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

Thursday, October 15, 2009; PG04

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.

Dear Extra Credit:

What is the great importance of kids getting Algebra 1 in eighth grade? Having time for two years of calculus or trigonometry? I'm not saying eighth-graders can't handle it (I don't really know one way or the other), but why do it? Might it not be better to spend that year on, say, English grammar (which students don't seem to learn these days) or literature? Or a foreign language? Or a science course?

I distinctly remember having Algebra 1 in my freshman year of high school, followed by a year of plane geometry and then Algebra 2 as a junior. That left senior year for calculus, which I admit I didn't take.

Lynda Meyers

Arlington County

There are many debates over your good question. Keep in mind that these days, there are usually three courses, not two, between Algebra 1 and calculus. My reasons for getting as many students as possible ready for algebra in eighth grade are:

1. It allows teachers and students to tackle a difficult subject in the best possible circumstances. That eighth-grader is still in middle school, a calmer and less distracting place than high school. The class size can be somewhat smaller, and the teacher will see the student every day, unlike in many high schools. Good teachers can really get kids over that hump when they are among friends, not the strangers that inhabit the ninth grade.

2. It is the gateway to better and deeper work in the sciences, particularly chemistry and physics. It is not Algebra 1 that does it so much, although it helps, but it gets you to geometry and trig and other stuff earlier, and puts you in better sync with the science courses you might want to take.

3. It makes it possible to finish calculus in high school without going to summer school (as I had to do). Calculus isn't for everybody, but there are some kids in bad middle schools with the potential to do calculus, and perhaps have their lives changed by it, who won't get the chance because they come to high school without Algebra 1.

4. It is a confidence-builder for other subjects in high school that require close attention and analytical skill.

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding the widely quoted statement that too many of our teachers are being recruited from the bottom third of students going to college: Over the years, a number of different data sources have shown that teachers' SAT or ACT scores are below the average for college grads. This is especially true for those majoring in education, who tend to have among the lowest average SAT scores.

Moreover, within most fields and majors, those who become teachers have lower SAT scores than those in the same field/major who do not go into teaching. Data we've analyzed from a national survey of the college class of 1999-2000 show math majors who become teachers score, on average, about 80 points lower on the SAT than math majors who do not go into teaching. There are also some exceptions to this general trend. For instance (you might find this interesting), journalism majors who go into teaching have average SAT scores about 150 points higher than those who don't go into teaching.

The data also show large differences between those who go into elementary and those who go into secondary teaching. The latter, on average, score 50 points higher. Of course, we cannot assume that SAT scores represent teacher or teaching quality. But the data do suggest that usually the "best and brightest" find teaching less attractive than other options.

Richard M. Ingersoll

Professor of education

and sociology,

University of Pennsylvania

I am pleased to get this update from a national expert on teacher recruitment and retention. Those higher SAT scores among journalism majors who went into teaching might be reflected in the fact the profession they chose, although having some cutbacks, is in much better shape now than the trade I picked.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

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