Monday, June 14, 2010; Madison, Wisconsin

Incomplete Standards

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

The new national standards are too timid to recommend that high school students read complete history (or other nonfiction) books, or that high school students should write serious research papers, like the Extended Essays required for the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

Even the College Board, when it put together “101 books for the college-bound student” included only four or five nonfiction books, and none was a history book like Battle Cry of Freedom, or Washington’s Crossing.

For many many years it has been taboo to discuss asking our students to read complete nonfiction books and write substantial term papers. Not sure why...

In fact, since the early days of Achieve's efforts on standards, no one has taken a stand in recommending serious history research papers for high school students, and nonfiction books have never made the cut either.

Since 1987 or so it has seemed just sensible to me that, as long as colleges do assign history and other nonfiction books on their reading lists, and they also assign research papers, perhaps high school students should read a nonfiction book and write a term paper each year, to get in academic shape, as it were.

After all, in helping students prepare for college math, many high schools offer calculus. For college science, high school students can get ready with biology, chemistry and physics courses. To get ready for college literature courses, students read good novels and Shakespeare plays. Students can study languages and government and even engineering and statistics in their high schools, but they aren’t reading nonfiction books and they aren’t writing research papers.

The English departments, who are in charge of reading and writing in the high schools, tend to assign novels, poetry, and plays rather than nonfiction books, and they have little interest in asking for serious research papers either.

For 23 years, I have been publishing exemplary history research papers by high school students from near and far [39 countries so far], and it gradually became clearer to me that perhaps most high school students were not being asked to write them.

In 2002, with a grant from the Shanker Institute, I was able to commission (the only) study of the assignment of history term papers in U.S. public high schools, and we found that most students were not being asked to do them. This helped to explain why, even though The Concord Review is the only journal in the world to publish such academic papers, more than 19,000 of the 20,000 U.S. public high schools never submitted one.

The nonfiction readings suggested in the new national standards, such as The Declaration of Independence, Letter From Birmingham Jail, and one chapter (column) from The Federalist Papers, would not tax high school students for more than an hour, much less time than they now spend on Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and the like. What would the equivalent be for college preparation in math: long division? decimals?

High school graduates who arrive at college without ever having read a complete nonfiction book or written a serious term paper, even if they are not in remedial courses (and more than one million are each year, according to the Diploma to Nowhere report), start way behind their IB and private school peers academically, when it comes to reading and writing at the college level.

Having national standards which would send our high school graduates off to higher education with no experience of real term papers and no complete nonfiction books doesn't seem the right way to make it likely that they will ever get through to graduation.

No comments:

Post a Comment