All posts by Lucy Mathiak

What’s Holding Back American Teenagers? Our high schools are a disaster

Laurence Steinberg:

High school, where kids socialize, show off their clothes, use their phones–and, oh yeah, go to class.
Every once in a while, education policy squeezes its way onto President Obama’s public agenda, as it did in during last month’s State of the Union address. Lately, two issues have grabbed his (and just about everyone else’s) attention: early-childhood education and access to college. But while these scholastic bookends are important, there is an awful lot of room for improvement between them. American high schools, in particular, are a disaster.
In international assessments, our elementary school students generally score toward the top of the distribution, and our middle school students usually place somewhat above the average. But our high school students score well below the international average, and they fare especially badly in math and science compared with our country’s chief economic rivals.
What’s holding back our teenagers?
One clue comes from a little-known 2003 study based on OECD data that compares the world’s 15-year-olds on two measures of student engagement: participation and “belongingness.” The measure of participation was based on how often students attended school, arrived on time, and showed up for class. The measure of belongingness was based on how much students felt they fit in to the student body, were liked by their schoolmates, and felt that they had friends in school. We might think of the first measure as an index of academic engagement and the second as a measure of social engagement.
On the measure of academic engagement, the U.S. scored only at the international average, and far lower than our chief economic rivals: China, Korea, Japan, and Germany. In these countries, students show up for school and attend their classes more reliably than almost anywhere else in the world. But on the measure of social engagement, the United States topped China, Korea, and Japan.
In America, high school is for socializing. It’s a convenient gathering place, where the really important activities are interrupted by all those annoying classes. For all but the very best American students–the ones in AP classes bound for the nation’s most selective colleges and universities–high school is tedious and unchallenging. Studies that have tracked American adolescents’ moods over the course of the day find that levels of boredom are highest during their time in school.
It’s not just No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top that has failed our adolescents–it’s every single thing we have tried.
One might be tempted to write these findings off as mere confirmation of the well-known fact that adolescents find everything boring. In fact, a huge proportion of the world’s high school students say that school is boring. But American high schools are even more boring than schools in nearly every other country, according to OECD surveys. And surveys of exchange students who have studied in America, as well as surveys of American adolescents who have studied abroad, confirm this. More than half of American high school students who have studied in another country agree that our schools are easier. Objectively, they are probably correct: American high school students spend far less time on schoolwork than their counterparts in the rest of the world.
Trends in achievement within the U.S. reveal just how bad our high schools are relative to our schools for younger students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered by the U.S. Department of Education, routinely tests three age groups: 9-year-olds, 13-year-olds, and 17-year-olds. Over the past 40 years, reading scores rose by 6 percent among 9-year-olds and 3 percent among 13-year-olds. Math scores rose by 11 percent among 9-year-olds and 7 percent among 13-year-olds.
By contrast, high school students haven’t made any progress at all. Reading and math scores have remained flat among 17-year-olds, as have their scores on subject area tests in science, writing, geography, and history. And by absolute, rather than relative, standards, American high school students’ achievement is scandalous.
In other words, over the past 40 years, despite endless debates about curricula, testing, teacher training, teachers’ salaries, and performance standards, and despite billions of dollars invested in school reform, there has been no improvement–none–in the academic proficiency of American high school students.
It’s not just No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top that has failed our adolescents–it’s every single thing we have tried. The list of unsuccessful experiments is long and dispiriting. Charter high schools don’t perform any better than standard public high schools, at least with respect to student achievement. Students whose teachers “teach for America” don’t achieve any more than those whose teachers came out of conventional teacher certification programs. Once one accounts for differences in the family backgrounds of students who attend public and private high schools, there is no advantage to going to private school, either. Vouchers make no difference in student outcomes. No wonder school administrators and teachers from Atlanta to Chicago to my hometown of Philadelphia have been caught fudging data on student performance. It’s the only education strategy that consistently gets results.
The especially poor showing of high schools in America is perplexing. It has nothing to do with high schools having a more ethnically diverse population than elementary schools. In fact, elementary schools are more ethnically diverse than high schools, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Nor do high schools have more poor students. Elementary schools in America are more than twice as likely to be classified as “high-poverty” than secondary schools. Salaries are about the same for secondary and elementary school teachers. They have comparable years of education and similar years of experience. Student-teacher ratios are the same in our elementary and high schools. So are the amounts of time that students spend in the classroom. We don’t shortchange high schools financially either; American school districts actually spend a little more per capita on high school students than elementary school students.
Our high school classrooms are not understaffed, underfunded, or underutilized, by international standards. According to a 2013 OECD report, only Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more per student. Contrary to widespread belief, American high school teachers’ salaries are comparable to those in most European and Asian countries, as are American class sizes and student-teacher ratios. And American high school students actually spend as many or more hours in the classroom each year than their counterparts in other developed countries.
This underachievement is costly: One-fifth of four-year college entrants and one-half of those entering community college need remedial education, at a cost of $3 billion each year.
The president’s call for expanding access to higher education by making college more affordable, while laudable on the face of it, is not going to solve our problem. The president and his education advisers have misdiagnosed things. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of college entry in the industrialized world. Yet it is tied for last in the rate of college completion. More than one-third of U.S. students who enter a full-time, two-year college program drop out just after one year, as do about one fifth of students who enter a four-year college. In other words, getting our adolescents to go to college isn’t the issue. It’s getting them to graduate.
If this is what we hope to accomplish, we need to rethink high school in America. It is true that providing high-quality preschool to all children is an important component of comprehensive education reform. But we can’t just do this, cross our fingers, and hope for the best. Early intervention is an investment, not an inoculation.
In recent years experts in early-child development have called for programs designed to strengthen children’s “non-cognitive” skills, pointing to research that demonstrates that later scholastic success hinges not only on conventional academic abilities but on capacities like self-control. Research on the determinants of success in adolescence and beyond has come to a similar conclusion: If we want our teenagers to thrive, we need to help them develop the non-cognitive traits it takes to complete a college degree–traits like determination, self-control, and grit. This means classes that really challenge students to work hard–something that fewer than one in six high school students report experiencing, according to Diploma to Nowhere, a 2008 report published by Strong American Schools. Unfortunately, our high schools demand so little of students that these essential capacities aren’t nurtured. As a consequence, many high school graduates, even those who have acquired the necessary academic skills to pursue college coursework, lack the wherewithal to persevere in college. Making college more affordable will not fix this problem, though we should do that too.
The good news is that advances in neuroscience are revealing adolescence to be a second period of heightened brain plasticity, not unlike the first few years of life. Even better, brain regions that are important for the development of essential non-cognitive skills are among the most malleable. And one of the most important contributors to their maturation is pushing individuals beyond their intellectual comfort zones.
It’s time for us to stop squandering this opportunity. Our kids will never rise to the challenge if the challenge doesn’t come.

