Friday, April 23, 2010

HISTORY/WRITING TALENT SEARCH, Madison, Wisconsin, April 23, 2010

“The Review embodies Will Fitzhugh’s idea about how to get students thinking and writing. In supporting him, you would be helping a person who is building what should and can become a national education treasure.”

Albert Shanker, 1993

“What is called for is an Intel-like response from the business and philanthropic community to put The Concord Review on a level footing with a reasonable time horizon.”

Denis P. Doyle, 2010

271 Literacy: Backward Mapping;
By Denis Doyle
31 March 2010


With recent NAEP results (holding steady) and the RTTT announcements (DE and TN are the two finalists in this round) everyone’s eye continues to focus on the persistent problem of low academic achievement in math and English Language Arts. And that’s too bad; it’s time for a change.

Instead of looking exclusively at the “problem,” it’s time to see the promise a solution holds. It’s time to “backward map” from the desired objective—universal literacy—to step-by-step solutions. Achieving true literacy—reading, writing, listening and speaking with skill and insight—is, as Confucius said, a journey of a thousand miles; we must begin with a single step. Let’s begin at the end and work our way backwards.

How might we do that? Little noted and not long remembered is the high end of the literacy scale, high flyers, youngsters who distinguish themselves by the quality of their work. By way of illustration, young math and science high flyers have the Intel Talent Search to reward them with great fanfare, newspaper headlines and hard cash (the first place winner gets a $100,000 scholarship) and runners-up get scholarships worth more than $500,000 in total.

That’s as it should be; the modern era is defined by science, technology and engineering, and it is appropriate to highlight achievement in these fields, both as a reward for success and an incentive to others.

But so too should ELA receive public fanfare, attention and rewards. In particular, exemplary writing skills should be encouraged, rewarded and showcased.

It was the Council for Basic Education’s great insight that ELA and math are the generative subjects from which all other knowledge flows. Without a command of these two “languages” we are mute. Neither math nor English is more important than the other; they are equally important.

Indeed, there is a duality in literacy and math which is noteworthy—each subject is pursued for its own sake and at the same time each one is instrumental. Literacy serves its own purpose as the fount of the examined life while it serves larger social and economic purposes as a medium of communication. No wonder it’s greatest expression is honored with the Nobel Prize.

What is called for is a Junior Nobel, for younger writers, something like the Intel Talent Search for literary excellence. In the mean time we are lucky enough to have The Concord Review. Lucky because its editor and founder, Will Fitzhugh, labors mightily as a one-man show without surcease (and without financial support). We are all in his debt.

Before considering ways to discharge our obligation, what, you might wonder, is The Concord Review?

I quote from their web site: “The Concord Review, Inc., was founded in March 1987 to recognize and to publish exemplary history essays by high school students in the English-speaking world. With the 81st issue (Spring 2010), 890 history research papers (average 5,500 words, with endnotes and bibliography) have been published from HS authors in forty-four states and thirty-seven other countries. The Concord Review remains the only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic work of secondary students.” (see

Lest anyone doubt the importance of this undertaking, permit me to offer a few unsolicited testimonials. The first is from former Boston University President John Silber, “I believe The Concord Review is one of the most imaginative, creative, and supportive initiatives in public education. It is a wonderful incentive to high school students to take scholarship and writing seriously.”

The other is from former AFT President Al Shanker: “The Review also has a vital message for teachers. American education suffers from an impoverishment of standards at all levels. We see that when we look at what is expected of students in other industrialized nations and at what they achieve. Could American students achieve at that level? Of course, but our teachers often have a hard time knowing exactly what they can expect of their students or even what a first-rate essay looks like. The Concord Review sets a high but realistic standard; and it could be invaluable for teachers trying to recalibrate their own standards of excellence."

Can an enterprise which numbers among its friends and admirers people as diverse as John Silber and Al Shanker deserve anything less than the best?

What is called for is an Intel-like response from the business and philanthropic community to put TCR on a level footing with a reasonable time horizon. Will Fitzhugh has been doing this on his own for 22 years (he’s now 73) and TCR deserves a more secure home (and future) of its own.

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