Tuesday, June 26, 2012


SchoolInfoSystem.org; Madison, Wisconsin

EducationViews.org; Houston, Texas


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
25 June 2012

It has become an educational cliché to say that “students will rise to the level of expectations.” But how do we explain the students whose work rises well above our level of expectations? Mostly, we just ignore them. In the local media, coverage of high school sports “blanks” any and all accounts of exemplary academic work by high school students.

In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching (as I thought) United States History to Sophomores at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I assigned, following the advice of my colleagues, history papers of just 5-7 pages, but I did tell the students that the title page did not count as one of the pages.

One quiet student, who I did not know at all, turned in a 28-page paper on the current balance of nuclear/thermonuclear weapons between the United States and the USSR. He later graduated summa cum laude from Tufts in economics. Why did he do that paper? He didn’t need to, and he didn’t do it for me. He was “rising” to the level of his own expectations. As Laurence Steinberg wrote in Beyond the Classroom: “Within a system that fails (flunks) very few students, then, only those students who have high standards of their own—who have more stringent criteria for success and failure—will strive to do better than merely to pass and graduate.”

In the last 25 years I have published more than 1,000 history research papers by crazy motivated secondary students like that from 46 states and 38 other countries. (I am happy to provide pdfs of some of these exemplary history research papers on request to fitzhugh@tcr.org).

Since the 1960s, the International Baccalaureate has been expecting students to complete a 4,000-word Extended Essay to qualify for the Diploma. In 2011, I published an 11,000-word (Emerson Prize) paper on the stagnation in science and technology in China for five centuries after 1500, and the student had to cut it down to 4,000 words to meet the expectations for the Extended Essay and the IB Diploma. ACT and the College Board have not yet included an expectation for that sort of academic expository writing.

Often we work to limit what students do academically. Several years ago, when The Concord Review was receiving submissions of high school history research papers of 6,000, 8,000, and 10,000 words, I asked the Executive Director of National History Day, which has as one option for competitors a 2,500-word history paper, if they had considered accepting essays that were longer. She said that no, they didn’t want any paper that took more than 10 minutes to read.

Recently when I published a 108-page (Emerson Prize) paper on the War of Regulation in North Carolina in the 18th century by a student from an independent school west of the Mississippi, I found out that she had to reduce it to 9 pages, without endnotes, to enable her to win first place nationally in the National History Day competition.

One  student whose (Emerson Prize) work I published went to her teacher and said: “My paper is going to be 57 pages, is that all right?” And the teacher (may his tribe increase) said, “Yes.”

Five or six years ago I received a paper (Emerson Prize) on the history of economic reform in China in recent years from a student at a public high school in Ohio. Like high schools generally, hers expected her to complete their requirements in four years. Instead she did most of it in two and spent part of the next two years as a student at The Ohio State University before applying to Harvard as a freshman. She recently graduated from there with high honors in mathematics, with an economics minor.

I should say that, even though Asian students have the highest academic achievement of any group in the United States, not all of the students I have published have been Asian, nor did the high level of expectations for their own academic work all come from the Confucian influence of their parents.

When it comes to academics, we seem to give the vast majority of our attention to, and spend the bulk of our efforts on, students whose efforts fall far below our expectations, those who, if not among the 25-30% who fail to finish high school, may enter community college reading at the fifth-grade level, and more than half of whom will drop out from there. Naturally we want to help those who are doing poorly in school. Still, we do want our most brilliant students to start companies, become scientists, be our judges, diplomats, and elected officials, teach history, write good books, and otherwise work to sustain and advance our civilization. But our basic attitude is—let them manage on their own.

How different it is for our promising young athletes, for whom we have the highest expectations, on whom we keep the most elaborate statistics, and to whom we dedicate the most voluminous local media coverage, as well as nationally-televised high school football and basketball games.

If we matched for them the expectations we have for our students’ academic work, we might be asking them to run just one lap, do two pushups, and spend most of their time helping out in gym classes, or playing video games, instead of practicing their sport. But our young people, being the way they are, would no doubt “cheat,” as some do in academics, by deriving higher standards from their own ambition and from seeing the achievements of their peers, and the athletes for whom we might try to set such low expectations, like the young scholars for whom we do, would continue to rise above them, and to astonish us with their accomplishments. Dumb Lucky us.