Laurence Steinberg is a psychology professor at Temple University and author of the forthcoming Age of Opportunity: Revelations from the New Science of Adolescence.
“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Media Blackout

In the United States, our media are not allowed to report on or discuss exemplary student academic achievement at the high school level. For example, in the “Athens of America,” The Boston Globe has more than 150 full pages each year on the accomplishments of high school athletes, but only one page a year on academics–a full page with the photographs of valedictorians at the public high schools in the city, giving their name, their school, their country of origin (often 40% foreign-born) and the college they will be going to.
The reasons for this media blackout on good academic work by students at the secondary level are not clear, apart from tradition, but while high school athletes who “sign with” a particular college are celebrated in the local paper, and even on televised national high school games, the names of Intel Science Talent Search winners, of authors published in The Concord Review, and of other accomplished high school scholars may not appear in the paper or on television.
Publicity offers encouragement for the sorts of efforts we would like our HS students to make. We naturally publicize high school athletic achievements and this helps to motivate athletes to engage in sports. By contrast, when it comes to good academic work, we don’t mention it, so perhaps we want less of it?
One senior high school history teacher has written that “We actually hide academic excellence from the public eye because that will single out some students and make others ‘feel bad.'”
Does revealing excellence by high school athletes make some other athletes or scholar-athletes or high school scholars feel bad? How can we tolerate that? I know there are some Progressive secondary schools which have eliminated academic prizes and honors, to spare the feelings of the students who don’t get them, but I don’t see that they have stopped keeping score in school games, no matter how the losers in those contests may feel.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Signing Day Central–By Michael Carvell
11:02 am Wednesday, February 5th, 2014
“Welcome to the AJC’s Signing day Day Central. This is the place to be to catch up with all the recruiting information with UGA, Georgia Tech and recruits from the state of Georgia. We will update the news as it happens, and interact on the message board below.
Lorenzo Carter, DE, 6-5, 240, Norcross: UGA reeled in the big fish, landing the state’s No.1 overall prospect for the first time since 2011 (Josh Harvey-Clemons). Isaiah McKenzie, WR, 5-8, 175, Ft. Lauderdale (Fla.) American Heritage: This was one of two big surprises for UGA to kick off signing day. McKenzie got a last-minute offer from UGA and picked the Bulldogs because of his best buddy and high school teammate, 5-star Sony Michel (signed with UGA). Hunter Atkinson, TE, 6-6, 250, West Hall: The Cincinnati commit got a last-minute call from Mark Richt and flipped to UGA. I’m not going to say we saw it coming, but … Atkinson had grayshirt offers from Alabama, Auburn and UCF. Tavon Ross, S, 6-1, 200, Bleckley County: The Missouri commit took an official visit to UGA but decided to stick with Missouri. He’s signed. Andrew Williams, DE, 6-4, 247, ECLA: He signed with Auburn over Clemson and Auburn. He joked with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn when he called with the news, saying “I’m sorry to inform you….. That I will be attending your school,” according to’s Kipp Adams. Tyre McCants, WR-DB, 5-11, 200, Niceville, Fla.: Turned down late interest from UGA to sign with USF.”
This is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, of course, in the coverage of high school athletes that goes on during the year. I hope readers will email me any comparable examples of the celebration of exemplary high school academic work that they can find in the media in their community, or in the nation generally.

Monstrous (aka CC “deeper learning”)

[The Prentice Hall Common Core literature textbook for the tenth grade:]
….Teachers may (or may not) ask interested students (two, four, or half a dozen?) to read a segment of the book (presumably a brief one only describing the monster) that will lead to two silly compare-and contrast-assignments, one involving “similar novels they have read.” (Have they read any? They haven’t read Frankenstein yet.) What about the students who are not “advanced readers”? What is being done to help them become better readers? And why should even the advanced readers read only a few pages out of this classic? What should students be doing if not reading Frankenstein?
According to the notes in the margins of the Teacher’s Edition, they should begin by offering to the class “classic examples of urban myths, tales of alien abductions, or ghost stories. (Examples include stories of alligators in the sewers, a man abducted for his kidneys, and aliens landing in Roswell, New Mexico).” (The word “classic” is being used very loosely.) To reinforce the findings of this “brainstorming activity,” students should also “write a paragraph based on one of these modern urban myths.” The class will also discuss Mary Shelley’s introduction in various ways. Helping out, Elizabeth McCracken offers several more “scholar’s insights,” including one informing us of another ghost story about a man who buried his murder victim at the base of a tree “only to find that the next year’s apples all had a clot of blood at the center of them.” On the following page, we learn that Elizabeth McCracken did read the book, which she found better than the movie because, she tells us, in the book the monster can actually talk. Teachers are prompted to ask students why they think the film version would choose to keep the monster silent. Since the class will not be diverted enough with all this talk of movies, the Teacher’s Edition also recommends that talented and gifted students “illustrate one aspect of Shelley’s imaginings that is especially Gothic in its mood” and “display their Gothic art to the rest of the class.”
Do the editors realize that all this extraneous discussion of monsters and ghosts only serves to preserve the silly Halloween caricature of Frankenstein? Apparently this caricature is what they want. On page 766, students are encouraged to “write a brief autobiography of a monster.” The editors point out that monster stories are usually told from the perspective of “the humans confronting the monster.” The editors of The British Tradition want to turn the tables and have students ask themselves “what monsters think about their treatment.” Now there’s a great exercise in multiculturalism! Those poor, misunderstood monsters. Thus, students are being asked to write a monster story. What good could come from this? Without reading the novel Frankenstein itself (which does in fact tell much of the story from the monster’s perspective), students have no way of knowing how human this Gothic tale really is. After a mere three and a half pages of Mary Shelley’s introduction, the book offers a series of questions under various headings: Critical Reading, Literary Analysis, and so forth. Some of these questions are steeped in two-bit literary criticism. Others require students to delve into the moral realms of science and creation. One is a question asking students to interpret a modern cartoon about Frankenstein–funny, but out of place in this literature book. Notwithstanding whether the questions are good or bad, the enterprise is as false as the worst Hollywood versions of Frankenstein. The questions offer the façade of learning without genuine learning having taken place. That is for a very simple reason. My wife, the former English teacher who recognizes pretense when she sees it, took one look at these pages and put it very simply:
“They (the editors) are requiring students to have opinions on something they know nothing about.”

