Thursday, August 15, 2019


 The Boston Globe
                    September 17, 2018
                            Jeff Jacoby

                In praise of The Concord Review

For years, Will Fitzhugh has deplored the fact that talented high school scholars get so much less recognition than talented high school athletes. Many newspapers publish lavish “all-scholastic ” special sections celebrating the achievements of young track, softball, and soccer stars, but there are no four-color inserts extolling high-school students who excel at academics. At colleges all over America, athletic coaches keep tabs on the most promising up-and-coming high school basketball, baseball, and football players. But is there a History Department chairman on any campus in the United States who could name the most gifted history student at any high school within a 500-mile radius?
Thirty years ago, Fitzhugh—a one-time history teacher in Concord, Massachusetts—set out to change this imbalance. I wrote about his efforts in a column last year:

Fitzhugh decided to blaze a path. He quit his job, cashed in his pension, and devoted himself full-time to producing a journal that would show what kind of scholarly writing kids were capable of. He adopted “Varsity Academics®” as his slogan and put out a call for excellent history essays. The journal’s purpose, he says, was to serve as a new kind of peer pressure: to demonstrate to high school students everywhere what kids like them could produce.

As word of The Concord Review trickled out, the superb history papers began flowing in. So did tributes from supporters as varied as Albert Shanker, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Silber, and David McCullough. So did modest financial support from a handful of donors who grasped the potential of what Fitzhugh was doing.

But it has always been a hand-to-mouth existence. Fitzhugh never saw anything like the tens of millions of dollars that are poured into after-the-fact remedial writing instruction and into gimmicky feel-good campaigns by foundations more interested in boosting self-esteem than in challenging students to work hard. Over and over, Fitzhugh’s grant applications have been rejected on the grounds that his journal is too elitist, or that it doesn’t have a politically correct edge, or that the study of history isn’t, after all, nearly as important as he seems to think it is. A few high schools have embraced The Concord Review. But far more want nothing to do with a journal so committed to high academic standards.

Through it all, Fitzhugh persists, cheerful and determined—and passionate as ever about student achievement. It remains the case that most high school students are never required to write a serious research paper. But now there are 30 years’ worth of Concord Reviews that open a window into an alternative universe. You want to see what high school kids can do? Spend some time with The Concord Review, and prepare to be inspired.

The papers published in The Concord Review bear no resemblance to the five-paragraph “essay” that millions of high-school students have been misled into thinking constitutes serious writing. The history essays Fitzhugh accepts for publication are typically in the 5,000-8,000 word range. But there is no word limit, and at least one essay (on the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah) ran to more than 20,000 words.

Nor is there any subject requirement. Students are invited to submit papers on any historical topic at all, and the range of subjects they have tackled is vast. The most recent issue includes essays on the Treaty of Lausanne, the Northern Wei Dynasty, the Election of 1916, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Irish liberator Daniel O’Connell. The only thing the essays have in common, besides their brilliance, is that they were all written by high school students.

The Concord Review isn’t splashy, and neither is its founder and editor. But what Fitzhugh lacks in razzle-dazzle and snappy jokes, he more than makes up for in charisma, good spirits, commitment, and a lifelong pursuit of excellence. A brief new video highlighting his one-man crusade is promoted online by the Pioneer Institute,  one of Boston’s leading think tanks. Take seven minutes to watch it, and you’ll be reassured that even in our era of dumbed-down, short-attention-span, lowest-common-denominator education, all is not yet lost.

[Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc., a nonprofit

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


In 2002, a distinguished historian wrote that the widely told tales of “No Irish Need Apply” signs in late nineteenth-century America were myths. The University of Illinois professor Richard Jensen said that such signs were inventions, “myths of victimization,” passed down from Irish immigrants to their children until they reached the unassailable status of urban legends. For over a decade, most historians accepted Jensen’s scholarship on the matter. Opponents of Jensen’s thesis were dismissed—sometimes by Jensen himself—as Irish-American loyalists. 

