“The more students are able to do in research and writing in high school, the more they’ve got a nice leg up.”
At the mere mention of research papers, Kelly Cronin’s usually highly motivated Summit Country Day Upper School students turn listless. Some groan. The Hyde Park Catholic school requires all high school students to write lengthy research papers each year on history, religion or literature.
Cronin’s sophomores write history papers. They pick a topic in late September and by May they’ll have visited libraries, pawed through card catalogs, and plumbed non-fiction books and scholarly articles.
They’ll turn in 200 or so index cards of notes. They’ll write and revise about 15 pages.
Cronin gladly grades 35 or more papers with such titles as “The Role of the Catholic Church in European Witchcraft Trials” and “Star Trek Reflected in President Johnson’s Great Society.”
“It’s time-consuming,” she says. “It takes over your life. But I’m not married, and I don’t have any kids.”
But most high school teachers aren’t like Cronin and most schools aren’t like Summit. At many high schools across the country, the in-depth research paper is dying or dead, education experts say, victims of testing and time constraints.
Juniors and seniors still get English papers, says Anne Flick, a specialist in gifted education in Springfield Township. “But in my day, that was 15 or 20 pages. Nowadays, it’s five.”
High school teachers, averaging 150 to 180 students, can’t take an hour to grade each long paper, Cronin said.
The assignment may not be necessary, says Tiffany Coy, an assistant principal at Oak Hills High in Bridgetown. “Research tells you it’s not necessarily the length; it’s the skills you develop,” she said.
But some educators disagree.
“Students come to college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors,” said William Fitzhugh, a former high school teacher who publishes The Concord Review, a quarterly in Massachusetts that selects and publishes some of the nation’s best high school papers. [from 36 countries so far]
“If we want students to be able to read and understand college books and to write research papers there, then we must give students a chance to learn how to do that in a rigorous college preparatory program. That is not happening,” he said.
Teachers see the problem. Fitzhugh’s organization commissioned a national study of 400 randomly selected high school teachers in 2002 that showed:
-95% believe research papers, especially history papers, are important.
-62% said they no longer assign even 12-page papers.
-81% never assign 5,000-word or more papers.
Cronin and others blame the testing culture. Standardized tests, the ACT and SAT, don’t require research or lengthy writing. And Advanced Placement puts pressures on teachers and students to pass year-end tests for college credit, although some courses do include essays.
“The emphasis on testing in this country has stifled writing,” Cronin wrote in EducationNews.org. “TV pundits want to talk about the latest survey that shows what percentage of high school students can’t put the Civil War in the correct decade. States want to grade schools and teachers based on tests that often just want rote memorization.”
Angela Castleman, who heads the English department at Simon Kenton High in Independence, agrees to an extent. Teachers are assigning writing to help students get into college, but “our greater mission is to prepare them for what’s ahead” once in college, she said.
Students think nothing of texting hundreds of words a day to friends but balk at writing thousands for a research paper–until college.
Achieve Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based education reform group, surveyed nearly 1,500 high school graduates and 300 college instructors in 2005. Among graduates at college:
-56% felt they left high school with inadequate work and study habits.
-35% felt they left with gaps in writing.
-40% felt they left with gaps in research skills.
Among college instructors, 62 percent were dissatisfied with high school grads’ writing and 50 percent with their research skills, Achieve’s study found.
“We may gripe and we may whine, but we know we need to do” research papers, said Melissa Ng, a Summit junior.
Bobby Deye, a junior at Xavier University, said he learned writing at a private high school in Florida, beginning with five pages on the Bermuda Triangle.
Now, facing his first 20-page paper in theology, he wishes he had been challenged more.
At the University of Cincinnati, most of the 3,000 freshmen take an English placement test and land in English Composition classes, said Joyce Malek, director of the program at UC’s McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.
“I can’t fault the K-12 schools,” she said, “because we don’t get enough writing across in the curriculum at the university level either…The more students are able to do in research and writing in high school, the more they’ve got a nice leg up.”
Until Sharon Draper left teaching to write books in 1997, she was known at Walnut Hills for assigning 10-page papers. Students wore “I survived the Draper Paper” T-shirts.
Now, despite access to computers and software that make papers easier to write and footnote, students are writing fewer pages, she said, but they can still learn to locate and use scholarly sources and structure their notes and writing.
“If I were king of education, all seniors would have to know how to do a research paper,” Draper said.
At Miami University, freshmen come with a wide range of skills, said Martin P. Johnson, an assistant history professor. Generally, they’ll get assigned long research papers later in college, he said.
But it’s up to professors to motivate them, he said.
“Students often display strong knowledge and analysis,” he said. “When they do not, I think it is likely more a question of how hard they have worked more than not being ready or prepared in a general way to be able to do the work.
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review 
National Writing Board 
TCR Institute 
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776 USA