Moore, Terrence (2013-11-29).
The Story-Killers: A Common-Sense Case Against the Common Core (pp. 176-177). Kindle Edition.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

“Who Is Carmen Fariña?” Mayor De Blasio’s new schools chancellor is a longtime champion of failed progressive pedagogy.

Sol Stern:

In his press conference introducing Carmen Fariña as New York City’s next schools chancellor, Mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that he had picked her over several other candidates because she was on the same page with him in opposing Bloomberg-era education reforms. Most of the city’s education reporters took the new mayor’s spin and ran with it, even though Fariña had served loyally as Michael Bloomberg’s second-highest-ranking education official. Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez predicted that Fariña would now bring “revolutionary” changes to the department of education that she left in 2006. A headline in The Hechinger Report claimed that Fariña wanted DRAMATIC–EVEN JOYFUL–DEPARTURE FROM BLOOMBERG ERA. But that depends on what Bloomberg era you’re talking about: during the years that she served in the administration, Fariña was fully on board with its education policies.
In fact, considering Fariña’s pivotal role during the first Bloomberg term in shaping the Department of Education’s radical initiatives, portraying her as a dissident from within seems absurd. Mayor Bloomberg took control of the schools in June 2002, but he knew little about what actually went on in the city’s classrooms. He appointed Joel Klein, a corporate lawyer with no background in instructional issues, as his first schools chancellor. Bloomberg and Klein deferred virtually all decision-making on classroom instruction and curriculum to a cadre of veteran progressive educators led by Diana Lam, Klein’s first deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. Lam and Fariña convinced Klein to introduce the constructivist “balanced-literacy” reading and writing program, developed by Lucy Calkins of Columbia Teachers College, along with a fuzzy constructivist-math program called Everyday Math, into just about every elementary school classroom in the city. (Klein would eventually realize that adopting balanced literacy was a serious mistake.)
In an early 2003 speech presenting his administration’s new education reforms, Mayor Bloomberg declared that the “experience of other urban school districts shows that a standardized approach to reading, writing, and math is the best way to raise student performance across the board in all subjects,” and therefore that “the chancellor’s office will dictate the curriculum.” And so it did. Lam soon became embroiled in a nepotism scandal and had to resign. Fariña then took over as deputy chancellor for instruction. She became the DOE’s enforcer, making sure that all teachers in the elementary schools toed the line and implemented Calkins’s constructivist methods for teaching reading and writing. Teachers received a list of “nonnegotiable” guidelines for arranging their classrooms, including such minute details as the requirement that there must be a rug on the floor for students to sit on in the early grades and that nothing but student work be posted on the walls.
Balanced literacy has no track record of raising the academic performance of poor minority children. No independent research study has ever evaluated its methodology. Nevertheless, it was popular in education schools because it promulgated two of progressive education’s key commandments: that teachers must abandon deadening “drill and kill” methods and that students are capable of “constructing their own knowledge.” Progressives such as Calkins evoked ideal classrooms, where young children naturally find their way to literacy without enduring boring, scripted phonics drills forced on them by automaton teachers. Instead, in a balanced-literacy classroom, students work in small groups and follow what Calkins calls the “workshop model” of cooperative learning. The program takes for granted that children can learn to read and write naturally, with minimal guidance. Calkins rejects E.D. Hirsch’s finding (based on an overwhelming consensus in cognitive-science research) that the key to improving children’s reading comprehension is grounding them in broad knowledge, which she and other progressives dismiss as “mere facts.” Calkins also believes that her model classrooms promote “social justice” for all. In an interview I conducted with her at the time the DOE selected her program, she told me that “It’s a great move to social justice to bring [balanced literacy] to every school in the city.”
That’s what Fariña tried to accomplish in the early years of the Bloomberg administration–including the social-justice part. She was instrumental in creating the most centralized, top-down instructional system in the recent history of American public education. Agents of the deputy chancellor (euphemistically called “coaches”) fanned out to almost all city elementary schools to make sure that every teacher was marching in lockstep with the department of education’s new pedagogical approach. Under the rubric of “professional development,” DOE central headquarters launched an aggressive campaign to force teachers to teach literacy and math only one way–the progressive way. Each of the city’s 80,000 teachers got a six-hour CD-ROM laying out the philosophy behind the new standardized curriculum and pedagogy. The CD portrayed the world of progressive education writ large, with all its romantic assumptions about how children learn. In addition to inculcating Calkins’s balanced literacy, the DOE’s training manual celebrated the theories of an obscure Australian education guru–Brian Cambourne of Wollongong University in New South Wales, a leader of the whole-language movement (a cousin of balanced literacy) then dominating Australian public schools. Cambourne’s ideas gave city teachers not only more balanced literacy (or whole language) theory, but also a warrant for social-justice teaching.