Monday, June 11, 2012


EducationViews.org; Houston, Texas
SchoolInfoSystem.org; Madison, Wisconsin


Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
8 June 2012

Back in the day, it was possible to go to a movie theater and watch the whole movie right through, without having unrelated matter introduced at various times. Now, with 21st Century presentation customs, a movie on television will be broken into a number of times for five or six advertisements for widely unrelated products and services.

This sort of fragmentation is not only present in education, but welcomed as a brave new way of motivating students and trying to retain their attention. A number of experts, seeing the popularity of video games, with their changes in level and constant supply of “rewards,” recommend that the curricula we offer students should benefit from constant interruptions as well. With Milton’s “On His Blindness”—

"When I consider how my light is spent    
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,    
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless...."

Deep Reading practice suggests that students should often break into their own reading at some point to “interrogate” the material, asking questions about the relationship of text to text, text to world, text to self, and the like. So, for instance, in starting to read Milton’s sonnet, they might pause to inquire, “Do you know anyone who is seeing-impaired?” “Is there a connection in the text between ‘light’ and ‘dark?’” “How do you feel about the services for the blind in your community?”

"...Though my Soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, least he returning chide, Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd, I fondly ask?"

Here again it would be possible to ask “Have you ever been chided for something?” “How did that change your feelings at the time?” “What sort of community service have you been involved in lately?” “What have you made that you feel most proud of?” “Is there a God?” These interruptions are recommended to help retain the students’ attention and to support their motivation to continue reading, which, it appears, John Milton’s sonnet could no longer do without such modern pedagogical aids.

Similarly, other academic matters may be modernized by introducing frequent scores, levels of difficulty, and, of course, extensive visual and auditory stimulation. Modern students who have watched hundreds of thousands of hours of chopped-up television shows, and played hundreds of thousands of hours of fragmented video games  just cannot be expected to pay attention for any extended periods to any “text” or academic task, without the sort of interruptions on which they have become dependent. Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #1

"...It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved for the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force..."

Deep Reading here might lead the student down the “labyrinthine ways” of questions about the use of force in society or the frequency of accidents on our highways?

Some might argue that this history of shattered attention has led to a kind of addiction to interruption which it should be education’s mission to help students overcome. They would point to the research that shows that multitasking means each task will receive less attention and be done less well, and argue that students, instead of being encouraged (required) to break into their own attention with interrogatories, should be shown ways to sustain a focus on the academic works before them.

However, those who believe that nothing in what civilization has to offer can hold the attention of students today without the regular intrusion of pedagogical gimmicks and process techniques to jolt them with scores, questions, rewards, counts of the # of “reading minutes” and the like, might simply say that fragmented attention is not only a good thing, but it must be rewarded so that students will not drop out of school and sit slumped at home watching various media and playing digital games.

The Kaiser Foundation recently found that the average young person in the United States now spends about 53 hours a week with various electronic entertainment activities, so many educators (and hardware and software sales professionals) have come to the conclusion that unless we bring interrupted education into the newly digital 21st Century classroom, we will not have adapted successfully to the scattered brains of our young people today.

Friday, June 1, 2012


Interestingly, the United States is home to a program that is, to my knowledge, the world leader in encouraging and assessing the kind of non-fiction writing that is now in greatest demand in the world: The Concord Review, run by Will Fitzhugh. The Concord Review is a quarterly journal of history writing done by high school students all over the world [39 countries so far]. The quality of the thinking and writing in the articles that appear in The Concord Review is nothing short of remarkable....It is telling that Fitzhugh, who operates The Concord Review on a shoestring, cannot attract foundation support, which would be modest, to do what must be done to make sure that the work goes on when he can no longer continue....This does not augur well.

Education Week Blog #7
Marc Tucker
President, National Center on Education and the Economy

On Writing in the Modern Age

I vividly recall the first time I visited at the main offices of Cambridge International Examinations at Cambridge University in England. It was somehow a bit daunting to know that Isaac Newton had taught and written on mathematics only steps away. The university is over 800 years old. Cambridge Assessment itself goes back more than 150 years. The largest organization of its kind in the world, its examinations are today used in more than 160 countries worldwide.

