Thursday, April 6, 2017


Students Last
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
6 April 2017

The great social psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that the principal problem with communication is that we think we express meaning to others, when in fact we evoke it.

That is, what we say brings a response in the listener which involves their current thoughts at the time, their feelings, wishes, goals and other preoccupations, all of which affect and alter the meanings of our expression as they hear it.

Psychiatrists are carefully trained to be useful in that situation. They learn to listen. When they do listen, they can derive an understanding of at least some of the ways in which the thoughts of their patients have responded to what was said. They can find out how the patient’s own experiences, thoughts and concerns have interacted with what the psychiatrist said, and this can help the doctor shape what they say next in perhaps more pertinent and more useful ways.

When I was a high school History teacher I was not a bad person, but I almost never shut up in class. If the teacher talks, that can make life easier for students, because they can continue giving their attention to whatever they were thinking about at the time, and if the teacher pauses, most students can easily ask a question to get the teacher talking again if they seem to be slowing down.

Most high school History teachers are not bad people, but they usually feel they have an obligation to talk, present, excite, inspire, demonstrate material and in other ways fill up the time of students in their classes. Some of the best teachers do ask questions, but even they believe they can’t spend too much time on student answers, not to mention on what students are actually thinking about what the teacher has said, or, if other students talk, about what they have said.

This is much less the case in some special secondary schools, like Phillips Exeter, which have small classes meeting around a table as a seminar, specifically designed to gather the comments and thoughts of students about academic subjects. But for public school teachers with five classes of 30 students each, that kind of dialogue is not an option.

Unless they fall silent, high school History teachers almost never have any idea what their students are thinking, and students come to understand that, at least in most classrooms, what is on their minds is of little importance to the process. This doesn’t mean that they don’t learn anything in their History classes. Some teachers really are well-educated, full of good stories, fascinating speakers, and fun to be with. That does not change the fact that even those best teachers have very little idea of what students are actually thinking about the History which is offered to them.

Some teachers do assign short papers, and if the students can choose the topics themselves, and if teachers have the time to read those papers, they can learn more about what some part of History means to their students. Sad to say, the assignment of serious History research papers is declining in this country, with some students working on slide presentations or videos, but many fewer students writing Extended Essays in History.

Education reform pundits all agree that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality, because what teachers do is the lowest level of educational activity of which they are able to take notice. In fact, the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work. Students learn the most from the academic work that they do, but this factor escapes the notice of the majority of education professors, theorists, reporters and other thought leaders.

Since 1987, The Concord Review has published 1,241 exemplary History research papers [average 7,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography] by secondary students from 44 states and 40 other countries []. These papers are on a vary large variety of historical topics, ancient and modern, domestic and foreign, but all of them show what students are actually thinking as they take History seriously. 

If more teachers of History would read a few of these strong research papers, they would become more aware, first, that some high school History students actually can think about History, and second, that such student writing, based on extensive reading of History, demonstrates a level of sophistication in their understanding of History that can never be discovered in classes where teachers do all the talking.

Great teachers of History should continue to talk the way they do in classes, and their students will learn a lot. But the actual thoughts of students of History should have a place for their expression as well. Students whose work is published in The Concord Review not only benefit from the hard work they have done, they also come to have greater respect for their own achievement and potential as scholars of History.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

TCR 30th Anniversary Remarks

Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review, Inc.
23 March 2017, Harvard Faculty Club

Thanks, Bill, [Bill Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid, Harvard College] for the kind introduction, and for decades of encouragement and support. You know, in addition to managing 40,000 applications, he also runs marathons…

Thanks also to our High School string quartet, [for playing Mozart], organized by the violinist Elizabeth Kim, whose interesting paper on the career of Leni Riefenstahl was published in our Winter issue this year. [She is headed for a gap year at the Sorbonne.]

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and thanks for coming to this 30th Anniversary Dinner for The Concord Review.

