Where We Stand: Praise Doesn’t Pay the Bills – Concord Review to Fold

Al Shanker via Will Fitzhugh:

Usually when I write this column, I’m trying to convince thousands of people about something. This time, I’m trying to reach one or two people. I don’t even know who they are, but they’ll have to be people receptive to spending some money on a good cause. Here’s the story.

Over the past several years, I’ve looked forward to seeing a quarterly history journal called The Concord Review come across my desk. The articles are a pleasure to read; they’re fresh, lively, well-researched and sometimes elegant. Their range is impressive. Among the essays I’ve found most interesting were ones on the Pullman Strike of 1894; on Lillie A. James, an African-American woman who pioneered education for African-Americans in Pensacola; and George W.G. Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris Wheel, which he meant to be the American answer to the Eiffel Tower. If you just picked it up and started reading, you’d never know the most extraordinary thing about The Concord Review—that all the essays are the work of high school students.

Editor Will Fitzhugh quit teaching and founded the journal five [27] years ago. He was impressed by the essays some of his own students produced, and he became convinced that there must be lots of other terrific history essays out there. Why not recognize, and encourage excellence by publishing some of them? The results have been wonderful. The essays come from both public and private school students, and they exemplify the level kids can achieve when they are interested in what they are doing and encouraged to pursue it.

The Review has won plenty of friends and admirers among people who are concerned about raising the standards of achievement in American education: Diane Ravitch, noted historian and assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education; Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of education; Harold Howe, a former U.S. Commissioner of Education; James Freedman, president of Dartmouth College; and Theodore Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, have all written in its support. I wrote an earlier column myself.

People in the front lines have been enthusiastic, too. Teachers from all over the world have sent student essays and money for subscriptions. And a commercial publisher has chosen four essays that appeared in the Review for a series on writing dedicated to secondary school students. One of Fitzhugh’s favorite testimonials is from an official of a foundation that didn’t offer the Review an financial support. Apparently, the man picked up a copy to glance at one essay and ended up reading the entire 150-page issue [now typically 270 pages].

But praise doesn’t pay the bills. The Review now [1992] has subscribers in 44 states and 15 foreign countries but nowhere near the number needed to make it self-supporting. This is no surprise. Fitzhugh, who has financed the journal largely with his own money, has never had the funds to promote it properly. And, as he points out, even Sports Illustrated, a magazine with mass-market appeal, and a yearly swim suit issue, took 10 years to break even. Unfortunately, he’s now at the point where he will have to close down operations in March—unless he can find the corporate or foundation support that has so far eluded him.

What’s the problem? Fitzhugh says some people have suggested that excellence of the kind that he is trying to encourage is elitist. In other words, the standards The Concord Review sets is too high for most kids. I don’t think that’s true. Jaime Escalante has shown us that expecting more of kids means you get more. This is as much the case with history as it is with math. If we encouraged students to raise their sights, many of them could measure up to the standards set by the Review; many more would enjoy reading essays written by other students and discussing them in class. And working with the journal would inspire everyone to do better—just the way watching a good runner inspires kids to go out and do as well as they can. Even if they have no hope of beating his record, they can try to break their own.

Or maybe the problem is that The Concord Review is ahead of its time. It’s a new idea so it doesn’t fit into the categories and priorities that foundations have identified. Fitzhugh says that when a foundation turns him down, that’s often what they tell him.

Something like this happened when he applied to the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). This federally funded agency is interested in history and it’s interested in raising standards. It also funds summer seminars for teachers. But NEH can’t consider Fitzhugh for a grant because he isn’t a teacher; they don’t fund student projects; and they don’t fund publications. In other words, The Concord Review falls through the cracks. And that, more or less, is the story with every foundation or agency that Fitzhugh has applied to.

Will Fitzhugh needs $150,000 a year [$250,000 needed 22 years later] and some time to build on the solid base he has already laid. There must be one or two people or a business or a foundation out there that can bend its guidelines so that this extraordinary publication won’t disappear.

© 1992 by Albert Shanker