In a 2015 story that seemed to encapsulate the death of expertise, an eighth grader named Rebecca Fried claimed that Jensen was wrong, not least because of research she did on Google. She was respectful, but determined. “He has been doing scholarly work for decades before I was born, and the last thing I want to do was show disrespect for him and his work,” she said later. It all seemed to be just another case of a precocious child telling an experienced teacher—an emeritus professor of history, no less—that he had not done his homework. As it turns out, she was right and he was wrong. Such signs existed, and they weren’t that hard to find. For years, other scholars had wrestled with Jensen’s claims, but they fought with his work inside the thicket of professional historiography. Meanwhile, outside the academy, Jensen’s assertion was quickly accepted and trumpeted as a case of an imagined grievance among Irish-Americans. (Vox, of course, loved the original Jensen piece.)

Young Rebecca, however, did what a sensible person would: she started looking through databases of old newspapers. She found the signs, as the Daily Beast later reported, “collecting a handful of examples, then dozens, then more. She went to as many newspaper databases as she could. Then she thought, somebody had to have done this before, right?” As it turned out, neither Jensen nor anyone else had apparently bothered to do this basic fact-checking. Jensen later fired back, trying to rebut the work of a grade-schooler by claiming that he was right but that he could have been more accurate in his claims. Debate over his thesis, as the Smithsonian magazine later put it, “may still be raging in the comments section” of various Internet lists, but Fried’s work proves “that anyone with a curious mind and a nose for research can challenge the historical status quo.” Miss Fried, for her part, has now entered high school with a published piece in the Journal of Social History.

Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (170-171). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Thursday, August 1, 2019



A Simple Page-Per-Year Plan© Formula Could Increase Students’ Ability to Read, Write, and Think

By Robert Holland   November 30, 2018

The never-ending quest for a magic formula to educate all children brings to mind this lyrical lament from a 1980 Johnny Lee country tune: “I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

Rarely does anything loveable, or even merely useful, come from wandering the maze of government agencies, huge foundations, textbook publishers, and assorted ed-tech or pedagogical soothsayers. A review of a century’s worth of grandiose schemes, designs, and boondoggles—Common Core being the latest—would be hard-pressed to identify more than a few that have succeeded.

By contrast, a spark of inspiration for helping children can emanate from an individual who has no institutional axe to grind and is willing to sacrifice for the cause.

Will Fitzhugh fits that mold perfectly.

Three decades ago, Fitzhugh quit his job as a history teacher at Concord High School, cashed in his small pension, and put all his energies into creating a quarterly journal to be filled with the finest history essays written by high school students. His mission was to show students—and the rest of the world—what they are capable of producing.

Operating without the gargantuan grants that fuel the merchants of ed-biz faddism, The Concord Review has published 1,307 [1,340 now] scholarly articles under the bylines of student authors from 45 states and 40 countries. Fitzhugh imposes no arbitrary word limit on submissions. Published essays average 7,500 words, complete with endnotes and bibliography.

The Concord Review is the only quarterly journal in the United States [in the world] devoted exclusively to publishing secondary students’ writing about history. The range of topics is eclectic and the writing is engaging. Here is a small sampling of topics over the past year: “Machine Politics,” “Black-Jewish Relations,” “The Scopes Trial,” “Food Guide Pyramid,” “Coups in Pakistan,” “Sino-Soviet Split,” “Roaring Twenties,” “Chinese Feminism.”

Fitzhugh’s blog makes plain how The Review’s essayists have justified his confidence in them. Many students have written him to say they reached a point in reading about history where they strongly felt a need to tell people what they had discovered. 

In short, as Fitzhugh put it, “reading and writing are inseparable partners.” When motivation springs from knowledge gained, writing can follow a natural progression of writing, reviewing a draft, revising for clarity and correcting omissions, reading for additional content, and rewriting again.

In other words, The Review’s authors exhibit “all the natural things that have always led to good academic writing, whether in history or any other subject.”

Unfortunately, in most high schools, writing is a heavily regulated and restricted process far removed from the ideal of students being able to express something they have learned. Fitzhugh describes the current practice:

“When teaching our students to write, not only are standards set very low in most high schools, limiting students to the five-paragraph essay, responses to a document-based question, or the personal (or college) essay about matters which are often no one else’s business, but we often so load up students with formulae and guidelines that the importance of writing when the author has something to say gets lost in the maze of processes.”