I would like to talk to you about college readiness, about History and academic writing in the schools, and about The Concord Review’s three decades of work to promote the idea to: “Teach with Examples.”

A few years ago, I went to a dinner at the Harvard Club of Boston, and the president welcomed us all and then said: “None of you would get in now.”

I loved my boarding school in California, but when I arrived at Harvard, 61 years ago, I had never been asked to read one history book or to write one term paper, so I arrived unprepared for the academic reading and writing Harvard offered.

Then 30 years ago, during a sabbatical from teaching at the High School in Concord, Massachusetts, I got the idea for The Concord Review.

I had a couple of questions. Were there secondary students in the English-speaking world who were writing good History papers and would they send them to me? And could we use those exemplary papers to inspire some of their peers to read more History and to work on serious papers of their own, so they would be more ready for college than I had been?

In August 1987, I sent a four-page brochure calling for papers to every Secondary School in the United States and Canada and 1,500 overseas, and the answer to the first questions was yes.

The serious papers started to come in. We have now published 112 issues, with 1,230 exemplary History research papers by students from 44 states and 40 other countries. 

As to using those papers to inspire other students, we have had much less success, in spite of support from many wonderful people, such as Steven Graubard, Theodore Sizer, Diane Ravitch, Harold Howe, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Albert Shanker, Bill Fitzsimmons, John Silber, and others. Most donors and foundations turned us down, either because they believed that publications all fail, or because they saw both History and this journal as elitist.

School and public libraries have Young Adult Sections, but librarians would not put The Concord Review in those, even though the essays were written by Young Adults and for Young Adults. It just didn’t fit in with the Teen Romances and the Vampire Fiction.

David Brooks, in a review of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in the New York Times, wrote: “As the classical philosophers understood, examples of individual greatness inspire achievement more reliably than any other form of education.” 

To give you an idea of the reaction to this among some educational leaders, I sent that comment to the Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, and he replied with this email: “The myth of individual greatness is a myth.” (sic).

There are too many reasons to go into now, but History and academic writing are in big trouble in our schools. Social Studies has taken over History, and some Massachusetts high schools are suggesting that History courses be folded into a Humanities department and taught by English teachers.

When it comes to writing, that has always been the property of the English department, and the vast majority of American public High School students now graduate without ever having been asked to read one nonfiction book or to write one term paper.

There are consequences for students: on the last NAEP test of U.S History, only 12% of our HS Seniors passed, leading some to suggest that perhaps 88% of them would not be able to pass the U.S. citizenship exam. 

Permit me one anecdote: Last December 7, The Boston Globe reported that a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor had asked a HS girl what she knew about Pearl Harbor? And the girl said: “Who is she?”

Enrollments in History courses in colleges are falling off, even at Harvard, and most universities, including Harvard, have remedial writing courses for first-year students. The courses are not called that, but they exist, because, as one of our HS authors wrote me: “We are told we will learn to write in college.” In High School they are doing personal and creative writing, five-paragraph essays, and the 500-word college “essay.”

We are now sending most of our students to college unprepared. In Texas, recent estimates suggest 65% of their HS graduates are not ready for college. And there are consequences beyond college. There are constant complaints in the workplace about employees who can’t write. A few years ago, the Business Roundtable did a survey of its member companies and they reported spending $3.1 Billion every single year on remedial writing courses for their employees, evenly distributed among new hourly, new salaried, current hourly and current salaried employees.

There are also consequences for their lack of experience in reading nonfiction books and for their ignorance of History. Many of our High School graduates are entering college with their reading ability at the 7th grade level.

The Concord Review
has, so far, been a small effort, but the History papers we have published have been longer, more serious, more interesting, and better-written than I had imagined would be possible when I started. We don’t tell students what to write about. We say we are interested in papers on any historical topic, ancient or modern, domestic or foreign, and, naturally, papers on topics the authors are interested in are better than those on assigned topics.