Cambourne claims that as a young teacher, he discovered that many of his poorly performing students were actually quite bright. To his surprise, almost all demonstrated extraordinary competence in performing challenging tasks. The son of the local bookie, for example, “couldn’t learn basic math,” according to Cambourne, “but could calculate the probability the Queen of Spades was in the deck faster than I could.” Cambourne decided that children learn better in natural settings, with a minimum of adult help–a staple of progressive-education thought. Thus the role of the educator should be to create classroom environments that stimulate children but also closely resemble the way adults work and learn. Children should no longer sit in rows facing the teacher; instead, the room should be arranged with work areas where children can construct their own knowledge, much as in Calkins’s workshop model of balanced literacy.
Such constructivist assumptions about how to teach literacy were enforced with draconian discipline in city schools for several years. Progressives like Calkins, Cambourne, and Fariña don’t insist that more learning occurs when children work in groups and in “natural” settings because they’ve followed any evidence. To the contrary, as much as it tells us anything on this issue, science makes clear that, particularly for disadvantaged children, direct, explicit instruction works best. But under Fariña, reeducation sessions for teachers were meant to overcome dissenting opinion and drive home the progressive party line. To quote the directives to teachers included on the CD: “Your students must not be sitting in rows. You must not stand at the head of the class. You must not do ‘chalk and talk’ at the blackboard. You must have a ‘workshop’ in every single reading period. Your students must be ‘active learners,’ and they must work in groups.”
As I reported at the time, some brave teachers objected. At Junior High School 44 in Manhattan, a teacher tried to point out to his supervisor, quite reasonably, that some teachers feel more comfortable with and get better results through direct instruction and other traditional methods. The school’s literacy coach, sent by the DOE, then responded: “This is the way it is. Everyone will do it this way, or you can change schools.”
Calkins was grateful for Carmen Fariña’s efforts in advancing her instructional agenda, her career, and her organization’s bottom line. (Calkins’s Readers and Writers Program at Teachers College received over $10 million in no-bid contracts from the city.) Calkins expressed her appreciation in a forward she penned for Fariña’s book, A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence, coauthored with Laura Koch, Fariña’s closest associate and collaborator at the DOE. “When Carmen and Laura took the helm of New York City’s school system, teachers, staff developers, and principals across the entire city let out a collective cheer of enthusiasm,” Calkins writes. She conjures a glorious history: “Within a week [of Fariña’s promotion to deputy chancellor for instruction] our education system began to change. Educators at every level could feel possibility in the air; the excitement was palpable.” And because of Fariña’s magic, “sound practices in the teaching of reading and writing became the talk of the town–the subject of study groups and hallway conversations in every school . . . The entire city began working together afresh to meet the challenge of improving education for all children.”
In reality, though, the balanced-literacy advocates failed in this task. The city’s eighth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests barely budged over 12 years, despite a doubling of education spending–from $12 billion to $24 billion. There was no narrowing of the racial achievement gap. (In sounding his tale of two cities theme, Mayor de Blasio makes no accounting for the failure of progressive education programs to reduce the academic achievement gap between poor and middle-class children.)
Recognizing balanced literacy’s meager results, Chancellor Klein reverted to a system of more autonomous schools, giving principals far more discretion over instructional matters. Klein apparently came to believe that he had been misled by Fariña and Calkins. The chancellor then became a supporter of Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum, with its focus on direct instruction and the teaching of broad content knowledge. He set up a three-year pilot program, matching ten elementary schools using the Hirsch early-grade literacy curriculum against a demographically similar cohort of ten schools that used balanced literacy. The children in the Core Knowledge schools significantly outperformed those in the schools using the Calkins approach.
Still opposing the direct teaching of factual knowledge, Fariña recently shrugged off the pilot study, saying that not enough schools were involved. But if Fariña is serious about that criticism, she now has an opportunity to run a much larger evaluation of Core Knowledge. As a result of the city’s adoption of the Common Core State Standards and of aligned curricula emphasizing the “rich content knowledge” that the standards require, 71 elementary school principals have chosen to use Hirsch’s Core Knowledge literacy program in their schools.
Let Fariña visit and study those schools over the next year. If she really is committed to changing the tale of two cities, as she and the new mayor claim to be, one way to start would be to cast aside ideology and judge whether those Core Knowledge classrooms, drenched in “mere facts,” are actually the key to narrowing the devastating knowledge gap between middle-class kids and poor children, who begin school with little knowledge of the world and with a stunted vocabulary. She might also find that there is at least as much “joy” in classrooms in which children get taught explicitly about the world around them as there is in classrooms in which children “construct” their own knowledge.