But it was not the pedigree of Cambridge International Examinations that impressed me most. It was their attitude toward their work. In the United States, test construction is largely in the hands of testing experts, who are professionally trained in psychometrics. But, at Cambridge, and in much of the rest of the world, test construction is mostly directed by people whose primary expertise is curriculum. Actually, to get persnickety, one should say “test” when we mean to assess what a student knows and can do irrespective of the particular curriculum to which the student is exposed and “examination” when our aim is to find out the degree to which the student has mastered a particular curriculum. In the United States, we mostly build tests. In much of the rest of the world, they mainly do examinations.

This is not a minor difference. Because decisions on curriculum in the United States have been highly localized, often down to the classroom level within a school, we long ago decided that it would be unfair to have standardized examinations based on a particular curriculum. Some students would be highly advantaged if they had happened to have a curriculum that lined up with the assessment, and others would be similarly disadvantaged, we thought.

American testing experts care more about whether a given test item produces a well-shaped curve of student responses than whether it accurately captures some aspect of the subject being assessed. That would never happen in most other countries, where the test of the adequacy of an examination question is the degree to which it captures the essence of the course. That is why curriculum experts, not testing experts, are put in charge of examination construction.

This gets us to the form, not just the purpose, of American tests versus others’ examinations. Cambridge International Examinations does not build tests to be scored by computers. They build examinations to be scored by human beings. They and their customers worldwide know that that is more expensive, but they think the difference in cost is worth it. In this case, as in so many others, form follows function. They want to know how students deal with the kind of complex problems and complex thinking that lie at the heart of their courses. They want to know how good students are at coming up with good answers that the test-constructors never thought of. They want to know how good a student is at making a competent and even compelling oil painting. Or constructing a robot. Or writing a 20-page history research paper. These are not things that multiple-choice, computer-scored tests can measure, but they are important to people who have built curricula intended to enable students to do these things. Allow me to observe that the environment now being created by the epic changes taking place in the global economy will demand exactly the kinds of skills that the Cambridge examinations are designed to measure.

Interestingly, the United States is home to a program that is, to my knowledge, the world leader in encouraging and assessing the kind of non-fiction writing that is now in greatest demand in the world: The Concord Review, run by Will Fitzhugh. The Concord Review is a quarterly journal of history writing done by high school students all over the world [39 countries so far]. The quality of the thinking and writing in the articles that appear in The Concord Review is nothing short of remarkable.

As high stakes standardized testing in the United States took center stage in recent years, serious writing in high school came under siege. Very few high school students are asked to read an entire non-fiction book while in school—not one. Even fewer are asked to write serious research papers. Why? Because they are not assessed for these skills on the high stakes tests, and, that being the case, the students are not assigned this kind of reading or writing. In the name of focusing on the development of a limited set of basic skills, we have set up our testing system so that it has depreciated the more advanced skills on which the future of our nation depends.  Apparently, we cannot talk and chew gum at the same time.

The Concord Review may be the last bastion of high standards and good sense in this arena. The Review itself provides excellent examples of good non-fiction writing, writing that tells a good story, contains strong analysis, synthesizes relevant material from many quite different sources in a way that no one has done before, makes its points well and supports its argument with relevant detail. Fitzhugh [through the National Writing Board] reviews entries, provides extensive comments and suggestions to the authors, and decides what meets his standards and what does not and communicates the standards and commentary to his teen-age authors. That is real assessment, both formative and summative. His curriculum and his assessment regime are joined at the hip. 

It is telling that Fitzhugh, who operates The Concord Review on a shoestring, cannot attract foundation support, which would be modest, to do what must be done to make sure that the work goes on when he can no longer continue. His work comes closer than any other that I know of in the United States to mirroring the values that infuse the work at Cambridge International Examinations. While Fitzhugh has had to give up the printed version of his extraordinary journal (to go online only), because he can no longer afford to publish it, the nation is spending enormous sums to build tests that are very good at measuring only a small part of the skills and knowledge on which our future depends. This does not augur well.