It has been a wonderful privilege for me to read so many serious and interesting History research papers by secondary students over these last 30 years.

Could I have a show of hands of those published in The Concord Review? Including those now with a Ph.D. in History?

Professor Ferguson may remind us that History is probably more important for us now than it has ever been, but I must say I am deeply grateful for the thousands of good strong student history papers that have kept The Concord Review going for the last thirty years.

Now, thanks to support from John Thornton and David Rubenstein, it looks like The Concord Review and its efforts will continue to encourage many more students to read History and work on serious papers of their own in the future.

Of the many good stories about these efforts over the last three decades, permit me to mention one. When Robert Nasson and I started the National History Club 15 years ago to encourage the reading, writing, discussion and enjoyment of History—the first chapter was at a girls’ school in Memphis, Tennessee.

They called their chapter: “The Cliosophic Society,” and they chose as their symbol a flower: The Forget-Me-Not…When it comes to History, that strikes me as perfect.

Thanks again for coming, and I hope you enjoy the dinner, after which we will have the privilege of hearing some of the thoughts of historian Niall Ferguson.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


“Contentless Writing”

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review

Educational Leadership
October 2006, Volume 64, Number 2, pp. 42-46

“Reading maketh a Full man, Conference a Ready man, and Writing an Exact man.”
                                                          Francis Bacon, 1625

    Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, he had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized he had given his speech. Fortunately an alert reporter near the President had made notes and the words were taken down and preserved. But, short as it was, it began with a date and a fact, the sort of factual content which is being drained away from the writing of students in our schools.

    The very idea of writing without content takes some getting used to. I was taken aback not long ago to read the comments of a young woman who had been asked how she felt about the essays on her business school aptitude test being assessed by computer. She replied that she didn’t mind, because what was important was not what she said, but how she said it.

    Of course while style, fluency, tone, correct grammar and the like are important in writing, folks of the old school like me think that content has value as well. But the new SAT writing test guidelines for Readers say that they must not take off for mistakes of fact, and they are to score the essays “holistically” at the rate of 30 per hour.

    Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times, in an article last year, reported that the the rules for the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) do not allow dictionaries, but “when it comes to the writing section, there’s one rule they can break: They can make things up. Statistics. Experts. Quotes. Whatever helps them make their point...making up facts is acceptable when writing nonfiction, persuasive essays on the WASL.”

    Lest you conclude that writing without content, or writing nonfiction with fictional content (Think: A Million Pieces) is limited to the Left Coast, consider the comment of Lucy Calkins, Head of the Reading and Writing Program at Teachers College, Columbia, who was not too long ago described in Education Week as “The Moses of Reading and Writing” in American education. She teaches writing to huge numbers of classroom teachers, and has a long waiting list for her workshops. When I asked her if she could recommend to her teachers that they have their students write some short factual history essays, her reply was: “I teach writing. I don’t get into content that much.”

    Now, anyone reading this will no doubt think that all writing has to have some content, or the page would be empty, and they are right. So what does go on the page? The National Commission on Writing in the Schools, in their 2003 report on the absence of writing in our schools, gave a clue to the writing that they like in the only quotation from the work of a high school student in their report: They said that the following passage from Michael, a high school student, showed “how powerfully children can express their emotions.”

The time has come to fight back and we are. By supporting our leaders and each other, we are stronger than ever. We will never forget those who died, nor will we forgive those who took them from us.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress is seen as the gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in our schools, but here is an example of the sort of writing for which they gave an “Excellent” rating in their most recent test of writing by high school students (when most students are scoring “Basic” or “Below Basic” in writing). The student had been asked to write a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, he wrote:

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.

It appears that the sort of writing that is favored by Professors of writing, and the National Commission on Writing in the School, and Washington state, and NAEP, at least at the high school level, might be fairly described as emotional, personal, and/or fictional nonfiction.

If this was the sort of writing which will be required in college courses in history, economics,  political science and the like, not to mention in business, government and other lines of work, perhaps that would not matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, and others have substituted fiction for fact in their professional lives, for instance in journalism.