Learn something then write about it. Now there is a novel concept.

Fitzhugh has developed a Page Per Year Plan© (and even copyrighted it) that, if ever implemented widely, could lead to substantially increased time devoted to student reading and writing.

His idea is that all public high school seniors would be expected to write a 12-page history research paper. However, that requirement would not just be plopped on them. They would have written an 11-page paper as juniors, a 10-pager as sophomores, and so back down the year-by-year ladder to a 5-page paper in fifth grade, and even a one-pager on a topic other than themselves in the first grade.

With a Page Per Year Plan© in place, Fitzhugh figures that “every senior in high school will have learned, for that 12-page paper, more about some topic probably than anyone else in their class knows, perhaps even more than any of their teachers knows about that subject. They will have had in the course of writing longer papers each year, that first taste of being a scholar which will serve them so well in higher education and beyond.”

It is highly doubtful that a government-run school system would ever adopt anything as rigorous, yet sensible, as this Page-Per-Year Plan© ladder to writing success. Perhaps there are private-sector innovators including homeschoolers bold enough to give it a try.

Meanwhile, anyone looking to find evidence of a love of writing by inspired students will continue to find it every three months in the pages of The Concord Review.

[Robert Holland ( is a senior fellow for education policy for The Heartland Institute.]

Varsity Academics® is a registered trademark of The Concord Review, Inc. []

Thursday, July 25, 2019


 Excerpt from:

Professor William M. McClay
“Reunifying History in the Age of Fracture”
NAS Academic Questions, Spring 2018, 48-61

The chief purpose of a high school education in American history is not the development of critical thinking and analytic skills, although the acquisition of such skills is vitally important; nor is it the mastery of facts, although a solid grasp of the factual basis of American history is surely essential; nor is it the acquisition of a genuine historical consciousness, or an ability to “think like a historian,” the current Holy Grail among many theorists of historical pedagogy, although that certainly would be nice to have too, particularly under the present circumstances, in which historical memory seems to run at about fifteen minutes, especially in the young.

No, the chief purpose of a secondary school education in American history is something different. It is a rite of civic membership, an act of inculcation and formation, a way in which the young are introduced to the fullness of their political and cultural inheritance as Americans, enabling them to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to appropriate fully all that it has to offer them, both its privileges and its burdens. It is to make its stories theirs, and thereby let them come into the possession of the common treasure of its cultural life. In that sense the study of history is different from any other academic subject. It is not merely a body of knowledge. It also ushers the individual person into membership in a common world, and situates him in space and time. As in Plato’s great allegory of the cave, it ushers him into the light of day, into a public world, into a fuller and more capacious identity.


This is most especially true in a democracy. The American Founders, and perhaps most notably Thomas Jefferson, fully grasped that no popular government could flourish for long without an educated citizenry, one that understood the special virtues of republican self-government, and the civic and moral duty of citizens to uphold and guard it. As the historian Donald Kagan has put it, “Democracy requires a patriotic education,” and it does so for two reasons. First, because its success depends upon the active participation of its citizens in their own governance, and second, because without an education, there would be no way to persuade free individuals of the occasional need to sacrifice the pursuit of their self-interest for the sake of the greater good.

Friday, July 19, 2019


The Nemo Curriculum Program©

The HS history student who wrote the attached letter was a beneficiary, like many others, of our unique and amazing Nemo Curriculum Program (NCP). 

I never met her, talked to her, or sent her mailings or emails. She found out about The Concord Review, chose her historical topic, did the research for it, outlined a paper, wrote the paper, proofread it, and submitted it.

All we did was publish it. All the work was hers, but she felt so good about doing it that she gave some credit to TCR. This is the magic of our Nemo Curriculum Program. (

Our motto is: “Where there’s a Way (to earn recognition) there’s a Will (to work for it).” We plan to bring the benefits of the NCP to as many more HS history students in the future as we possibly can...


Mr. Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776

Dear Mr. Fitzhugh,

I am writing to tell you how thrilled I was to learn that my essay (“America and the Invisible Hand: The Influence of Adam Smith on the American Economy”) was selected for publication in the upcoming Summer issue of The Concord Review. I want to thank you for the opportunity you have given me and other young writers to be published.

