By Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review.
“The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that
high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to.”
Marc Tucker, President,
National Council on Education and the Economy
on August 9, 2012
I am great believer in the educational power of the high school research paper. In fact, I am a fan that I founded The Concord Review in 1987 to publish student research papers and highlight the academic quality of their work.
But term papers are at riask as part of our educational curriculum. In 2002, I conducted a study of high school history teachers and discovered that, although nearly all of them said a term paper was a good idea, 62 percent never assigned a 12-page paper—and 27 percent never assigned an eight-page paper.
Page numbers aren’t the only measure of a writing project, but the consensus is that the rigor of high school research papers hasn’t improved over the years. And that means that—outside of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses—very few students are tested by this kind of rigorous writing project.
That’s not a good trend. I believe that school policymakers should bring back the practice of assigning serious research papers to high school students. I encourage schools to adopt my Paper Per Year Plan©, which calls on schools to assign research papers that require students to write one more page, with one more source, for every grade of schooling. Even a first-grader should be writing one-page papers with one source listed.
I often get question on the value of term papers, so here is a response to some of the more frequently asked questions.
Why should it matter if students are writing lengthy term papers?
“Two great things about serious research papers: They ask for a lot of reading, and as a result, the student learns a lot about something. This encourages students to believe that, through their own efforts for the most part, they can learn about other things in the future. In addition, a serious research paper can help them keep out of remedial reading and writing classes at college.”
To engage students, some educators are allowing students to communicate through a variety of media. Is this innovative—or a mistake?
“This is a mistake by teachers desperate to pander to student interests instead of requiring them to do the hard work essential to their education. When the Business Roundtable companies spend $3 billion-plus each year on remedial writing courses for their employees—hourly and salaried, current and new—they do not have them write blogs, read comic books, or enjoy PowerPoint presentations. That would waste their money and the time of students, and it wouldn’t accomplish the remedial writing tasks.”
Is the term paper really dead? You’re still publishing term papers in your quarterly, so you must still be seeing teachers—and students—who are rising to the highest standards?
“The papers I have been getting continue to impress me. I could tell you stories of students who spend months on their submissions to The Concord Review and then send me an Emerson Prize-winning 15,000-word paper. Many of these students are going well beyond the expectations and standards of their schools because they seek to be published. But, as I say, for most students, they are never asked even to try a serious history research paper.
In general, it is safe to say that all U.S. public high schools are unlikely to assign rigorous term papers, and the kids suffer accordingly.”
What advice can you offer to school board members and administrators as they struggle to raise student skills in reading and writing?
“The California State College System reports that 47 percent of their freshmen are in remedial reading courses, and in a survey of college professors by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 90 percent of them said their students are not very well prepared in reading or writing, or in doing research.
So school board members should be aware of how poorly we are preparing our kids in nonfiction reading and academic expository writing—and they should ask their superintendents what can be done about that.
I’ve argued that, if reading and writing is a serious skill that kids need, then we have to decide if we are willing to invest [in this effort]. Kids are spending three or four hours of time on homework a week and 54 hours on entertainment. It’s not going to kill them to spend four more hours a week on a paper.”