The problem is that students must be prepared to know facts, dates, and the actual views of real experts and authors, in order to write the term papers they will be asked for in college and beyond, and The Boston Globe has reported that of those students who receive diplomas in Massachusetts high schools and go to community colleges, 63% are in remedial courses, and of those who go to four-year colleges, 34% are in remedial courses.

The Business Roundtable in 2004, reported that in a survey of member companies, they said they were spending over $3,000,000,000 (3 billion dollars) each year in remedial writing courses not just for their hourly employees, but for equal numbers of their salaried employees as well.

As it happens, there are teachers and students in our high schools who know that writing serious factual research papers in history is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, as well as a superb way to learn history and to see what it is like to be a scholar. The Concord Review, the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students, has published 726 (1,230) history essays by students from 44 states (and 40 other countries) since 1987. 

What sort of writing are these students doing? Jessica Leight, for example, got interested enough in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s to spend several months on an independent study in her Junior year at a public high school in Massachusetts, and she wrote a 13,000-word paper which won a Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize after being published in The Concord Review. She has now graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford [She since earned a Ph.D. in Economics from MIT, and is now teaching at American University]. She found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring, and admired her defense during the excommunication trial:

...This bitter speech, made by a man who had seen his entire career threatened by the woman now standing before him, opened a trial marked by extraordinary vindictiveness on the part of the men presiding. Why? Because their regulatory power had been, up to this point, thwarted. Hutchinson had done nothing in public, nothing that could be clearly seen and defined, nothing that could be clearly punished. The principal accusation leveled against her was failure to show proper respect to the ministers, but again, she had made no public speeches or declarations, and the court would soon find that producing evidence of her insolence was very difficult.

    The assembly did not immediately strike to the heart of the matter: Hutchinson’s disparagement of the ministers of the colony as under a covenant of works. Instead, the presiding ministers first accused her of disobeying the commandment to obey one’s father and one’s mother by not submitting to the ‘fathers of the commonwealth,’ as Winthrop termed it. Next, Hutchinson’s meetings were condemned, despite her citation of a rule in Titus exhorting the elder women to teach the younger. In the debate of these points, Hutchinson’s scintillating wit showed itself to best advantage; eventually, Dudley jumped in to rescue Winthrop, who was undoubtedly getting the worst of the argument, and quite simply accused Hutchinson of fomenting all discontent in the colony by deprecating the ministers as under a covenant of works. It was stated that she had aired these unacceptable views at the conference held at Cotton’s house the previous December [1637].

This is factual writing about a historical event—a trial—in which the facts of the case were of the greatest importance. Fiction was not the medium here, nor was it looked for during this seminal trial. The author’s emotions, and her “experiences in high school,” were distinctly of secondary—if any—importance in her account of these events in American religious and legal history.

Some readers of this article may assume that writing with content is common in our schools, but a study done for The Concord Review by the Roper Organization found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper (8,000 words shorter than Jessica Leight’s paper) and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. There are many reasons, of course. While 95% reported that they believed research papers were important or very important, most do not have time to assign and grade them.

So it appears that a large fraction of our high school students now enter college having written only a five-paragraph essay, and perhaps one with made-up facts and their emotions about this and that for content. No wonder so many are in remedial courses and so many drop out.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, a researcher at Northeastern University and author of Losing Our Language gave an example of a Boston high school student unready for college work, in her  report on Social Studies standards in the U.S. for the Fordham Foundation:

