Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Page Per Year Plan©
Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review
5 November 2014

Diane Ravitch not long ago pointed out that, “the campaign against homework goes on. Its success will guarantee a  steady decline in the very activities that matter most in education: independent  reading; thoughtful writing; research projects.”

It is clearer and clearer that most high school students, when they do read a book, read fiction. The College Board’s Reading List of 101 Books for the College-Bound Student back in the day included only two works of nonfiction: Night and The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Nothing by David McCullough, David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson, or any other great contemporary historian was suggested for the “College-Bound Student.”

The SAT, ACT, and NAEP writing assessments, and most state writing standards, require no prior knowledge and challenge students to write their opinions and personal stories in 25 minutes. Unless college history professors start assigning term papers by saying: “‘History repeats itself.’ See what you can write about that in 25 minutes and turn it in six weeks from now,” our high school graduates will continue to find that they have been sadly misled about the demands of academic writing they will face after high school.

A unique national study done for The Concord Review in 2002, of the assignment of high school history term papers, found that 81% of public high school history teachers never assign a 20-page paper, and 62% never assign a 12-page paper any more, even to high school seniors. The Boston Latin School, a famous exam school, wrote that they no longer assign the “traditional history term paper.”

One reason for this, I believe, is that teachers find that by the time their students are Juniors and Seniors in high school, they have done so little academic expository writing that they simply could not manage a serious history research paper, if they were asked to do one.

For several years, I have suggested, to those who doubt the ability of U.S. high school seniors to write academic history research papers, that schools should start on our Page Per Year Plan©, which would work as follows:

Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper (five sources), ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with nine sources, and so on, until each and every senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper (twelve sources), with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic, which the student could choose each year.

This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she might also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This could reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.

At each grade level, teachers would need more time to help students plan their papers and to evaluate and comment on them when the papers came in, but with our Page Per Year Plan©, all students would be likely to graduate from U.S. high schools with better academic expository writing skills and better reading skills.

In our public schools, the power over reading and writing belongs to the English Department, and many social studies and history teachers, perhaps especially those who are preparing students for AP exams, do not believe their students have the time to read a history book or write a history research paper.

While this is the rule, there are exceptions, and I have been glad to publish many history papers written by AP history students in the last 27 years of The Concord Review. But all too often, those exemplary papers were written by students putting in the extra time and effort to do an independent study, of the sort that Diane Ravitch believes is now in steady decline in our schools.

Of course it is rewarding for me to receive letters from authors, like the one from Shounan Ho when she was at  Notre Dame Academy in Los Angeles, which included a comment that: “I wrote this paper independently, during my own time out of school. My motives for doing so were both academic and personal. Although history has always been my favorite subject, I had never written a paper with this extensive research before. After reading the high quality of essays in The Concord Review, I was very inspired to try to write one myself. I thought it was a significant opportunity to challenge myself and expand my academic horizons. Thus during the summer before my Senior year, I began doing the research for my own paper.” She became a John Jay Scholar at Columbia University, and it seems likely she found that she had prepared herself well for college work.

But what about those students who depend on educators to set academic standards which will prepare them for the reading and writing tasks ahead? For those students, I recommend that teachers consider the Page Per Year Plan© to help their students get ready. Again, this plan would also make it somewhat more likely that our high school graduates would have been asked to read perhaps one (1) complete history book before they leave for college or for work.

Will Fitzhugh (founder)
The Concord Review (1987)
National Writing Board (1998)

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