When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it. While most of the writing I have completed for my high school history classes has been formulaic and limited to specified topics, The Concord Review motivated me to undertake independent research in the development of the American Economy. The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received.

This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History. The skills that I have acquired from completing my paper for The Concord Review will be invaluable in the continuation of my education, and I cannot thank you enough for giving me the opportunity to undertake such an endeavor. The Concord Review has truly been an inspiration to me and I wish you tremendous luck in its continuing success.

Kaitlin Marie Bergan
Northern Highlands Regional High School
Allendale, New Jersey

Wednesday, July 17, 2019


An Interview with Will Fitzhugh: The Concord Review 
—an outlet for Exceptional History Students
July 16, 2019 by Education News; Houston, Texas
Michael F. Shaughnessy, EducationViews Senior Columnist
1) Will, here we are in the middle of the summer—and some teachers are preparing to teach history, social studies, economics—and [a very few] preparing to assign major term papers. But where are the outlets for these students’ good works?
National History Day accepts history papers of not more than 10 pages and it doesn’t publish any. The average paper in recent issues of The Concord Review was 36 pages long, and we recently published a paper on the U.S. election of 1916 that was 84 pages, including 355 endnotes and a bibliography, and the author will be at Oxford in the Fall. The National Writing Project prefers students to write about themselves, and in general the Adolescent Literacy Community would like students to confine themselves to reading and writing only fiction, not history.
2) Let’s talk about the personality traits that make a good historian and good writer of history—what are they?
It is important in any field to be diligent and literate. A good High School student of history is curious about some historical person or event and reads enough about it until they reach the point at which they really want to tell others what they have learned. This is the most important step on the path to an exemplary history research paper. We have published 1,329 of them from 41 countries in the 121 issues of The Concord Review since 1987—see some at
3) “No Shortcuts” is your recent statement. You and I know that good writing requires good research, writing, editing and polishing. Are teachers teaching these skills however?
“No Shortcuts” was a motto of the extraordinary California teacher Rafe Esquith. We borrowed it to point out that no one can do the reading for or the writing of a serious history research paper for the student. The student must do all their own work. For the most part, Social Studies Teachers have neither the training nor the inclination to assign serious history papers, so they don’t. More and more of our best essays were done as independent studies, often by students who have read or heard about the work of their peers that was published in The Concord Review.  And sometimes the teacher knows nothing about them.
4) In your most recent edition of The Concord Review—what were some of the researched topics?
In recent issues, we have had papers on Vietnamese Refugees, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Bleeding Kansas, the Northern Wei Dynasty, Superfrigates, the Nanking Safety Zone, John Wilkes, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and the Caste System, among scores of other interesting historical topics. We don’t tell students what to write about and we don’t tell them how long their papers should be.
5) Where have some of your high school students, who have published in The Concord Review matriculated to?
151 have gone to Harvard, 113 to Yale, 82 to Stanford, and the like, but a few have gone to Caltech, MIT, Oxford, and Cambridge as well. Altogether, 35% have gone to the Ivy League or Stanford so far.
6) What have I forgotten to ask?
There has been a sharp 30% decline in history majors in our colleges. While there have been moves to STEM, economics and the like, too many of our politically correct instructors want to rewrite or erase history rather than teach it, and that turns students away. The absence of nearly all courses in diplomatic, political, and military history persuades many students that the history department is not for them.
In our high schools, Social Studies has long been dominant over history and in many colleges the history department is shrinking almost to the point of extinction. In addition, the vast majority of our high school students who head for college do so having never read even one complete history book or written one serious history research paper, so they are much less well prepared for college work than they should be. 
Feel free to send comments or questions to Will Fitzhugh at

Monday, July 15, 2019


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
15 July 2019

The principal should say: 

“Good morning, boys and girls, and welcome back from vacation.

This year we will have a school for students who want to work hard. Those who do not want to work hard will be removed. We haven’t worked out where they will go yet, but while they are there, they will not interfere with the education of students who want to work hard in our school. In the new setting, they can choose whether they will take advantage of it, and try to work their way back into our school, but until they are ready to work hard here, they will not be allowed to harm the education of the students we have here who want to work hard on their education. 

