Friday, December 29, 2017


“If we do not demand that those who want to become teachers are themselves very good writers, why would we expect our teachers to be good teachers of writing?” 

Our Students Can't Write Very Well—It's No Mystery Why
National Council on Education and the Economy
By Marc Tucker on January 12, 2017 6:33 AM

My organization decided a few weeks back that we needed to hire a new professional staff person.  We had close to 500 applicants. Inasmuch as the task was to help us communicate information related to the work we do, we gave each of the candidates one of the reports we published last year and asked them to produce a one-page summary.  All were college graduates.  Only one could produce a satisfactory summary.  That person got the job.

We were lucky this time.  We are more often than not disappointed at the subpar writing ability of the applicants for openings at our organization.  Many applicants are from very good colleges.  Many have graduate degrees.  Many are very poor writers.

Their lack of writing ability does not augur well. 
When we look at what they have written, the logic of the narrative is often very hard to find. It would appear that their lack of writing ability stands as mute testimony to their lack of thinking ability.

How, we ask, could this have happened?  The answers are not hard to find.  My friend Will Fitzhugh points out that high school students are rarely required to read entire works of fiction and are almost never asked to read entire works of non-fiction.  I know of no good writers who are not also good readers.

More directly to the point, high school students are hardly ever asked to write anything of significant length. 
Why not?  Because in this age of accountability, they are not tested on their writing ability.  By which I mean that they are not asked to submit to the testing authorities 10- or 15- or 20-page papers in which they are expected to present a thesis and defend it, analyze something complicated from multiple points of view and draw a reasoned conclusion, or put together a short story in which characters are developed in some depth and insights are revealed. 

This point is critically important.  There is only one way that we can find out whether a student can write a substantial research paper—by asking them to write a substantial research paper and looking carefully at the result.  If we do not ask them to produce this product—over and over again, as they get better and better at it—then they will not be able to do it well.  If they have not done the work, then neither their teacher nor the engines of the accountability system can assess it.  If this sort of serious writing is not done and—in our accountability-oriented environment—is not assessed, then it will not be learned.  End of argument.

Oh, sure, we have tests of writing ability for college-bound students, but they do not ask the student to produce anything like what we asked our candidates to produce.  They ask a student to choose one word or phrase from a list to fill in the blank in a passage.  That is not writing.  It is something else. PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments have made progress in more effectively evaluating the writing skills of our students, but many states are actively taking steps away from these types of assessment tasks.  And it is of course true that asking a student to write a one-page summary of a longer piece is no test of their ability to write a well-argued, fact-based, 10- or 20-page research paper.

We are fond of producing long lists of things we want 21st century students to be able to do.  But the ability to write well and think critically always tops the list, both because so much work requires these skills and because they are so fundamental to so many other kinds of cognitive activity we value.  What could be more central to a good education?

So it is simply unbelievable that we do not build our curriculum around the assumption that we will be asking students to read demanding books—not just parts of books, but whole books—and then asking them to write, at length and in detail, about what they have read, explicating, analyzing, synthesizing and summarizing it, with insight and narrative skill that demonstrates their ability to think clearly.  Isn't that the heart of the matter?

Writing is a craft.  Like any other craft, it is learned only by doing it, over and over and over, at increasing levels of challenge, under the watchful eye of an expert.  How on earth are our students to learn to write if we do not ask them to write, and write a lot, and write well?
  The reason, of course, that they are not asked to write much is because their ability to write a substantial paper is not tested.  And why, in this age of accountability, when we judge teachers by how well their students do on the test, would we expect their students to write well when we do not test their ability to write a good paper, 10 to 20 pages in length?

Our own research tells us that a large fraction of community college professors do not assign writing to their students because their students cannot write and the professors do not consider themselves to be writing teachers. It is no wonder that employers like us find it so hard to find candidates with serviceable writing skills. 

What do you suppose would happen if a state announced one day that it was redesigning its accountability system and half of a teachers' rating would henceforth depend on their students' grades on long research papers in the subject taught by that teacher—papers, say, at least 15 pages long at the high school level?  They might be told that that grade would depend on the way evidence was presented and marshaled, the range of the evidence presented, the depth of the analytical ability displayed in the essay, the logic and persuasiveness of the argument made, and so on. 

