Posted on 17 November 2012
(Editor’s note: These columns have reported that lack of serious history and writing instruction in most high schools today. Businesses have complained that new employees are unable to write clearly and must be re-educated at a cost of $3 Billion
. Unprepared high schools students are a drag on the economy).
Dear Mr. Moran, Mr. Hamman and Ms. Westerhof:
I am a parent of three public school students, a senior, a junior and a 7th grader, in Stamford, Connecticut. I read with interest the executive summary of your new report on college readiness. For several years I have been concerned with the issue of true college readiness, especially in our diverse district. I believe that one major contributing factor to the lack of preparation for college work is the virtual absence of real writing and research at the middle and high school level.
My teenage daughters experienced what I am certain students across the country experience, especially students in diverse urban districts like ours; districts that are under-funded and are under a great deal of pressure to show results in only one area- test scores. They were not assigned a research paper, or any writing assignment more than three pages long, until 11th grade. Their history classes (sadly) focus on the memorization of facts to regurgitate on tests. As a former history major, it pains me to hear my daughters say they do not enjoy history! The problem, however, is more serious than merely not liking history. Our children, especially those in the neediest districts, are not developing the sophisticated intellectual skills that are necessary to prepare them for college-level work and, more importantly, for participating in our society as responsible and thoughtful citizens.
While the Common Core State Standards are touted as the solution to the college-readiness problem, they, too, rely on standardized tests, which lead to teaching to a narrow, scripted curriculum and more regurgitation of formulaic answers. Proponents of the CCSS declare that open-ended test questions will measure college-readiness. We already have open-ended test questions on current standardized tests and they fail to measure any “higher-order” skills. They are scored in thirty seconds by over-worked scorers, or in a fraction of a second by a computer. This type of cursory review cannot possibly reveal the skills needed to succeed in higher education.
There is one bright spot in this sad story. That bright spot is The Concord Review, edited by Will Fitzhugh (www.tcr.org). As a journal that publishes exemplary high school term papers, TCR provides examples of good research, writing and references for middle and high school students. Upon reading about TCR a few years back in the New York Times, I wrote to Mr. Fitzhugh to explain my dilemma in Stamford. He provided me with a wealth of resources.
Although I see plenty of term papers from students in private schools in TCR, Mr. Fitzhugh has a plan for increasing writing in schools that can apply in any school district. As a parent in a diverse public school district; a parent who is committed to both equity and depth in education, this universally applicable approach is important to me. It is called the Page Per Year Plan©:
“Each first grader would be required to write a one-page paper on a subject other than herself or himself, with at least one source.
A page would be added each year to the required academic writing, such that, for example, fifth graders would have to write a five-page paper (five sources), ninth graders would have to write a nine-page research paper, with nine sources, and so on, until each and every senior could be asked to prepare a 12-page academic research paper (twelve sources), with endnotes and bibliography, on some historical topic, which the student could choose each year.
This would gradually prepare students for future academic writing tasks, and each senior could graduate from high school knowing more about some important topic than anyone else in the class, and he/she might also have read at least one nonfiction (history) book before college. This could reduce the need for remedial instruction in writing (and perhaps in remedial reading as well) at the college level.”
This simple program can work in any district. It is ideal for building academic discipline and problem solving skills that will translate to any school subject. Moreover, once a student researches a topic, s/he owns that topic. That ownership is the type of student engagement we should be seeking, rather than the temporary thrill of iPads or other technological devices that education reformers seem to see as the silver bullet for student engagement (I have a drawer full of dusty electronic toys that prove the fleeting nature of this type of “engagement”).
I urge you to contact Mr. Fitzhugh at firstname.lastname@example.org and pursue this program with him. In order to prepare our students for higher education and for life, we need to broaden their world. Current “reform” efforts are moving us in the opposite direction. Children, especially those in needy districts, are suffering through a mind-numbing regime of standardized tests and pre-packaged lessons. In our poorest cities in Connecticut, such as Bridgeport and Hartford, children are sitting through 3 weeks of district-wide standardized tests in addition to the week-plus of state standardized tests. Imagine the loss in real learning time, not to mention the loss of interest and joy in learning. As we know, the National Research Council has concluded that ten years of NCLB testing has done nothing to raise achievement. All it has done is narrow our children’s curriculum and diverted money away from proven reforms (such as small class size in the early years, preK, etc and an enriched learning environment).
Coming from the perspective of higher education, you can speak with authority. I hope you recognize the need for deeper learning at the middle and high school level and that you push for that type of learning for all our children.
Thank you for taking the time to read this email.