Your teachers and the rest of the adults here will work hard to help you as much as we can, but we know that only you can decide how much you want to work and how much you want to learn.

Best wishes to you for a very productive year!

Friday, July 5, 2019


The problem is that students alone still decide how much academic work will get done and how much learning will take place. 

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
4 July 2019

There are many reasons for the success of the New England Patriots football team. Excellent players have come and gone—Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Danny Amendola, Adam Vinatieri, and many more—and others keep arriving, while the perennial, Tom Brady, approaches GOAT status in the minds of many fans.

Bill Belichik is universally admired for his strategy and tactics, and his seemingly endless creativity in preparing offensive plans that anticipate and frustrate what an opponent expects the team to do. His fellow coaches of course deserve huge credit as well, along with their player selection, team preparation and training, and so on.

But one motto seems to stand out and to stand for the overriding philosophy of the team for its players: DO YOUR JOB. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But for some reason this provides an example of the attitudes cultivated which have made the team such a success, year after year, Super Bowl after Super Bowl. DO YOUR JOB.

This inspiring idea is, for the most part, missing in our approach to the students in our schools. It has been pointed out that we need students, they have a right to an education, and in addition, they can’t be fired, released, or traded to another team.

But all of the onus in our education theories, systems, and criticism is on the adults: teachers, administrators, curriculum coordinators, consultants, EduPundits and all the rest. The problem is that students alone still decide how much academic work will get done and how much learning will take place. As Shankara said: “Through our own eyes we learn what the moon looks like: how could we learn this through the eyes of others?”

No matter how well-educated, trained, paid, professionally-developed, etc., our teachers are, they simply cannot learn for the students. And yet we seem content with students spending 6 hours each day on social media, with scores of hours each week on sports or extracurricular activities, many hours on video games, and on and on. 

Mark Bauerlein cited “the U.S. Department of Education report entitled NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress. Among other things, the report gathered data on study and reading time for thousands of 17-year -olds in 2004. When asked how many hours they’d spent on homework the day before, the tallies were meager. Fully 26 percent said that they didn’t have any homework to do, while 13 percent admitted that they didn’t do any of the homework they were supposed to [39%]. A little more than one-quarter (28 percent) spent less than an hour, and another 22 percent devoted one to two hours, leaving only 11 percent to pass the two-hour mark.”

He also cited “the University of Indiana High School Survey of Student Engagement. When asked how many hours they spent each week ‘Reading/studying for class,’ almost all of them, fully 90 percent, came in at a ridiculously low five hours or less, 55 percent at one hour or less.”

It seems clear that these efforts by students do not add up to doing their job. And what are the students’ jobs? To come to class on time, and listen to the teacher. To behave well, and do all the homework. To take their own education seriously as their primary job—their main responsibility.

We and they are paying a heavy price for our students not doing their jobs. The majority of our HS graduates read at the seventh grade level, and only 18% could pass the exam to become a United States citizen.

We may feel we are being compassionate and affectionate to allow students to spend as little time as they do on their primary job, but most of the consequences fall on them, no matter how wonderful our lack of pressure on them may make us feel. We are forcing them to be on a losing team, by failing, over and over and over again, to tell them: DO YOUR JOB.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


from the HSSSE website at Indiana University

Published Online: September 13, 2007

Absent From Class
By Will Fitzhugh

There are many important variables to consider in evaluating the causes for academic failure or success in the high school classroom. The training of the teacher, the quality of the curriculum, school safety, the availability of books, and so on are factors studied extensively, and all of them play a part. But I would argue that the most important variable is the student’s actual level of academic work. Why do so many of our high school students do so little of that? The short answer is because they can get away with it.

A close study of the academic demands on students in the vast majority of our high school classrooms would disclose, I feel certain, that one of the principal reasons for students’ boredom is that they really have nothing to do but sit still and wait for the bell. In most classrooms, the chances of a student being called on are slight, and of being called on twice are almost non-existent. If a student is called on and has not done the required reading or other class preparation, most probably the teacher will just call on someone else. There are no real consequences for being unprepared. As a result, many, if not most, students are not capable of contributing in class—or even understanding class discussions—and that can only deepen their boredom.