I am not arguing that we should do this, but simply making the point that if we really cared about the ability of our students to think and write well, we would assign substantial papers frequently, critique those papers effectively, and expect students to write well long before they left high school.  It is hard to reach any conclusion on this point other than that we simply don't care whether or not our students can write effectively, if we judge by what is assigned to students, what is expected of students, the instruction we offer students, the way we evaluate their work, the design of our accountability systems or our criteria for graduating students from high school. 

But assume for the moment that all these issues were addressed.  Can we then assume that our students would be graduating high schools able to think clearly and write well?  I don't think so. 

I said in passing above that writing is a craft and crafts are best learned by apprenticing oneself to an expert, in this case an expert writer.  This suggests that if our students are to become good writers, they will have to get their work critiqued in detail by teachers who are themselves good writers. 

But I also said at the beginning of this blog that we and many other employers are having a very hard time hiring anyone who is a good writer, even graduates of leading universities and graduate schools.  We know that most of our teachers come not from our leading universities but from institutions that get their students from the lower half of the distribution of high school graduates going to college.  If there is no reason to assume that the graduates of the leading institutions are themselves good writers, what would make us assume that the graduates of less demanding institutions are better writers? 

It is true that many universities require applicants to submit a short essay as part of their application.  But I am willing to bet that few, if any, require their applicants to do something as straightforward as our request to our job applicants to summarize a complex research paper in one page, on demand, in a short time, capturing all the key points and creating a narrative that makes sense of it all for the reader.
If we do not demand that those who want to become teachers are themselves very good writers, why would we expect our teachers to be good teachers of writing?  We should, in fact, be requiring our candidates for teaching positions to write 20-page papers of their own which analyze and summarize a topic from the literature in their field. We should be asking them to produce, on demand, a one-page summary of something they are given to read that is complicated and difficult. 

But we don't do any of these things.  So, once again, I conclude that we are not serious.  We are not serious about teaching students to reason and write well and we are not serious about hiring teachers who have the skills needed to teach our students how to reason and write well.  We are no doubt lucky to have many teachers who know how to read and write critically and care enough to pass those skills on to their students. But if these core skills were really important to us, we would be making very large changes in curriculum, demanding much more reading of complete novels and non-fiction, asking our students to write much longer papers much more frequently, providing expert and copious commentary on what they had written, changing our accountability systems to reflect these priorities and, not least, we would be making sure that our teachers are themselves very good writers.

I very much doubt that our high school graduates write less well than high school graduates used to write.  But jobs for truck drivers, hamburger flippers and grocery store check out clerks are disappearing fast. This is just one more—but crucially important—arena in which our education system is failing to adapt to a fast-changing environment.

Monday, December 18, 2017


The work of Massachusetts high school athletes and coaches is all around us in The Boston Globe on a regular basis, but the work of our high school scholars and teachers is nowhere to be seen in that public record.

Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
18 December 2017

The Boston Globe has been publishing for 145 years and the hints that it may have to fold have distressed its many readers. Each Fall, Winter and Spring the paper publishes a special section, of 15 pages or so, called “All-Scholastics,” on notable public high school athletes and their coaches. There is a mention of athletes and coaches at local prep schools as well.

Today the latest Winter “All-Scholastics” section arrived, with the latest “Ten Moments to Remember” in HS sports and with reports on the best athletes and coaches in Boys’ Basketball, Girls’ Basketball, Volleyball, Golf, Football (3 pages), Field Hockey, Boys’ Cross County, Girls’ Cross Country. The Preps and Swimming parts consolidate celebration of boys’ and girls’ accomplishments, perhaps to save space (and cost).

Each section also features photographs of 9-16 athletes, with perhaps a twitter-sized paragraph on their achievements. In addition, there are 31 photos and tweets about some coaches, spread among the various sports. There are 26 “Prep” athletes mentioned, from various sports, but I didn’t see any “Prep” coaches profiled. For each high school sport there are two “Athletes of the Year” identified, and all the coaches are “Coaches of the Year” in their sport.

There may be, at the same time, some high school “Students of the Year” in English, math, Mandarin, physics, Latin, chemistry, European history, U.S. history, AP biology, and the like. There may also be high school “Teachers of the Year” in these and other academic subjects, but their names and descriptions are not to be found in The Boston Globe, the most well-known paper in the “Athens of America” (Boston).

It may be the case, indeed it probably is the case, that some of the athletes featured in the Winter “All-Scholastics” section today are also first-rate high school students of math, English, science, history, literature, and languages, but you would not know that from the coverage of The Boston Globe. The coaches of the year may in many, if not all cases, also be excellent teachers of academic subjects in the Massachusetts public and private schools, but that remains only a guess as well.