Peach Baskets

In 1891, when Mr. James Naismith (he got his MD in 1898) put two peach baskets with the bottoms out at about 10 feet up at each end of the gymnasium in Springfield, Massachusetts, how many high school students do you think could make the three-point shot? Zero.
Today, when people see the exemplary history research papers published in The Concord Review, the most common reaction is: “These were written by High School Students?!” The reason for this disbelief is that most adults (even Edupudits, etc.) today no more expect high school student to write 11,000-word research papers than people in 1891 expected them to be able to make a three-point shot or dunk the basketball.
Theodore Sizer, late Dean of the Harvard School of Education and Headmaster of Phillips Academy, Andover, wrote, in 1988, that:
Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them. We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing. At least if and when they reflect about it, adolescents have cause to resent us old folks. We do not signal clear standards for many important areas of their lives, and we deny them the respect of high expectations. In a word, we are careless about them, and, not surprisingly, many are thus careless about themselves. “Me take on such a difficult and responsible task?” they query, “I’m just a kid!” All sorts of young Americans are capable of solid, imaginative scholarship, and they exhibit it for us when we give them both the opportunity and a clear measure of the standard expected. Presented with this opportunity, young folk respond. The Concord Review is such an opportunity, a place for fine scholarship to be exhibited, to be exposed to that most exquisite of scholarly tests, wide publication. The Concord Review is, for the History-inclined high school student, what the best of secondary school theatre and music performances, athletics, and (in some respects) science fairs are, for their aficionados. It is a testing ground, and one of elegant style, taste and standards. The Review does not undersell students. It respects them. And in such respect is the fuel for excellence.”
Since 1987, The Concord Review has published more than a thousand 6,000-word, 8,000-word, 11,000-word, 15,000-word, and longer history papers by secondary students from 46 states and 38 other countries, and, as we only take about 5% of the ones we get, evidently several more thousands of high school students have written serious history papers and submitted them. But I was recently asked, “How many high school students do you think could actually write papers like that?”–Suggesting that it must be a very small number indeed! As small perhaps as the number of high school students who could make that three-pointer in 1891?
Some examples: Colin Rhys Hill, of Atlanta, Georgia, decided to write a 15,000-word history research paper on the Soviet-Afghan War; Sarah Willeman of Byfield, Massachusetts, decided she wanted to write a 21,000-word paper on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah in 1857; Nathaniel Bernstein, of San Francisco, chose to write an 11,000-word paper on the unintended consequences of Direct Legislation reforms in the early 1900s in California; and Jonathan Lu, of Hong Kong, wrote a 13,000-word paper on the Needham Question (why did Chinese technology stall after 1500?)…(send to for pdfs of these papers).
“Where there’s a Way, there’s a Will,” I sometimes think. If peach baskets exist, some day somewhere a high school student or two will try to shoot a ball through one. Obviously by now the number of such students who can make a three-point shot is very large. We even have nationally-televised high school basketball games in which they can demonstrate such an achievement. If an international journal for the academic history research papers of secondary students exists, perhaps some students will actually write and submit them?
Most people may tell a high school students that they are not capable of doing the reading and the writing for a long serious history research paper. Most of their teachers do not want to spend the time coaching for and reading them. But my advice to any prospective high school author is (pay no attention to the people who tell you that you are only capable of writing a five-paragraph essay), and:
Prepare yourself over hours, weeks, months, and years of practice.
Make sure your feet are behind the three-point line.
Take the shot.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®


The term “autodidact” is usually reserved for those who, like Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, and so on, did not have the advantages of spending much time in school or the help of schoolteachers with their education.
I would like to suggest that every student is an autodidact, because only the student can decide what information to accept and retain. Re-education camps in the Communist world, from Korea to Vietnam to China, no doubt made claims that they could “teach” people things whether they want to learn them or not, but I would argue that the threat of force and social isolation used in such camps are not the teaching methods we are searching for in our schools.
And further, I would claim that even in re-education camps, students often indeed reserve private places in their minds about which their instructors know very little.
My main point is that the individual is the sovereign ruler of their own attention and the sole arbiter of what information they choose to admit and retain. Our system of instruction and examination has no doubt persuaded many sovereign learners over the years to accept enough of the knowledge we offer to let most of them pass whatever exams we have presented, but the cliché is that after the test, nearly all of that information is gone.
Teachers have known all this from the beginning, and so have developed and employed all their arts to first attract, and then retain, the attention of their students, and they have labored tirelessly to persuade their students that they should decide to attend to and make use of the knowledge they are offering.
One of the best arguments for having teachers be very well-grounded in the subjects they are teaching is that the likelihood increases that they will really love their subject, and it is easier for teachers to convince students of the value of what they are teaching if they clearly believe in its value themselves.
It should not be forgotten, however, that the mind is a mercurial and fickle instrument, and the attention of students is vulnerable to all the distractions of life, in the classroom and out of it. I am distressed that so many who write about education seem to overlook the role of students almost entirely, concentrating on the public policy issues of the Education Enterprise and forgetting that without the attention and interest of students, all of their efforts are futile.
It seems strange to me that so little research is ever done into the actual academic work of students, for instance whether they ever read a complete nonfiction book, and whether they every write a serious academic paper on a subject other than themselves.
For many reformers, it seems the only student work they are interested in is student scores on objective tests. Sadly, objective tests discover almost nothing about the students’ interest in their experiences of the complexity of the chemistry, history, literature, Chinese, and other subjects they have been offered.
There was a time when college entrance decisions were based on essays students would write on academic subjects, and those could reveal not only student fluency and knowledge, but something of their attachment to and appreciation for academic matter.
But now, we seem to have decided that neither we nor they have time for extended essays on history and the like (except for the International Baccalaureate, and The Concord Review), and the attractions of technology have led examiners to prefer tests that can be graded very quickly, by computer wherever possible. So, when the examiners show no interest in serious academic work, it should not surprise us that students may see less value in it as well.
The Lower Education teachers are still out there, loving their subjects, and offering them up for students to judge, and to decide how much of them they will accept into their memories and their thoughts, but meanwhile the EduPundits and the leaders of the Education Enterprise [Global Education Reform Movement = GERM, as Pasi Sahlberg calls it], with lots of funding to encourage them, sail on, ignoring the control students have, and always have had, over their own attention and their own learning.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

