Class Struggle: Term papers are worth the time and trouble

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By Jay Mathews
Thursday, November 19, 2009

Doris Burton taught U.S. history in Prince George's County for 27 years. She had her students write 3,000-word term papers. She guided them step by step: first an outline, then note cards, a bibliography, a draft and then the final paper. They were graded at each stage.

A typical paper was often little more than what Burton describes as "a regurgitated version of the encyclopedia." She stopped requiring them for her regular history students and assigned them just to seniors heading for college. The social studies and English departments tried to organize coordinated term paper assignments for all, but state and district course requirements left no room. "As time went by," Burton said, "even the better seniors' writing skills deteriorated, and the assignment was frustrating for them to write and torture for me to read." Before her retirement in 1998, she said, "I dropped the long-paper assignment and went to shorter and shorter and, eventually, no paper at all."

Rigorous research and writing instruction has never reached most high-schoolers. I thought I had terrific English and history teachers in the 1960s, but I just realized, counting up their writing assignments, that they, too, avoided anything very challenging. Only a few students, in public and private schools, ever get a chance to go deep and write long on a subject that intrigues them.

We are beginning to see, in the howls of exasperation from college introductory course professors and their students, how high a price we are paying for this. It isn't just college students who are hurt. Studies show research skills are vital for high school graduates looking for good jobs or trade school slots.

Students who have been forced to do well-researched essays tell me those were the most satisfying academic experiences of their high school years. Christin Roach, a 2001 graduate of Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, glowed when she described the work she put into her 4,000-word report, "The Unconstitutional Presidential Impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton." It taught her the skills that led to her earning a joint degree in journalism and political science at Boston University.

Her project was part of the International Baccalaureate program at Mount Vernon. More than 20 Washington area public high schools, and a few private ones, have IB programs. But only a few dozen students at most at each school write the 4,000-word papers to get the full IB diploma. Take away IB and a few selective private schools, and well-organized research projects largely disappear from the high school landscape.

The leading U.S. proponent of more research work for the nation's teens is Will Fitzhugh, who has been publishing high school student papers in his Concord Review journal since 1987. In 2002, he persuaded the Albert Shanker Institute to fund a study of research paper writing by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The results were as bleak as he expected. Sixty-two percent of the 400 high school history teachers surveyed never assigned a paper as long as 3,000 words, and 27 percent never assigned anything as long as 2,000 words.

They had no time to assign, monitor, correct and grade such papers, they said. If they assigned long projects, they could not insist on the many revisions needed to teach students the meaning of college-level work. So most new undergraduates check into their freshman courses unclear on the form and language required for academic research.

The colleges aren't great at filling the gap. A new book by Seton Hall University scholar Rebecca D. Cox, "The College Fear Factor," painfully exposes students wallowing in ignorance, and professors not understanding why. Only about half survive this torture and graduate.

Why not junk some of the high school history requirements in favor of one solid month devoted to one long paper, with students bringing in their work, step by step, every day? Doris Burton and her colleagues couldn't get their students to focus, but they had little support above. If we want our students to be proud of what they did in high school, we have to insist that they do it, and no longer assume they will somehow learn it in college.


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