Extra Credit: What Ever Happened to Good Old-Fashioned Term Papers?

(By Julie Zhu)
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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

You recently said that International Baccalaureate is "the only major high school program in the country that requires a lengthy research project, filling a deep hole in our standard curriculums" [Extra Credit, Sept. 24].

I have no doubt this is true, but my question is, why? It doesn't seem that it would be that hard to require a decent-length research paper as part of the "standard curriculum." My observation, both personal and of friends' children, is that there has been a serious reduction in the amount of writing required at all levels -- elementary, middle school and high school -- including short summary-writing projects (e.g., book reports), as well as longer documents (you know, the ones that used to be called term papers).

The skill of taking a long document (called a book) and being able to effectively summarize its most important points into a one- or two-page paper is a skill that is universally valuable, although it doesn't appear to be emphasized in schools today.

Bill Huddleston

Fairfax County

I am not sure how many one- or two-page papers are being assigned, but a 4,000-word paper (about 16 pages) of the sort required of students seeking the IB diploma is very rare, except in schools that have the IB program. My best source on this is Will Fitzhugh, whose Concord Review publishes exceptional high school papers. He has been waging a lonely campaign to get more high schools to require them.

"In the last 22 years, I have found that high school kids can write much more than one or two pages about a book," Fitzhugh told me in an e-mail, "but also I have found that most high schools do not assign nonfiction books (or research papers). Even the Boston Latin School told me that they have not assigned the 'traditional history paper' for more than a decade."

I would welcome reader theories of why this is. I suspect it is such a drain on teachers' (and, to be realistic, parents') time and energy to oversee such projects that schools have given up.

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