An overabundance of personal writing may also reduce students’ experience with informational writing and the modes of reasoning and organization it calls forth. This possibility is unwittingly suggested by the writer of a Boston Globe article on the reflections of a recent graduate of a Boston high school, described as a top student and the winner of several writing awards. Carol Figueroa was stunned by the writing demanded of her at a Boston-area college during her freshman year. The reporter noted that although Figueroa believed she had ‘received plenty of support and encouragement’ from her teachers and that she is now a ‘self-confident leader because of that,’ she now wishes she had gone to a high school with ‘more challenging school work.’ She had discovered that ‘moral support is different from academic rigor.’ Yet the reporter approvingly quoted an English teacher at another Boston high school who had had her students ‘write a short story about their lives’ because, in the teacher’s words, it allowed them to show ‘a high level of writing ability’ and to realize that ‘their own experience is valid and useful.’ This teacher is also quoted as believing that this assignment reflected her ‘high expectations’ for her students. It apparently did not occur to the reporter that this kind of writing assignment today, especially for high school students from minority groups, is more likely to reflect a concern for their self-esteem rather than a desire to challenge them intellectually. A regular flow of such writing assignments may be part of the reason that Hispanic students like Carol Figueroa are not prepared for college-level writing.

The National Governors Association has recently taken an interest in the high schools, and they were surprised when they asked a large sample of recent high school graduates about their experiences, and the majority said they wished they had been given more challenging work in school. They said they would gladly have done more school work if they had been asked to.

The Indiana Survey of High School Student Engagement, in a study of 80,000 students, found last year that 55% said they did less than three hours of homework each week and most still got As and Bs.

While I have not found the grant to allow me to commission a study of the assignment of complete nonfiction books in our high schools, I remain of the opinion that as long as the English Departments determine the reading and writing in our schools, the reading will be fiction and the writing personal, ‘creative’ or the five-paragraph essay.

Of course the assignment of serious nonfiction books and research papers is time-consuming, and public schools where teachers are given 150 or more students are not given any extra days to review such reading or to supervise and evaluate such papers, but there are other reasons for the evident retreat into frivolity and fiction.

Heather Mac Donald describes the teaching philosophy of Teacher’s College as “Anything But Knowledge,” and this philosophy is upheld by confining student writing to their own immediate experience, mostly of themselves. Even The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates young student essays on Courage, publishes the short pieces of students who write, not about Anne Hutchinson, or Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Horatius at the Bridge, or even one of our own Medal of Honor winners, but instead about their own courage in some one of their personal life situations. So Solipsism is the order of the day. Writing about oneself of course can be the work of genius as Marcel Proust has demonstrated so well, but when our students are limited to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school, there are serious consequences, which I would argue show up not only in studies showing the aliteracy of too many of them, but also in college remedial classes and college dropout rates.

    Stephen Colbert, I understand, has introduced the idea of “Truthiness” into our language. This is meant to indicate speech, and probably writing, which although false or comical, is given the appearance of accuracy and seriousness. In college, I was taught that it is one of the tasks of thought to help us distinguish appearance from reality, but the goal of “truthiness” is to blur that distinction, not to clarify it. On fake news programs, such as “The Daily Show” this practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, and elsewhere it seems, it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing of “nonfiction.” Postmodernists and deconstructionists at the university level have long been claiming that there is no such thing as truth, but here we have high school students being told, on a state assessment, that when writing nonfiction, it is OK just to make things up, for instance to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

    I believe that our high school students who write “truthy” fictitious nonfiction about themselves are being led to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. The personal writing that they do is not held to much of a standard, so too many graduate from school having had little or no experience in acquiring knowledge and organizing and presenting it in an academic paper. If colleges continued this focus on the student herself, and many college expository writing programs do, including some of the ones at Harvard, then this might not be as much of a problem. But college students are still expected to read nonfiction books of which their own personal life is not the subject, and they have to write research papers on what they have learned and thought about besides themselves. And many too many are not being prepared to do that, and this is one contributing factor in college dropout rates. What a terrible waste of hopes and opportunity!



