I often despair over the sorry state of writing and research in our high schools. Only private schools and public schools with the International Baccalaureate diploma program require research papers of significant length. Two million new high school graduates head to college every year — but only 10 percent, by my reckoning — have had to write a long paper or do a major project.
The only traditional public school in this region requiring that for all students is Wakefield High School in Arlington County. It is a remarkable feat for a school in which half the students are from low-income families.
Recently I discovered that two public charter schools are doing this in the District, providing more encouragement to those of us who think working through a complex, long-form research problem is the essence of a good education.
The Capitol Hill and Parkside campuses of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy require all seniors to write a 12- to 15-page paper on a policy issue of their choice and then defend it before a panel of outside experts. Eighty percent of students at the two schools are from low-income families.
Last year’s research topics included euthanasia, use of mercenaries, gay marriage, fracking, cyberbullying and standardized testing. A paper on child abuse analyzed the tension between parental rights under the 14th Amendment’s due process clause and local governments’ responsibility for protecting children.
Ayo Magwood, the social studies teacher who runs the Chavez programs, told me a student with learning disabilities last spring wrote a thesis on same-sex marriage “in which she analyzed and applied the due process clause, the equal protection clause, the full faith and credit clause, the 10th Amendment and the establishment clause.”
Writing a “thesis was not only an educational experience but also a life lesson in both time management and in being the voice of the community you represent,” senior Kevin Jamisson said.
“It challenged me to think far beyond what I expect of myself,” senior Ashley Thomas said. De’Ricka Crooks said “it has made me a more critical thinker.”
I witnessed the happy chaos of the first Chavez school opening in 1998 in the basement of a Safeway store in Southwest Washington. Its leader was a remarkable educator named Irasema Salcido. She has been true to her vision, won many awards, and produced what are apparently the only public schools in the District that take student research this seriously.
If a school full of kids whose parents never went to college can insist on research projects, why can’t we have such programs at Yorktown, McLean, Churchill and River Hill high schools, where the majority of the parents have college degrees?
Teachers in schools such as those have told me that the time necessary to guide all students through the selection of topics, search for sources, drafting and redrafting isn’t available to them. It would require a massive rewrite of their English or social studies curriculums to create such programs.
Maybe a big change is just what we need. The faculty at Wakefield manages to do it. Magwood said having all students dive into constitutional issues illustrated by real cases significantly improved their attitude about thinking and writing.
The assignments “transformed the regurgitating, knowledge-telling, book report thesis presentations of previous years into exciting, insightful, analytical presentations that made even our expert judges on public policy reflect,” she said. “Students were using constitutional law to analyze public policy, instead of just memorizing and spouting a litany of facts about their topic.”
I know many teachers as innovative and energetic as Magwood. They might not be a majority, but there are enough of them to staff required research programs in more than the three Washington area public schools doing that now. I would like to see more students surprise both themselves and the people who decide what high schools should teach.