History is AWOL

The Common Core National Education Standards are, they say, very interested in having all our students taught the techniques of deeper reading, deeper writing, deeper listening, deeper analysis, and deeper thinking.
What they seen to have almost no interest in, is knowledge–for example knowledge of history, especially military history. As far as I can tell at the moment, their view of the history our high school students need to know includes: The Letter From Birmingham Jail, The Gettysburg Address, and Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
While these are all, of course, worthy objects for deeper reading and the like, they do not, to my mind, fully encompass the knowledge of the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States, the Battle of the Bulge and of Iwo Jima and of Okinawa, or the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, or the U.S. transcontinental railroad, or the Panama Canal, or woman suffrage or the Great Depression, or a number of other interesting historical circumstances our students perhaps should know about.
Nor does it seem to call for much knowledge about William Penn, or Increase Mather, or George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton, or Robert E. Lee, or Ulysses S. Grant, or Thomas Edison, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or Dwight David Eisenhower, or several hundreds of other historical figures who might be not only interesting, but also important for students to be familiar with.
In short, from what I have seen, the Common Core Vision of necessary historical knowledge includes what any high school Junior ought to be able to read in one afternoon (i.e. three short “historical documents”).
Ignorance of history has, it may be said, been almost an American tradition, and many Americans have discovered in their travels, and to their embarrassment, that people in other countries may know more about our history than they do.
We have, many times in the past, even invaded countries our soldiers knew next to nothing about, and sometimes that has been a disadvantage for us. But if the Common Core doesn’t care if our students know any United States history, they are certainly not going to mind if our students don’t know the history of any other country either.
But even in schools were history is still taught, and where the Common Core has not yet sunk its roots, one area of history is perhaps neglected more than any other. Was it Trotsky who said: “You may not be interested in War, but War is interested in you.”?
And Publius Flavius Vegetius argued that: “If you want peace, prepare for war.” In many of our school history departments, military history is regarded as “militaristic,” and the thought, apparently, is that if we tell our students nothing about war, then war will simply go away.
History doesn’t seem to support that notion, and if war does come to us again, it might be useful for students in places other than our Military Academies to know something about military history. In addition, military history tells absorbing stories of some of the most inspiring efforts ever made in the history of mankind.
We talk a fair amount these days about our Wounded Warriors and about what we owe to our veterans, past and present, but for some odd reason, that seldom translates into the responsibility to teach military history, at least to some minimal extent, to the students in our public high schools.
It is quite clear to me that ignorance of history does not make history go away, and ignorance of the lessons of history does not make us better prepared to understand the issues of our time. And certainly, in spite of whatever dreams and wishes are out there, ignorance of war has not ever made, and quite probably will not make, war go away.
We want to honor our veterans, but we do not do so by erasing knowledge of our wars, past and present, from our high school history curriculum, whatever the pundits who are bringing us the Common Core may think about, and plan for, the teaching of history.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

History Paralysis

When it comes to working together to support the survival and enjoyment of history for students in our schools, why are history teachers, as a group, as good as paralyzed?
Whatever the reason, in the national debates over nonfiction reading (history books, anyone?) and nonfiction writing for students in the schools, the voice of history teachers, at least in the wider conversation, has not been clearly heard.
Perhaps it could be because, as David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State, put it: “History is so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it.”
Have the bad feelings and fears raised over the ill-fated National History Standards which emerged from UCLA so long ago persisted and contributed to our paralysis in these national discussions?
Are we (I used to be one) too sensitive to the feelings of other members of the social studies universe? Are we too afraid that someone will say we have given insufficient space and emphasis to the sociology of the mound people of Ohio or the history and geography of the Hmong people or the psychology of the Apache and the Comanche? Or do we feel guilty, even though it is not completely our fault, that all of the Presidents of the United States have been, (so far), men?
I am concerned when the National Assessment of Educational Progress finds that 86% of our high school seniors scored Basic or Below on U.S. History, and I am appalled by stories of students, who, when asked to choose our Allies in World War II on a multiple-choice test, select Germany (both here and in the United Kingdom, I am told). After all, Germany is an ally now, they were probably an ally in World War II, right? So Presentism reaps its harvest of historical ignorance.
Of course there is always competition for time to give to subjects in schools. Various groups push their concerns all the time. Business people often argue that students should learn about the stock market at least, if not credit default swaps and the like. Other groups want other things taught. I understand that there is new energy behind the revival of home economics courses for our high school future homemakers.
But what my main efforts have been directed towards since 1987 is prevention of the need for remedial nonfiction reading and writing courses in college. My national research has found that most U.S. public high schools do not ask students to write a serious research paper, and I am convinced that, if a study were ever done, it would show that we send the vast majority of our high school graduates off without ever having assigned them a complete history book to read. Students not proficient in nonfiction reading and writing are at risk of not understanding what their professors are talking about, and are, in my view, more likely to drop out of college.
For all I know, book reports are as dead in the English departments as they are in History departments. In any case, most college professors express strong disappointment in the degree to which entering students are capable of reading the nonfiction books they are assigned and of writing the term papers that are assigned.
A study done by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that 90% of professors judge their students to be “not very well prepared” in reading, doing research, and writing.
I cannot fathom why we put off instruction in nonfiction books and term papers until college in so many cases. We start young people at a very early age in Pop Warner football and in Little League baseball, but when it comes to nonfiction reading and writing we seem content to wait until they are 18 or so.
For whatever reason, some students have not let our paralysis prevent them either from studying history or from writing serious history papers, and I have proof that they can do good work in history, if asked to do so. When I started The Concord Review in 1987, I hoped that students might send me 4,000-word research papers in history. By now, I have published, in 98 issues, 1,077 history research papers averaging 6,000 words, on a huge variety of topics, by high school students from 46 states and 38 other countries.
Some have been inspired by their history teachers, other by their history-buff parents, but a good number have been encouraged by seeing the exemplary work of their peers in print. Here are parts of two comments from authors–Kaitlin Marie Bergan: “When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it. While most of the writing I have completed for my high school history classes has been formulaic and limited to specified topics, The Concord Review motivated me to undertake independent research in the development of the American Economy. The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History.” And Emma Curran Donnelly Hulse: “As I began to research the Ladies’ Land League, I looked to The Concord Review for guidance on how to approach my task. At first, I did check out every relevant book from the library, running up some impressive fines in the process, but I learned to skim bibliographies and academic databases to find more interesting texts. I read about women’s history, agrarian activism and Irish nationalism, considering the ideas of feminist and radical historians alongside contemporary accounts…Writing about the Ladies’ Land League, I finally understood and appreciated the beautiful complexity of history…In short, I would like to thank you not only for publishing my essay, but for motivating me to develop a deeper understanding of history. I hope that The Concord Review will continue to fascinate, challenge and inspire young historians for years to come.”
Lots of high school [and middle school] students are sitting out there, waiting to be inspired by their history teachers [and their peers] to read history books and to prepare their best history research papers, and lots of history teachers are out there, wishing there were a stronger and more optimistic set of arguments coming from a history presence in the national conversation about higher standards for nonfiction reading and writing in our schools.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Missing out on timeless literature