Achieve (2005). Rising to the challenge: Are high school graduates prepared for college and work? PowerPoint presentation prepared by the Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies. Available:

The Concord Review, (2002). History research paper study (conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis). Available:

Indiana University. (2004) High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: [Martha McCarthy]

Mathews, J. (2004, August 1). Computers weighing in on the elements of essay; Programs critique structure not ideas. The Washington Post

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). The Nation’s Report Card: Writing Highlights 2002.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected ‘R’; The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board.

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2004). Writing: A ticket to work...or a ticket out: A survey of business leaders.

Sacchetti, M. (2005, June 26) Colleges question MCAS success; many in state schools still need remedial help. The Boston Globe.

Shaw, L. (2006, March 17). WASL writing: Make it up as they go along. The Seattle Times, p. B1.

Stotsky, S (1999). Losing Our Language: How Multicultural Classroom Instruction is Undermining Our Children’s Ability to Read, Write, and Reason. New York: The Free Press, pp. 269-271

Winerip, M. (2005, May 4). SAT Essay rewards length and ignores errors. The New York Times.


“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board [1998]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
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Tuesday, January 24, 2017


     The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level...To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma...The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills....


Marc Tucker is president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. For two decades, his research has focused on the policies and practices of the countries with the best education systems. His latest book is Surpassing Shanghai: An Agenda for American Education Built on the World's Leading Systems. Follow NCEE on Twitter.

College Readiness: Are Different Definitions Driving Inequality?

By Marc Tucker on January 19, 2017 6:24 AM

Years ago, the best students were encouraged to take two or three Advanced Placement (AP) courses.  Now they are told that they don't stand a chance of getting into a really selective college unless they start taking AP courses in their sophomore year and then pretty much fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  To get into the best colleges, students have to take and do very well on a full slate of AP courses and, if they are required to submit them, their ACT or SAT scores need to be very high.  To be fully competitive, they also need to have a solid record as a leader in their school and a contributor to their community. 

This, of course, suggests that the standard for being "college-ready" at the elite colleges has been moving steadily up in recent years, to the point that only superb achievers need apply unless their parents are prepared to become multi-million dollar contributors to these schools' endowments.

But regular readers of this column will remember me telling you about a study that NCEE did a few years ago of what it takes to be prepared for the first year of the typical two-year college in the United States.  We found that the most often required first-year mathematics course for most students, regardless of major, is a course called College Mathematics or College Algebra.  But, notwithstanding its name, it is really Algebra I with a bit of geometry or statistics—content that is supposed to be taken in middle school.  Most high school graduates, however, are not ready to succeed in that course.

The literacy picture is just as bleak: most first-year college texts are written at the 12th grade level, but many community college instructors have to prepare PowerPoint summaries of the texts because their students cannot comprehend them. It turns out that the typical high school text is written at the 7th or 8th grade level.  The typical community college instructor reported to our researchers that they do not assign much writing because their students cannot write and they do not view themselves as teachers of basic writing skills.

One could reasonably conclude from this study that the majority of high school graduates are not ready for what used to be a high school curriculum.  But one could also conclude that most of our colleges have decided to take whatever they can get, as long as they can fill their seats.  Judging by the reports we have gotten from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the average performance of our high school students has hardly changed at all in forty years.  But this overall conclusion may mask a steady decline in standards for most high school students and a dramatic rise in standards for our top high school graduates.

But how can it be that the requirements of success in college have been greatly ratcheted up in our elite higher education institutions and, at the same time, been eviscerated in the majority of our colleges?  And how can it be that we are able to create an adequate supply of young people who can meet the soaring requirements of the elite institutions, and, at the same time, fail to enable our high school graduates to meet the puerile standards of most institutions?  And, finally, if this portrait is accurate, what does it mean for the future of our country?

Here's what I think may have happened.  What I am about to share is not a research finding.  It is sheer speculation. I believe two things might have happened at much the same time.  First, as the baby boom generation worked its way out of our colleges and universities, the institutions, determined to keep up the level of their enrollments in the face of a steeply declining supply of applicants, lowered their standards of admission in order to keep enrollments up.  The majority of institutions took anyone who had a high school diploma and, in most cases, the diploma was little more than an attendance certificate.  To this day, no state requires more than an 8th-grade-level of literacy to get a diploma.

