The TCR Institute

The TCR Institute, started in 2002, has begun to sponsor research into academic writing and reading in the high schools. Our first study, done in 2002 by the Roper Organization, surveyed high school history teachers across the country about term papers, and found that, while 95% said such papers in history were important or very important, about 62% no longer assign even 12-page research papers to their high school students.

This study is the first article below. In the future we plan to survey high school students and teachers about the number of nonfiction books they are reading in school and on their own, and to study other issues affecting varsity academics in the schools.

History Research Paper Study

Introduction to the Study, by Will Fitzhugh
"Early in 2001, The Concord Review approached the Albert Shanker Institute for funds for a study of the state of the history research paper in United States high schools.

"With the Shanker grant, a study of 400 U.S. public high school teachers was conducted for The Concord Review by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

"I had a concern that, with all the emphasis on state tests to measure progress on state standards, the research paper, which cannot be measured on a standardized test, would be forgotten. College professors had been complaining for years that incoming students had no idea how to write papers, and some employers were setting up writing courses for their new college graduate employees.

"While I had read and heard many anecdotes about the dominance of creative writing and the personal essay, I believed it would be useful to conduct a study to see how many teachers were assigning history research papers, and what some of the problems with such assignments might be...."
George Mason University History News Network
1) I understand that you have just finished a stint on the ACT/NAGB Steering Committee for the 2011 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) Writing Assessment. What was that like? (And what does NAGB stand for?)

WF: NAGB is the National Assessment Governing Board, which runs the NAEP, "America's Report Card," as they say. I was glad that Diane Ravitch recommended me for the Steering Committee for the new national writing assessment scheduled for 2011. I was very impressed with the intelligence and competence of Mary Crovo, representing NAEP, and Rosanne Cook, who is running the project for American College Testing. Many people on the Committee were from the National Council of Teachers of English and the College Composition world, which have little interest in having students read history books or write history research papers. In fact that world favors, or has favored in the past, personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, which do a terrible job of preparing high school students for the nonfiction books and the academic term papers most will be asked to cope with in college.
BRIDGES Math and Reading: A Lament for High School History and Writing
    The way to learn and to enjoy history is to read it, and that is not allowed in most of our schools. An additional way to learn and to enjoy history is to write it, that is, at the school level, to do research on a historical topic and to write about it. Most public high schools, even including some elite exam schools such as Boston Latin School, no longer assign the “traditional history term paper.” In fact, in most public schools, writing is under the control of the English department.

    The English department, for a variety of reasons, has chosen personal and creative writing as its favorite kinds, along with the occasional five-paragraph essay. While the English department does assign complete books, of course they are fiction. Fiction, indeed, is all that many high school students have heard of. Some even think that history books are correctly referred to as novels, because they haven’t heard anyone speak about nonfiction books. Some infamous historians have introduced fiction into their history books, but that news is not really current at the high school level. I recently heard a high school teacher, in a Teaching American History seminar, ask an eminent historian what made him write his “novels.”

    College professors almost universally bemoan the poor preparation of their students in reading and writing. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey found that nearly 90% of college professors interviewed thought their students were not well prepared in research, reading or writing. And what have they done about it? They complain. It is interesting to me that students can pass their state high school graduation tests, for example the MCAS in Massachusetts, and then find that they must take remedial courses when they get to college. The Boston Globe reported last year that of those students who graduate from Massachusetts high schools and go on to community college, 65% are in remedial courses, and of those who go on to the state colleges and universities, 34% are in remedial courses. Am I the only one who thinks the college assessment people and the high school assessment people may not be talking to each other?
Romantic Fiction
"In addition to these short opinion pieces, many college admissions offices ask applicants for 500-word accounts of their personal lives, struggles, encounters, reflections, and so on---again, the sort of writing that requires no knowledge of anything beyond the applicant, and it requires no reading. The damage that these sorts of writing expectations do to the amount of nonfiction reading done in the high schools is the subject for another article, but Will Dix, from the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, recently asked a panel at the Illinois Association of College Admissions Counselors, which had talked about the new writing test, what they thought the impact would be on the teaching of writing in the high schools. In his words: "Finally, I asked the panelists if they'd discussed how using the new tests might affect the teaching of writing at the high schools they work with. I might as well have been speaking in tongues. After a long silence, someone said, 'Why would we do that?'"
Less is Less
"The College Board is about to add a writing test to the SAT, making the new possible score 2400 instead of 1600. The writing part will provide thirty minutes for the candidate to give an opinion in response to a prompt, and these responses will be scored at the rate of thirty an hour, or no more than two minutes each.