When the British architect Christopher Wren was buried in 1723, part of his epitaph read, written by his eldest son, Christopher Wren, Jr.: Lector, si monumentum requiris, Circumspice. If you wanted to judge his interest, efforts and accomplishments, all you had to do was look around you. His work was there for all to see.

The work of Massachusetts high school athletes and coaches is all around us in The Boston Globe on a regular basis, but the work of our high school scholars and teachers is nowhere to be seen in that public record.

If one seeks a monument to anti-academic and anti-intellectual views and practices in Boston today, one need look no further than The Boston Globe. I read it every day, but I never see any attention and recognition for the academic efforts and accomplishments of Massachusetts secondary students and their teachers, because there is none now, and never has been any, no many how many reports on education reform and academic standards it may have published over the years. If you ask how much The Boston Globe (and I am sure it is not alone in this) cares about the good academic work now actually being done by high school teachers and their students in Massachusetts, the answer is, by the evidence, that they do not.

Saturday, December 2, 2017



2 December 2017
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

In the fifties, I think it was, there was a science fiction novel, my copy of which has disappeared, by, I think, Charles Eric Maine, called High Vacuum. The idea was that in teaching cadets in the space program about the dangers of vacuum to their survival in space, it was useful to have them think about Vacuum as trying to get into their spacecraft and kill them. From a “Safety First” point of view, it seemed more practical for spacemen, as they were thought of in the 1950s, to think of keeping high vacuum out of their craft rather than to think about keeping their life-supporting oxygen from escaping, thus leaving them to die. So, instead of thinking of vacuum as the absence of atmosphere, they were taught to think of it as an active agent trying to get “in” and kill them.

    When we think of Mediocrity in education, a similar strategy is advisable  for us. Generally it is thought that Mediocrity is the absence of excellence, a lack of good quality in performance or knowledge. But in thinking about standards in our schools, I have come more and more to regard Mediocrity as an active agent, trying (with notable success) to establish itself and spread itself throughout every academic enterprise. I think of it as a potent force for lowering standards, and for reducing the value we place on the work that teachers and students should be doing in the classroom. I know we could outline many of the strategies employed, and many victories won, by the forces of Mediocrity in our schools, and this is something to which I believe we should turn more of our attention as we think about education reform.

    But let us think for a moment of the gifted students in our classrooms, and ask ourselves why so many of them have “dropped out” of education. What are some of the demands and pressures on them which make it harder for them to do what they are good at, which is to learn a lot and achieve proficiency in a variety of the skills of understanding and expression in history, literature, science and math?

    One of the problems with teaching high school students is that you never know who is out there. As you look out over your class, you can easily forget that Mohandas K. Gandhi, Henry Kissinger, George Orwell, Richard Feynman, Marie Curie, Winston Churchill, Colin Powell, Robert Oppenheimer, Madeleine Albright, and George C. Marshall, among others, were once high school students too. And to some extent, they were all disguised as teenagers. Some gifted students stand out and seem to be immune to any effort to make them work less hard, or  pretend to be stupid, or be ashamed of being smart, or try harder to be popular in order to compensate for the “problem” of being really bright, but some gifted students instead hide out and do not succeed in finding a good place to work in the classroom. 

We can’t imagine this sort of thing happening on the playing field, where a gifted athlete would try to hide his athletic skills for fear of being rejected. The very idea is absurd. Yet this is what we see with too many bright students in school. And many in the Mediocrity establishment tell them, in one way or another, that their intelligence and skill at learning are not things to be so proud of, that they should not be “elitist,” that they should make amends  by performing community service, that they should help other students as a sort of due penance for the sin of excellence, and the like. We would not dream of treating our best athletes this way, yet we do it to bright kids all the time, almost without thinking about it.

    We seem to have some strange confusion about the relative roles of genes and hard work.
In athletics, apparently, no matter how much natural talent an athlete has, it is all right to think that her achievement is the result of real effort and thus praiseworthy, yet in academics we seem to believe that no matter how hard a student works, the achievement is fundamentally the result of her genes and thus nothing to be proud of. Among the worst consequences of this philosophy are that it has encouraged black students to huge efforts and superb achievement on the courts and playing fields, but discouraged them from making much effort in the classroom, lest they be seen as “acting white.” Black kids can dominate sports invented by white people, but if the curriculum is defined as “white,” then black kids must not be expected to do well in it. As this Rule of Mediocrity continues to operate, we all pay the cost.