Because their funding was based on enrollment, these institutions decided it was more important for their long-term fiscal well-being to fill their seats than it was to limit enrollments to any specific standard of literacy. Once that decision was made, the die was cast and there was no incentive for either high school students or high school faculty to raise their game or even to maintain their prior standards.

But, at the same time, in the real economy, low-skill, high-wage jobs were disappearing fast.  The demand for relatively low-skill workers was rapidly declining, first because of outsourcing, later because of advancing automation and rapidly increasing demand for highly-skilled, creative and very well educated people.  The people who had these skills were increasingly concentrated in a limited number of states, cities and suburbs that are home to leading universities and high technology firms.  These are people that Richard Florida has dubbed "The Creatives."  Florida describes them as searching for enclaves where they could find people very much like themselves, intellectual stimulation, rich cultural resources and, not least, spouses who were also well-educated and highly skilled.  These people, who were in high demand and could live, more or less, wherever they wish, looked for public school districts that could get their children into the world's leading universities so they could grow up to live as well as their parents.

Voila!  Those are the parents whose children begin to take AP courses in their sophomore year and fill their schedules with them in their junior and senior years.  They use their excellent connections to get their children high-profile internships and opportunities to build health care clinics in Haiti in their summers and, in between, they get them the equipment and coaching they need to make it onto the varsity teams for competitive sports.  These hugely ambitious people communicate very high expectations to their children, who have virtually unlimited support as they seek to meet those expectations.

I am no romantic.  It is certainly true that the opportunities for the children of the wealthy have always been quite different from the opportunities for the poor in this country, and those differences have been compounded by race and ethnicity.  But the evidence is accumulating that those differences are being magnified many times over by forces that are shaping a society that is different, not just in degree but in kind, from the one many of us grew up in.

Robert Putnam, in his wonderful book Our Kids, describes how he grew up in a town in which the children of the wealthy mill owner went to the same schools, played on the same teams, and went to the same ice cream parlor as the children of the people who worked in the mill, people who taught their own children that it was just plain wrong to flaunt their relative wealth in front of kids, like Putnam himself, who had much less money.  And Putnam describes how that kind of real democracy died in his hometown and was replaced by a community in which the children of the rich have little or nothing to do with the working-class kids.

Putnam's story is a story about changes in the relationship between owners and managers, on the one hand, and workers on the other.  Richard Florida describes, as I said above, how the rising professional class, of which Putnam is one, as Florida is himself, have been progressively cut off from the working class.

The rapidly increasing social class and racial isolation of the last four or five decades has been accompanied by another kind of isolation—a wide and growing gulf between those who go to 'college' but who enter with little more than middle school knowledge and literacy and those who have far more.  Increasingly, the people in the latter camp live apart, in their own enclaves, marry one another, and create a set of expectations and cultural supports for their children from birth forward that are simply not available to a large and growing class of people whose prospects are increasingly grim.  What I have just described has become the crux of our politics.

I used to think that it was the forces that account for widening income inequality that have resulted in increasing inequality of education opportunity and there is certainly much truth in that.  But what if it is no less true that widening inequality in educational standards is leading to widening income inequality?  What if these forces are strengthening each other?

So what does 'college ready' mean in the situation I have described?  I'll posit four different definitions: 1) the current functional standard for the high school diploma, which varies from a minimum of maintaining a sufficient attendance record for 12 years of schooling to the most widespread standard in the United States: the ability to reach an 8th grade level of literacy; 2) the ability to succeed in a typical first year community college or state college program, which would require the ability to read at the 12th grade level and to do mathematics at the middle school level (no state now demands this much to get a high school diploma); 3) the ability to function at a level that would give the student a reasonable chance of engaging in a career that would enable him or her to attain a middle class standard of living in an age of increasing automation (writes well; has a sound understanding of basic concepts in science and can apply them to complex problems, has a good command of the fundamentals of algebra, probability and statistics and understands why liberty, freedom and democracy are so important and what it takes to maintain and nourish them--I must point out that it is unclear whether most college graduates meet this standard) and 4) ready to be a serious candidate for admission to a highly selective college.

