The forgotten factor in student achievement: the student

Valerie Strauss & Will Fitzhugh:

Will Fitzhugh is the founder and editor of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only English-language quarterly review for history academic papers by high school students. The Review, founded in Massachusetts in March 1987, comes out four times a year and has published more than 1,000 history research papers—with an average of 6,000 words, with endnotes and bibliography—from secondary student authors in 44 states and 39 other countries. The latest edition, Winter 2013, includes research papers on Jackie Robinson, the Proclamation of 1763 and the German Navy in World War I.

It should come as no surprise that Fitzhugh has long called for a requirement that no high school student be permitted to graduate without having produced at least one serious research paper in history. As it is today, most students graduate from high school without having written one in any subject.

Fitzhugh is also a strong advocate for holding students responsible for their own work, noting in an e-mail, correctly, that if teachers are the only “moving part” in the classroom, then “there is no room, literally, for the agency of students.” In the current school reform era in which the focus has been on the effectiveness of teachers and to a lesser extent principals, his message has special resonance.

Here’s a piece that Fitzhugh wrote on the subject:

It is settled wisdom among Funderpundits and those to whom they give their grants that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality, but I have regularly pointed out that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work.

Now, however, a small number of other dissenting voices have begun to speak. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, in Academically Adrift have suggested that (p. 131) “Studying is crucial for strong academic performance…” and “Scholarship on teaching and learning has burgeoned over the past several decades and has emphasized the importance of shifting attention from faculty teaching to student learning…”

This may seem unacceptably heterodox to those in government and the private sector who have committed billions of dollars to focusing on the selection, training, supervision, and control of K-12 teachers, while giving no thought to whether K-12 students are actually doing the academic work which they are assigned.

In 2004, Paul A. Zoch, a teacher from Texas, wrote in Doomed to Fail:

“Let there be no doubt about it: the United States looks to its teachers and their efforts, but not to its students and their efforts, for success in education.”

More recently, and less on the fringe of this new concern, Diane Ravitch wrote in Death and Life of the Great American School System:

“One problem with test-based accountability, as currently defined and used, is that it removes all responsibility from students and their families for the students’ academic performance. NCLB neglected to acknowledge that students share in the responsibility for their academic performance and that they are not merely passive recipients of their teachers’ influence.”

There are necessarily problems in turning attention toward the work of students in judging the effectiveness of schools. First, all the present attention is on teachers, and it is not easy to turn that around. Second, teachers are employees and can be fired, while students can not. It could not be comfortable for the Funderpundits and their beneficiaries to realize that they may have been overlooking the most important variable in student academic achievement all this time.

In February, when the Associated Press reported that Natalie Monroe, a high school English teacher in Pennsylvania, had called her students, on a blog, “disengaged, lazy whiners,” and “noisy, crazy, sloppy, lazy LOAFERS,” the response of the school system was not to look more closely at the academic efforts of the students, but to suspend the teacher. As one of her students explained, “As far as motivated high school students, she’s completely correct. High school kids don’t want to do anything…(but) It’s a teacher’s job…to give students the motivation to learn.” (sic)

It would seem that no matter who points out that “You can lead a student to learning, but you can’t make him drink,” our systems of schools and Funderpundits stick with their wisdom that teachers alone are responsible for student academic achievement.

While that is wrong, it is also stupid. Alfred North Whitehead (or someone else) once wrote:

“For an education, a man’s books and teachers are but a help, the real work is his.”

As in the old story about the drunk searching under the lamppost for his keys, those who control funds for education believe that as long as all their money goes to paying attention to what teachers are doing, who they are, how they are trained, and so on, they can’t see the point of looking in the darkness at those who have the complete and ultimate control over how much academic achievement there will be—namely the students.

Apart from scores on math and reading tests after all, student academic work is ignored by all those interested in paying to change the schools. What students do in literature, Latin, chemistry, math, and Asian history classes is of no interest to them. Liberal education is not only on the back burner for those focused on basic skills and job readiness as they define them, but that burner is also turned off at present.

This situation will persist as long as those funding programs and projects for reform in education pay no attention to the actual academic work of our students. And students, who see little or no pressure to be other than “disengaged lazy whiners” will continue to pay the price for their lack of education, both in college and at work, and we will continue to draw behind in comparison with those countries who realize that student academic achievement has always been, and will always be, mainly dependent on diligent student academic work.

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7:50 AM EST


My high school senior has done very little writing, short essays at best and absolutely no research paper. And this is with 6 humanities type AP classes. He did far more writing and research in the middle school humanities program.

Students at our high school aren’t asked to do any work of substance. From talking with parents, students in high school magnet or IB programs, and maybe a few others, are the only ones who learn how to do research and write.

MCPS does not hold high expectations and standards equally for all its high school students.

7:31 AM EST

Thank you, Valerie. I had planned to rail against Common Core Curriculum at tonight’s school board meeting, but intend to read your column during public comment instead.


7:23 AM EST

Fitzhugh is quite right. The consequences of the “blame the teacher” emphasis in K-12 become even clearer in college when students must become self-directed learners and produce a great deal of original research and writing. Many struggle with the basic academic work-products like short term papers and essays that have no plagiarism. Some students even say that plagiarism is not a problem because their job is simply to assemble other people’s knowledge. When students grow up taking zero ownership for their own learning, they learn almost nothing. Standardized tests measure only one narrow band of knowledge. For students to develop and manifest broad and deep talents in critical reasoning and synthesis, research, writing and quantitative analysis, they must learn to produce substantial amounts of their own work for critical assessment. For students to know how to do this kind of work, they must learn from first grade that their engagement is central to the learning contract.