By contrast, on the football or soccer field, every player is called on in every practice and in nearly every game. Even for players on the bench, there is a constant possibility that they will be asked to perform at any time. If they don’t know what to do then, the embarrassment and disapproval will be swift and obvious. The same also could be said for high school theater productions, performances of the band or chorus, participation in the model United Nations, or almost any other activity they pursue.

In extracurricular activities, the student faces a kind of peer pressure to do well that is usually lacking in the classroom. There, peers may even think it cool for another student to get away with having done no preparation. This may offer insight into findings from the 2005 Indiana University High School Survey of Student Engagement. Of the 80,000 students questioned, 49 percent indicated that they did only three to four hours a week of homework, and yet they still reported getting A’s and B’s. I cannot think of a single high school sport that asks for only three or four hours a week of practice. So little time spent preparing would easily lead to an athletic failure to match the academic failure of so many of our students.

The absence of serious academic demands on the attention and effort of students in our high school classrooms results not only in boredom and daydreaming, but also in the high levels of unproductive media time reported in a 2005 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That report found that young people spend an average of 6.3 hours a day (44.5 hours a week) with various electronic entertainment media; they’re not doing homework on the computer, merely entertaining themselves.

High school students also, for the most part, find time for an active social life, perhaps a job, and often athletics and other time-consuming hobbies and activities. But not, apparently, for academics.

While we have lots of research studies on test results, teachers’ training, per-pupil expenditures, new curricula, professional workshops, and a host of other educational topics, there is a striking need for close study of what students actually are being asked to do while they are in class. The remarkable fact to me is not that our high school dropout rate is so high, but that so little is being asked of those who do not drop out.

Some claim that if only the teacher were more brilliant or entertaining, boredom could be banished, or that the problem of student engagement could be solved if we just showed enough movies in class, gave enough PowerPoint presentations, or had enough DVDs on “relevant” subject matter on hand. But imagine how absurd it would be to expect students to stay committed to a sport in which they spent their time sitting in the stands while the coach told wonderful stories, showed great movies, or talked amusingly about his or her personal athletic history. The student-athletes come to play, as they should, and their motivation is rewarded by the chance to participate, often with sweat, strain, and even tears.

When we make so few classroom demands on students, we should not wonder why so many of them check out, or are essentially absent from class, whether sitting there or not. If nothing is asked of them, if they are not being challenged academically, then they might as well be turning their attention to other pursuits that could offer rewards greater than passivity and boredom.

The education research community should consider undertaking studies that compare the academic demands on students in the typical high school classroom with those that students face in the other activities in which they take part. Let’s try, moreover, to discover high school classrooms that resemble those in law schools or business schools, where students are expected to be prepared each day and are at risk of being called on to demonstrate that readiness at a moment’s notice. And then let’s find out how these schools motivate their students to pour the same energy and commitment they devote to games or matches into their pursuit of learning.

If we want our high school students to do more academic work, let’s try to figure out how to stop boring and ignoring them in our classes. Let’s give them better reasons not to be “absent from class.”

[Will Fitzhugh is the founder and president of The Concord Review, a journal of academic writing by high school students, and the National Writing Board, both located in Sudbury, Mass.]

Vol. 27

Saturday, June 22, 2019


George Mason University
History News Network

Contentless Writing
By Will Fitzhugh

Mr. Fitzhugh is Editor and Publisher of The Concord Review [] and Founder of the National Writing Board [].

Abraham Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was short. Indeed, the President had spoken and taken his seat before many in that large crowd gathered outdoors even realized that he had spoken. Fortunately, an alert reporter took down his words. Short as the speech was, it began with a date and a fact—the sort of factual content that is being drained away from student writing today.

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 having a computer grade the essays that she wrote on the Graduate Management Admission Test (Mathews, 2004). She replied that she didn’t mind, noting that the test givers were more interested in her “ability to communicate” than in what she actually said.

Although style, fluency, tone, and correct grammar are certainly important in writing, folks like me think that content has value as well. The guidelines for scoring the new writing section on the SAT seem to say otherwise, however. Readers evaluating the essays are told not to take points off for factual mistakes, and they must score the essays “holistically”—at the rate of 30 an hour (Winerip, 2005).

