior Columnist on June 24, 2013

Michael F. Shaughnessy -

1) Emma, first of all tell us about what you are currently, doing, studying, and the like.

I am graduating from high school this week and heading to New York University in the fall. Having gone through the grueling college admissions process and four years of high school, I am dedicating my summer to surfing, reading, and hanging out on the beaches of Santa Cruz…

2) Now, I understand that you were published a while ago in The Concord Review. What was your topic and when did this occur?

My paper on the Broderick-Terry Duel was published in the Spring 2013 Issue of The Concord Review. The Broderick-Terry Duel was a pistol duel in 1859 between U.S. Senator David Broderick and California Supreme Court Justice David Terry. The duel was the culmination of a decade of dramatic and divisive politics in California between the pro and anti-slavery democrats. Broderick’s legacy has been imprinted in history, for his death in the duel reversed the pro-slavery Democrats’ victory in the 1859 statewide elections and ensured that California would remain firmly in the Union.

3) What prompted you to write a major research paper on the topic of your choice?

I was inspired by Colonel Edward Baker’s eulogy for his friend, U.S. Senator David Broderick. One of the finest orators of his time, Baker wrote eloquently about how Broderick stood up to a pro-slavery president as well as the California and national legislatures, and repeatedly, won against all odds. He spoke of Broderick’s conviction and courage, his fight against the pro-slavery movement in California, and of how his unwillingness to cave to injustice ultimately cost him his life. Over one hundred years later, Baker’s words still had the power to move me to tears and compel me to research Broderick’s story and the context of his time.

4) Who helped you? Parents, teachers, principals?

My father is a constant source of information and support. My earliest childhood memories are playing with my doll while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary with my father. As I have grown older, we continue to share a love of history.

5) I understand you have some concerns about the current emphasis on Science, Technology, Electronics and Math. Tell us about your concern?

As was recently stated in The Concord Review’s blog, “The Emerson Prizes lost their funding last year…Intel still has $680,000 in prizes for High School work…” I can attest to the contrast in reception of academic achievement in STEM fields versus the Humanities, even at the small, academically-focused, independent school (The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California) that I attend. This year, one of my classmates received an Intel Award and teachers continually publicly recognize and celebrate her achievement in school assemblies and newsletters, which is entirely appropriate because she did extraordinary work.

However, I told several of my teachers about my paper being published in The Concord Review, an internationally recognized academic journal, and while they congratulated me, neither my published paper, nor my Emerson Prize, was acknowledged in a public forum until the last day of school, as a brief afterthought.

I understand that STEM is currently receiving a lot of attention in the national news because it is closely tied to our economic expansion and workforce. I recall a statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor stated that 5% of the American workforce is employed in a STEM related field while 50% of our economic expansion relies on STEM related professions. Clearly, there is a great demand for talent in STEM fields and we are looking to the next generation of brilliant young minds to fill the gap. However, it is essential that students with an aptitude for the humanities be encouraged as well, for man does not live by science alone.

How bland would life be without literature, history, poetry, and music? How will society advance, if we do not understand who we are and where we have been? We need young people who are gifted in English, History, or Language for our economy, too. Our nation needs teachers, writers, law makers, orators, translators, researchers, etc. We need brilliant minds—period, and academic excellence and achievement should be celebrated and nurtured across all fields.

6) Some people talk about “life changing events.” Do you see getting your paper published as a life changing event?

Being published in The Concord Review was one of the happiest moments of my life. The research that I put into the paper will stay with me forever, for through the course of my writing, Senator Broderick became my personal hero. His character and the life that he led have inspired me to live my life with principle and integrity. Serendipitously, by having my paper published, I met another hero, Mr. Fitzhugh, the founder and editor of The Concord Review.

Although I am only acquainted with him through email correspondence, I greatly admire that he has dedicated his life to advocating for youths and youth education. I follow his blog and posts on The Concord Review’s Facebook page, and although his posts are usually serious, they can also be really funny and sassy.

7) What kind of writing are you doing now?

Poems, love letters, creepy Facebook statuses…In all seriousness, I am hoping to write for NYU’s student newspaper in the fall.

8) What have I neglected to ask?

How is learning to write a history research paper relevant and useful to high school students?

In my opinion, writing a history research paper encompasses all of the skills of the humanities discipline—reading, writing, critical thinking, researching, and understanding a subject within its historical context. These abilities teach and reinforce essential skills for any student’s academic and professional career. Being able to think critically about an event or issue within its context is vital to understanding and solving any kind of problem, and in the modern age of the internet, it is crucial that everyone know how to research and identify credible sources. Furthermore, knowing how to methodically organize and support one’s ideas is key to being able to communicate or argue a point and understanding someone else’s argument.

Outside of the classroom, these skills have enabled me to give back to my community. Currently, I am on the Board of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, which guides the allocation of $12-20 million towards programs that serve impoverished and at-risk children and their families. 

Although I am the youngest on the commission, my vote has equal power, so I take my responsibility seriously. I prepare for each meeting by reading and analyzing briefs, data, and long government documents in order to understand the issues at hand as well as the greater community context.

It is not easy reading, and I have learned that many local and national policy and funding issues are complex and interconnected; but, by treating each meeting’s agenda as a subject to be researched, I am able to contribute to the Board’s discussions at public hearings and make funding recommendations.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Un-Common Core of Learning

EducationViews.org; Houston, Texas; June 5, 2013

An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: “The UnCommon Core of Learning: Researching and Writing the Term Paper”

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Eastern New Mexico University, 
Portales, New Mexico

1) Will, you have been advocating for the high school term paper for years—why the persistence?