"This is the sequel to the SAT II writing test, for which students have in the past spent up to six hours preparing a generic essay with which they can respond to any prompt, for instance with the help of tutors at the Chyten organization in Boston, who charge about $165 an hour. The new test will add pressure to students already working on their micro-mini autobiographical "personal" essays which they need to submit to many college admissions officers when they apply to college."
Page Per Year Plan
"For several years (since about 1999), I have suggested, to those who doubt the ability of U.S. high school seniors to write academic history research papers, that schools should start on our Page Per Year Plan, which would work as follows:

"Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.

"A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper, ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with sources, and so on, until each senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper, with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic."
  Ability and Effort
"Students who do good academic work in high school and who are also good athletes are often puzzled that they get so much more recognition for their sports achievements than they do for the academic work on which they may have put forward the same high level of effort.

"Of course, success in academics and success in athletics may both be attributed to both genes and effort, but for some reason we in the United States have decided to celebrate athletic achievement as though it were purely the result of effort and to be much more circumspect about celebrating academic achievement in the schools, as though it were the result purely of genes (ability). Naturally, it isn't fair to praise someone for their genes!"
Double Vision
"When was the last time a college history professor made it her business to find out the names and schools of the best high school history students in the United States?

"When was the last time a college basketball coach sat in his office and waited for the admissions office to deliver a good crop of recruits for the team?

"When was the last time a high school history teacher got scores of phone calls and dozens of visits from college professors when he had an unusually promising history student?

"When was the last time a high school athlete who was unusually productive in a major sport heard from no one at the college level?

"Not one of these things happens, for some good reasons and some not-so-good reasons."
Set the Bar Higher on Student Writing
"I was glad to see the report of the College Board National Commission on Writing this week. Their emphasis on more time for writing echoes the findings of the History Research Paper Study done last September, with funding from the Albert Shanker Institute, for The Concord Review by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut.

"In addition to too little time, many teachers have not had experience with writing long serious academic research papers themselves, and so are little prepared to give students the coaching they need to develop those skills for college, even if they had time."
The State of the Term Paper
"It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species. A focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism, fascination with PowerPoint presentations, and too little time to meet with students to plan papers and to read them carefully when they are turned in, along with the absence of a concern with term papers in virtually all the work on state standards, means that too many students in high school in the United States do not get to do the reading or the writing that a serious history paper requires. As a result, students come to college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors, and employers of college graduates, for instance at Ford Motor Company, have now had to institute writing classes for them before they can produce readable reports, memos, and the like."
History is Fun!
"In this piece Will Fitzhugh reminds us that there is great enjoyment for students in working hard at a challenging task and successfully accomplishing it. History can and should be as rewarding as the efforts that we see our students putting forth on the football practice fields, on the basketball practice courts, in the sweltering wrestling rooms, and on the long cross-country training routes. By sugarcoating the intellectual challenges of reading and writing history, by trying to "make history fun," we may be sucking the real fun right out of it. [Joe Ribar, Editor]"
Reading, Writing, and Thoreau
"I don't know much about Thoreau, except what I picked up from looking in a couple of books and from reading Walden once. He kept a journal, and his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, came out in 1849, when he was thirty-two. Two hundred fifteen copies were sold and the remainders were sent to the author. He said in his diary, "that he had a library of nearly nine hundred volumes, seven hundred of which he had written himself." I thought I might speculate a bit about the other two hundred volumes and say a few words about his reading and writing. Reading and writing don't get the same good press in American education that they used to, but I would argue that, his other good qualities notwithstanding, without his reading and writing, Thoreau would have had little influence on Mohandas K. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. or anyone else."

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