Earlier this year, Linda Shaw of the Seattle Times (2006), 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.” According to Shaw, the state’s education office announced that “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 James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces—is limited to the Left Coast, think again. Across the United States, even the most prestigious writing workshops for teachers generally bypass the what to focus on the how.

All writing has to have some content, of course. So what are students encouraged to put down on the page? In its 2003 report, The Neglected ‘R’, The National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, gave us a clue. According to the report, the following passage by a high school student about the September 11 terrorist attacks shows “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.

Or look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the supposed gold standard for evaluating academic achievement in U.S. schools, as measured and reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. In its 2002 writing assessment, in which 77 percent of 12th graders scored “Basic” or “Below Basic,” NAEP scored the following student response “Excellent.” The prompt called for a brief review of a book worth preserving. In a discussion of Herman Hesse’s Demian, in which the main character grows up and awakens to himself, the student 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.
(p. 22)

As these two excerpts show, both the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges and the NAEP seem to favor emotional and personal writing, at least at the high school level. If personal memoir and “fictional nonfiction” were the sorts of writing that college courses required—not to mention in business, government and other lines of work—then perhaps it wouldn’t matter. After all, top executives at ENRON wrote quite a bit of fiction before their arrests, not to mention some well-known journalists who substituted fiction for fact in their reporting.

The problem is that students must know facts, dates, and the viewpoints of various experts and authors to write their college term papers. The Boston Globe has reported some frightening statistics about students’ knowledge gaps. Sixty-three percent of students graduating from Massachusetts high schools and attending community colleges are in remedial courses, as are 34 percent of those attending four-year colleges. (Sacchetti, 2004)

A survey of leading U.S. companies revealed that organizations are spending more than $3 billion each year in remedial writing courses for both hourly and salaried employees (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2004).

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

As it happens, some teachers and students in U.S. high schools know that writing serious, factual history research papers is good and necessary preparation for future writing tasks, and that it’s a superb way to learn history and practice scholarship. One student, whose history essay appeared in The Concord Review (see “Raising the Bar for Expository Writing,” p. 46) was so interested in the trial and excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in the early 1600s that she spent several months during her Junior year doing independent study at a public high school in Massachusetts. Her 13,000-word research paper won The Concord Review’s Ralph Waldo Emerson Prize [she graduated summa cum laude from Yale and is now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford].

The student found Anne Hutchinson’s independence inspiring. In the following extract from her paper, the student discusses the accusations made against Hutchinson during the trial in which this courageous woman was excommunicated for questioning in private the authority of the ministers as the sole source of God’s wisdom:

    ...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 [Governor] 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.

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 focus here. 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 may mistakenly assume that writing with content is common in schools. In 2002, the Roper Organization conducted a study for The Concord Review and found that in U.S. public high schools, 81% of teachers never assign a 5,000-word research paper—that’s 8,000 words shorter than the previously cited award-winning essay—and 62% never assign a 3,000-word nonfiction paper. (The Concord Review 2002). Although 95% of teachers surveyed believed that research papers were “important” or “very important,” most reported that they did not have time to assign and grade them.

When Support Trumps Rigor

In her report for the Fordham Foundation on state social studies standards in the United States, researcher Sandra Stotsky (1999), cited a newspaper article about a Hispanic high school student named Carol who was unprepared for college work. Described as a top student, the girl was stunned by the level of writing that her Boston college demanded of her. Although the student said that she had received encouragement and support from her high school teachers, she wished that her teachers had given her more challenging work. According to the reporter, the student discovered that “moral support is different from academic rigor.” Stotsky noted that teachers often substitute self-esteem-building assignments for rigorous work. The same newspaper article described a high school teacher,

    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 are not prepared for college-level writing. (pp. 269-270)

Students like Carol who belatedly discover their lack of preparedness for college work are far more numerous than one might think. Through a survey of recent high school graduates (Achieve, Inc., 2005), the National Governors Association learned that a large majority of students surveyed wished that their teachers had given them more challenging work. Moreover, the High School Survey of Student Engagement (Indiana University, 2004) found that 55% of the 80,000 students surveyed said they did fewer than three hours of homework each week, and most received As and Bs anyway.