I have worked on The Concord Review for 26 years for several reasons. It pays almost nothing, but we have no children, the house is paid for and my wife has a teacher’s pension. Most of all, I am constantly inspired by the diligent work of high school students from 39 countries on their history research papers. I thought, when I started in 1987, that I would get papers of 4,000, words. But I have been receiving serious readable interesting history research papers of 8,000, 11,000, 13,000 words and more by secondary students, who are often doing independent studies to compete for a place in this unique international journal.

2) I remember with fondness, my term papers in both high school and college—and the feeling of accomplishment I received. Am I alone in this regard?

We did the only study done so far in the United States of the assignment of term paper in U.S. public high schools and about 85% of them never assign even the 4,000-word papers I had hoped for. Most American high school students just don’t do term papers. Teachers say they are too busy, and students are quite reluctant to attempt serious papers on their own, so they arrive in college quite unprepared for college term paper assignments. Many of our authors say that their history papers were the most important and most satisfying work they did in high school.

3) People write and talk about “curriculum issues
—are there any curriculums that you are aware of that focus on library research and writing?

As you know the hottest topic in American education now is “The Common Core Standards,” which are quite explicit in saying over and over that they are “not a curriculum.” They say that nonfiction reading is important, but they recommend no history books, and they say nonfiction writing is important, but they provide no examples, of the kind they might find, for example, in the last 97 issues of The Concord Review. To my mind, the CC initiative is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as the man said. As you know, by a huge margin, the focus for writing in our schools is on personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, even for high school students.

4) Let’s discuss some of the skills needed to write a good term paper—what would you say they are?

The most important skill or effort that leads to a good term paper is lots and lots of reading. Too often our literacy experts try to force students to write when they have read nothing and really have nothing to say. So the focus becomes the students’ personal life, which is often none of the teachers’ business, and there is little or no effort to have students read history books and learn about something (besides themselves) that would be worth trying hard to write about. Many of our authors learn enough about their topic that they reach a point where they feel that people ought to know about what they have learned—this is great motivation for a good term paper.

5) You have been publishing exemplary high school research papers from around the world for years—how did you get started doing this and why?

I had been teaching for enough years at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts to earn a sabbatical (1986-1987). That gave me time to read What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, Horace’s Compromise, Cultural Literacy and some other books and articles that helped me understand that a concern over students’ knowledge of history and their ability to write term papers was not limited to my classroom or even to my school, but was a national issue. I had usually had a few students in my classes who did more work than they had to, and it occurred to me that if I sent out a call for papers (as I did in August, 1987) to every high school in the United States and Canada and 1,500 schools overseas, I might get some first-rate high school history essays sent to me. I did, and I have now been able to publish 1,066 of them in 97 issues of the journal. [Samples at www.tcr.org.] No one wanted to fund it, so I started The Concord Review with all of an inheritance and the principal from my teacher’s retirement.

6) Has the Internet impacted a high school student’s ability to research? Or is it a different kind of research?

I read history books on my iPad and so can high school history students. I also use the Internet to check facts, and so can students. There is a huge variety of original historical material now available on the Web, as everyone knows, but I would still recommend to students who want to do a serious history research paper that they read a few books and as many articles as they can find on their topic. This will make their paper more worth reading and perhaps worth publishing.

7) It seems that getting a paper into your Concord Review almost always guarantees admission to a top notch college or university—am I off on this?

Thirty percent of our authors have been accepted at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, but I have to remember that these serious authors doing exemplary papers for my journal are usually also outstanding in many other areas as well. A number of our authors have become doctors as well, but at least at one point in their lives they wrote a great history paper!

8) I was recently on the East Coast and was reading The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I was astounded by the quality of writing. There are still good writers out there—but do we treasure, promote and encourage good writing?

Those papers can hire a teeny tiny percent of those who want to make a living by their writing, and they provide a great service to the country, but for the vast majority of our high school students, reading and writing are the most dumbed-down parts of their curriculum. Many never get a chance to find out if they could write a serious history paper, because no one ever asks them to try. And remember, we have nationally-televised high school basketball and football games, but no one knows who is published in The Concord Review and they don’t ask to know.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

My greatest complaint these days is that all our EduPundits, it seems, focus their attention on guidelines, standards, principals, teachers, and so on, and pay no attention to the academic work of students. Indiana University recently interviewed 143,000 U.S. high school students, and found that 42.5% do one hour or less a week on homework. But no one mentions that. Our education experts say that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality (and thus all the attention on selection, training, assessment and firing of teachers). I maintain that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work, to which the experts pay no attention at all. But then, most of them have never been teachers, and so they usually do not know what they are talking about.

The Concord Review

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Gladwell on Grit

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
New York: Little, Brown, 2008, pp. 247-249
“Rice Paddies and Math Tests”

Every four years, an international group of educators administers a comprehensive mathematics and science test to elementary and junior high students around the world. It’s the TIMSS...and the point of the TIMSS is to compare the educational achievement of one country with another’s.

When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of questions, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friends are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

Now, here’s the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS? They are exactly the same. In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough to focus on answering every single question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

The person who discovered this fact is an educational researcher at the University of Pennsylvania named Erling Boe, and he stumbled across it by accident. “It came out of the blue,” he says. Boe hasn’t even been able to publish his findings in a scientific journal, because, he says, it’s just a bit too weird. Remember, he’s not saying that the ability to finish the questionnaire and the ability to excel on the math test are related. He’s saying that they are the same: if you compare the two rankings, they are identical.

Think about this another way. Imagine that every year, there was a Math Olympics in some fabulous city in the world. And every country in the world sent its own team of one thousand eighth graders. Boe’s point is that we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics without asking a single math question. All we would have to do is give them some task measuring how hard they were willing to work. In fact, we wouldn’t even have to give them a task. We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.

So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. [Mainland China doesn’t yet take part in the TIMSS study.] What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kind of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away in the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred and sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”