Jamie Gass, via Will Fitzhugh

He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice,” Mississippi’s William Faulkner said of man upon receiving the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, “but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things.”
New Englanders can rightfully claim to have been America’s 19th-century literary hub, but no other regional landscape dominated 20th-century literature like the South and its genius for storytelling. Famously, Faulkner’s imaginary Yoknapatawpha County, Chickasaw for “split land,” provided the setting for his most inspired novels.
American high school students should read Southern writers like Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, author of the 1962 National Book Award-winning “The Moviegoer.” Percy crafted stories about “the dislocation of man in the modern age,” while contributing to a “community of discourse” around fiction writing. His Greenville, Miss., was a wellspring of outstanding writers.
Greenville’s patriarch, William Alexander Percy, was a lawyer, planter and poet from a suicide-plagued family. He authored the best-selling 1941 memoir “Lanterns on the Levee.” His second cousin, Walker Percy, and Walker’s lifelong best friend, Shelby Foote, were both young when they lost their fathers. Will Percy’s book-filled house became a sanctuary for writers, journalists and musicians, as the man himself mentored a region.

2 Hours Per Week for Homework, but 8 ½ per day Stabbing Girls and Other Media Fun.

Bill Korach, via Will Fitzhugh:

A new video war game “Call of Duty” integrates women as the objects of violence while time spent on homework declines to about two hours per week. This is not a formula designed to produce an educated literate society that will be competitive in the global economy. On the other hand, spending 8 ½ hours per day on media including games of shocking violence is a formula that will continue to coarsen our culture and even produce real violence. Recall that the Columbine killers were avid video game players.
The Kaiser Foundation reported in January 2010, that:
“Over the past five years, there has been a huge increase in media use among young people. Five years ago, we reported that young people spent an average of nearly 61/2 hours (6:21) a day with media–and managed to pack more than 81/2 hours (8:33) worth of media content into that time by multitasking. At that point it seemed that young people’s lives were filled to the bursting point with media. Today, however, those levels of use have been shattered. Over the past five years, young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from 6:21 to 7:38–almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day, except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five. [53 hours a week]”

Leftist Educator Diane Ravitch Meets Her Match: An Important Critique by Sol Stern

Ron Radosh via Will Fitzhugh:

Do you know who Diane Ravitch is? If not, you should. No other educator has been acclaimed in so many places as the woman who can lead American education into the future. Her new book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, had a first printing of 75,000 copies and quickly made the New York Times non-fiction best seller list.
Recently, the leading magazine for left-liberal intellectuals, The New York Review of Books, featured a cover story about Ravitch by Andrew Delbanco. He compares the approaches of the educator most despised by the Left, Michelle Rhee, with Ravitch. He calls Ravitch “our leading historian of primary and secondary education.” Having established that, he goes on to note Ravitch’s condemnation of Rhee, which he says “borders on contempt.” Delbanco also dislikes Rhee. He does not agree with what he calls her “determination to remake public institutions on the model of private corporations.” Rhee is pro-corporate, a woman who wants “to introduce private competition (in police, military, and postal services, for example) where government was once the only provider.” In other words, Rhee stands with the enemies of the Left who want school choice for poor children, vouchers, charter schools, and competition, rather than more pay for teachers, smaller classes, and working with and through the teachers’ unions.

Send in the SEALs: Can a new generation of young, Navy SEAL-like teachers finally club the achievement gap out of existence?

Hedge funder Whitney Tilson argues that a new generation of young Navy SEAL-like teachers can club the achievement gap out of existence.
Can a new generation of young, Navy SEAL-like teachers finally club the achievement gap out of existence? That is today’s fiercely urgent question, reader, and believe it or not, I do not ask it in jest. The call to send in the SEALs comes from hedge fund manager and edu-visionary extraordinaire Whitney Tilson. When Tilson read this recent New York Times story about high turnover among young charter school teachers, he went ballistic, to use a military metaphor. After all, turnover among Navy SEALs is also very high, notes Tilson, and no one complains about that.
Bigger rigor
So how exactly is the young super teacher in an urban No Excuses charter school like a Navy SEAL? Better yet, how are such teachers NOT like SEALs? Both sign onto an all-consuming mission, the SEAL to take on any situation or enemy the world has to offer, the teacher to tackle the greatest enemy our nation has ever known: teacher union low expectations. But as Tilson has seen second-hand, being a “bad a**” warrior is exhausting, which is why SEALs, like young super teachers, enjoy extraordinarily short careers.
But the work is incredibly intense and not really compatible with family life, so few are doing active missions for their career–they move on into management/leadership positions or go into the private sector (egads!). Could you imagine the NY Times writing a snarky story about high turnover among SEALs?!
Cream of the crop
Egads! indeed, reader. In fact, now that I think of it, *crushing* the achievement gap in our failed and failing public schools is almost exactly like delivering highly specialized, intensely challenging warfare capabilities that are beyond the means of standard military forces. For one thing, the SEALs are extremely choosy about who they let into their ranks, just as we’ll need to be if we’re going to replace our old, low-expectations teachers with fresh young commandos. Only the cream of the crop make it to SEALdom, and by cream, I mean “cream” colored. The SEALs are overwhelmingly white; just 2% of SEAL officers are African American.
See the world
And let’s not forget that SEALs and new urban teachers both get plenty of opportunities to experience parts of the world they haven’t seen before. The elite Navy men train and operate in desert and urban areas, mountains and woodlands, and jungle and arctic conditions, while members of the elite teaching force spend two years combating the achievement gap in the urban schools before they receive officer status. And while Frog Men live on military bases, our commando teachers increasingly live in special encampments built just for them.
And here is where our metaphor begins to break down ever so slightly….
Of course, there are a few teeny tiny areas where the SEALs differ from the young teachers who will finally club the achievement gap out of existence. There is, for instance, the teeny tiny matter of the training that the SEALs receive: 8-weeks Naval Special Warfare Prep School, 24-weeks Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/s) Training, 3-weeks Parachute Jump School, 26-weeks SEAL Qualification Training (SQT), followed by 18-months of pre-deployment training, including 6-month Individual Specialty Training, 6-month Unit Level Training and 6-month Task Group Level Training before they are considered deployable. TFA, which Tilson praises for its “yeoman” work in recruiting and grooming the next generation of urban teacher hot shots, relies upon an, ahem, somewhat different approach…
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“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Howard Zinn and the Art of Anti-Americanism