Anything But Knowledge

Writing about oneself can be the work of genius, as Marcel Proust demonstrated so well in his masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. But limiting students to thinking and writing almost entirely about themselves in school is, well, limiting. The Boston Globe, which annually celebrates essays on Courage, asks students to submit short essays—not about someone else’s courage, but about their own. Of course, famous people like Anne Hutchinson, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King, Jr., don’t have a monopoly on courage. But it would be refreshing for students to look outside themselves from time to time to reflect on such qualities in others. Unfortunately, solipsism seems to have become the order of the day; the lack of a sustained focus on objectivity and rigor in writing is showing up in poor literacy rates, greater numbers of remedial classes in college, and higher college dropout rates.

In 2005, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the idea of "truthiness" into the English language. The term characterizes speech or writing that appears to be accurate and serious, but is, in fact, false or comical. In college, I learned that one of the tasks of thought is to help us distinguish appearance from reality. The goal of "truthiness" is to blur that distinction. On satirical news programs, like The Daily Show, this dubious practice brings the relief of laughter, but on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning—in which students are told that it’s OK to make things up—it just brings confusion, even to the task of writing “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 to invent an expert, and then “quote” him in support of an argument they are making.

The danger is that practices like these can lead high school students to believe that they don’t need to seek information about anything outside of their own feelings and experiences. However, college students are still expected to read nonfiction books, which obviously deal with topics other than their personal lives. Students also have to write research papers in which they must organize their thinking and present material coherently. Too many students are not prepared to do this, and many end up dropping out of college. What a terrible waste of time, hopes and opportunity!

Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
National Writing Board [1998]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA
Varsity Academics®


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.

This essay was first published by Educational Leadership [ASCD] and is reprinted with permission of the author.

Monday, June 10, 2019


By Will Fitzhugh

The Concord Review

The Washington Post
in "The Answer Sheet"

Valerie Strauss
25 February 2014

It is settled wisdom among FunderPundits, and those to whom they give their grants, that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality, but I have regularly pointed out that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.

Now, however, a small number of other dissenting voices have begun to speak. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift have suggested that (p. 131):

“Studying is crucial for strong academic performance…” and “Scholarship on teaching and learning has burgeoned over the past several decades and has emphasized the importance of shifting attention from faculty teaching to student learning…”

This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.

In 2004, Paul A. Zoch, a Latin teacher from Texas, wrote in Doomed to Fail:

“Let there be no doubt about it: the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education.”

More recently, and less on the fringe of this new concern, Diane Ravitch wrote in Death and Life of the Great American School System:

“One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students’ academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic performance and that they are not merely passive recipients of their teachers’ influence.”

There are necessarily problems in turning attention toward the work of students in judging the effectiveness of schools. First, all the present attention is on teachers, and it is not easy to turn that around. Second, teachers are employees and can be fired, while students can not. It could not be comfortable for the FunderPundits and their beneficiaries to realize that they may have been overlooking the most important variable in student academic achievement all this time.

In February, when the Associated Press reported that Natalie Monroe, a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania, had called her students, on a blog, “disengaged, lazy whiners,” and “noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS,” the response of the school system was not to look more closely at the academic efforts of the students, but to suspend the teacher. As one of her students explained, “As far as motivated high school students, she’s completely correct. High school kids don’t want to do anything…(but) It’s a teacher’s job…to give students the motivation to learn.” (sic)

It would seem that no matter who points out that “You can lead a student to learning, but you can’t make him drink,” our systems of schools and Funderpundits stick with their wisdom that teachers alone are responsible for student academic achievement.

While that is wrong, it is also stupid. Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote:

“For an education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.”

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be—namely the students.

Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools. What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, math, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them. Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.

This situation will persist as long as those funding programs and projects for reform in education pay no attention to the actual academic work of our students. And students, who see little or no pressure to be other than “disengaged lazy whiners” will continue to pay the price for their lack of education, both in college and at work, and we will continue to draw behind in comparison with those countries who realize that student academic achievement has always been, and will always be, mainly dependent on diligent student academic work.