One of education’s most serious flaws is the failure to require that students produce a research paper or project before they graduate from high school.
I vent on this often. I once thought we just needed a change of attitude, but I am learning it is more complicated.
I have consulted with teachers and students at Poolesville High School in Montgomery County. Students in the school’s humanities magnet must complete a research paper for graduation. Both teachers and students embrace the requirement. But they warn me it brings much stress and needs regular revision.
Senior Emily Kim sent me the 20-page paper she just completed, “Putting a Price Tag on Modern and Contemporary Art.” Its depth and erudition are impressive. She said her project mentor, Shannon Heaton, an Advanced Placement art history and design teacher, had much to do with its success. But not all projects go smoothly.
It is difficult to find enough teachers with expertise in the subjects the students want to explore. The demands of this approach to learning are daunting. For many students, it is the first time they have been asked to seek significant chunks of valid information not found in their textbooks or classroom exercise Web sites. It is a journey into the unknown.
Students gain invaluable experience, but that means they confront new obstacles.
“I truly had a difficult time finding credible sources,” Kim said. “I made trips to Montgomery College to no avail. I went to bookstores, and I frequented my local library.”
Her topic “was simply nowhere to be found on the shelves,” she said. So she looked for narrower research tomes on the Internet.
Fellow senior Bryn Whitney-Blum said her 10-page paper on the rise of the local green eating movement was “the first lengthy research paper I’d written” and “nerve-wracking to say the least.”
There were so many projects in trouble this year that the school delayed the due date by more than a month, Kim said.
Heaton, Kim’s mentor, emphasized the strain this activity puts on teachers with full class loads. She mentored several seniors.
“Most teachers are happy to help out,” she said, but it “can add up to quite a bit of time spent during lunches, planning period and after school advising students.”
The Poolesville humanities magnet selects only ambitious students. The three other magnets that make up the school also require senior projects. Only one area public school, the Arlington County magnet H-B Woodlawn, had a higher AP test participation rate than Poolesville. Can a regular school handle a projects requirement?
One has for the past 15 years. Wakefield High School in Arlington requires all students to complete a senior project. Many write long papers. Internships, musical performances and other personal ventures also qualify, as long as the faculty supervisors believe they stretch students in new directions. Students must keep notebooks showing at least 15 hours of work a month on their projects. Each gives a 15- to 25-minute presentation at the end.
Half of Wakefield students are from low-income families, compared with just 5 percent at Poolesville. Wakefield has a long tradition of imaginative principals and skilled teachers who have embraced the senior project as an emblem of their high standards. Not every school has a staff like that, but many do.
Except for the International Baccalaureate program and private schools, research requirements are rare in U.S. high schools. More should give them a try.