Here's my point: to the extent that states set graduation standards by specifying grades on standardized tests that students must take—some do, some don't—the standards are typically set by a political process in which state officials in the best of circumstances decide how high the standard can be set without generating too much pushback from the parents of students who fail to get a diploma. Compounding the problem, some states with test-based graduation requirements have waived them for students who simply complete their regular course work or who take online 'credit recovery' courses set to vanishingly low standards. Once standards are lowered, of course, it is far harder to raise them than it was to lower them.

I believe, for the reasons just offered, that the effective standards for most American high school students have been lowered over the last 30 years at the very time that the actual academic requirements for access to a middle class way of life have been steadily rising and can be expected to rise further in the years ahead. At the same time, standards at the upper end of the distribution have risen dramatically, but only for a relatively small band of highly advantaged elite students who, by virtue of having met those standards, will be uniquely positioned to ride the next wave even as the majority of students struggle for the rest of their lives.

The most responsible policy would be to raise dramatically the standards we set for most students, to the third definition of 'college ready' described above.  Paradoxically, we can expect the greatest resistance to such a move to come from the parents of poorly educated students who are afraid that raising the standards will disadvantage their children.  This is a democracy—we cannot raise the standards without first persuading those parents that their children have more to fear from standards that are too low than from standards that are too high.  Therein lies the core challenge for education leaders in the years ahead. 

Monday, January 9, 2017


NEHTA Newsletter   Fall 1998   Volume XI, Number 1


    Just as in the days, decades ago, when there was a big push to put a television set in every classroom, makers of technology now want to put new hardware in every classroom, not only, of course, to make money, but also to bring students and teachers out of the dark ages of reading and writing ordinary text on sheets of paper, and into the bright new dawn of full color multimedia productions.

    Taking notes can be replaced with the videocam and writing papers can be improved away by teaching students to use digital drawing and editing programs to “morph” their ideas into colorful and fast-moving pictures that can hold the attention of their fellow students for fractional seconds, and make them say “Wow!”

    Some problems remain, naturally. Just as Peter Jennings depends almost entirely on pictures to present his view of the 20th century on ABC News (and spinoffs), and is thus somewhat limited in the knowledge he can convey, as compared to that offered, for example, by Martin Gilbert’s three-volume history of the same century, so other events and writings which do not lend themselves to easy summary in pictures will get lost as well.

    Take, for example, George Washington’s Farewell Address. On paper it reads, in part,

The impressions, with which I first undertook the arduous trust, were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say, that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the Organization and Administration of the government, the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps more than in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the encreasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.

    How would we go about rendering those remarks in an exciting, graphic, colorful, multimedia sort of way? How can we employ Canvas, Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark, PowerPoint and any other among the tools of the multimedia fan to enhance these mere words by a long dead President? How can we free our feelings of being creative from the diffidence he expresses and the sense of duty which constrained him?

    Or to take another example, from Jefferson:

During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.

    Could this be improved by the application of multimedia? Only in the minds of those whose experiences with literacy left them unaware of the majesty and evocative powers of the written word. For those who read little and poorly, and yet teach in the schools, and for those who may be literate themselves but see no way to pass that gift along to the new generations, the primrose path of multimedia lies sparkling before them, and many take it. I was told at a conference recently that term papers are things of the past, replaced for ever by the visual aids of the new illiterates and the multimedia tools they are being sold. One History department chair said he no longer assigned papers, but PowerPoint presentations instead. The wonders of books will not be offered in his classrooms. We all lose when great writing is left behind. 

Will Fitzhugh