David Bobb

Upon the death of the Marxist-inspired historian Howard Zinn in 2010, eulogies rang out from coast to coast calling him a heroic champion of the unsung masses. In Indiana, then-Gov. Mitch Daniels refused to join the chorus and instead sent emails to his staff wondering if the historian’s “execrable” books were being force-fed to Hoosier students. The recent revelation of these emails provoked an angry backlash.
High-school teachers within Zinn’s vast network of admirers blogged their disapproval of the governor’s heresy, and leading professional organizations of historians denounced the supposed threat to academic freedom. At Purdue University, where Mr. Daniels now serves as president, 90 faculty members hailed Zinn as a strong scholarly voice for the powerless and cast the former governor as an enemy of free thought.
An activist historian relentlessly critical of alleged American imperialism, Zinn managed during his lifetime to build an impressive empire devoted to the spread of his ideas. Even after his death, a sprawling network of advocacy and educational groups has grown, giving his Marxist and self-described “utopian” vision a wider audience than ever before.
Zinn’s most influential work, A People’s History of the United States, was published in 1980 with an initial print run of 4,000 copies. His story line appealed to young and old alike, with the unshaded good-guy, bad-guy narrative capturing youthful imaginations, and his spirited takedown of “the Man” reminding middle-aged hippies of happier days. Hollywood’s love for Zinn and a movie tribute to his work has made him even more mainstream. As his acolytes have climbed the rungs of power, still seeking revolution, A People’s History has increased in popularity. To date, it has sold 2.2 million volumes, with more than half of those sales in the past decade.
In Zinn’s telling, America is synonymous with brute domination that goes back to Christopher Columbus. “The American system,” he writes in A People’s History, is “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” The founding fathers were self-serving elitists defined by “guns and greed.”
For Americans stuck in impoverished communities and failing schools, Zinn’s devotion to history as a “political act” can seem appealing. He names villains (capitalists), condemns their misdeeds, and calls for action to redistribute wealth so that, eventually, all of the following material goods will be “free–to everyone: food, housing, health care, education, transportation.” The study of history, Zinn taught, demands this sort of social justice.
Schools with social-justice instruction that draw explicitly on Zinn are becoming more common. From the Social Justice Academy outside of San Francisco to the four campuses of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, in Washington, D.C., social-justice academies relate their mission mainly in terms of ideological activism. At UCLA’s Social Justice Academy, a program for high-school juniors, the goal is that students will “develop skills to take action that disrupts social justice injustices.”
While social-justice instruction may sound to some like it might be suited to conflict resolution, in practice it can end up creating more discord than it resolves. Several years ago, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, public schools faced complaints from the parents of minority students that the American history curriculum was alienating their children. At a meeting of the district’s social-studies department chairs, the superintendent thought that he had discovered the cure for the divisions plaguing the school system. Holding up a copy of A People’s History, he asked, “How many of you have heard of Howard Zinn?” The chairwoman of the social studies department at the district’s largest school responded, “Oh, we’re already using that.”
Zinn’s arguments tend to divide, not unite, embitter rather than heal. The patron saint of Occupy Wall Street, Zinn left behind a legacy of prepackaged answers for every problem–a methodology that progressive historian Michael Kazin characterized as “better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s website than to a work of scholarship.”
Yet despite the lack of hard evidence in three-plus decades that using A People’s History produces positive classroom results, a number of well-coordinated groups recently have been set up to train teachers in the art of Zinn. Founded five years ago out of a partnership between Rethinking Schools and Teaching for Change, the Zinn Education Project offers more than 100 lesson plans and teachers’ guides to Zinn’s books, among a variety of other materials, including “Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practice Guide to K-12 Anti-Racist, Multicultural Education and Staff Development.” Already, the project claims to have enlisted 20,000 teachers in its efforts.
Before Zinn launched his own teaching career, he became a member of the Communist Party in 1949 (according to FBI reports released three years ago), and worked in various front groups in New York City. Having started his academic career at Spelman College, Zinn spent the bulk of it at Boston University, where on the last day before his retirement in 1988 he led his students into the street to participate in a campus protest.
Today, Boston University hosts the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series, and New York University (Zinn’s undergraduate alma mater) proudly houses his academic papers. In 2004 Zinn was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Havana, an occasion he took to excoriate the lack of academic freedom in America. As recently as 2007, A People’s History was even required reading at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for a class on “Leaders in America.”
Thanks in part to an endorsement from the character played by Matt Damon in 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” Zinn’s magnum opus has also turned into a multimedia juggernaut. Actor Ben Affleck (like Mr. Damon, a family friend of Zinn’s), and musicians Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Eddie Vedder and John Legend all have publicly praised Zinn. A History Channel documentary produced by Mr. Damon, “The People Speak,” featured Hollywood A-listers Morgan Freeman, Viggo Mortensen, Kerry Washington and others reading from Zinn’s books. There are “People’s Histories” on topics including the American Revolution, Civil War, Vietnam and even science. Zinn die-hards can purchase a graphic novel, A People’s History of American Empire, while kids can pick up a two-volume set, A Young People’s History of the United States (wall chart sold separately).
In 2005, as a guest on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” Zinn delivered his standard wholesale condemnation of America. Surprised by the unrelenting attack, host Jon Stewart gave the historian an opportunity to soften his criticism. “We have made some improvements,” the comedian asked, “in our barbarity over three hundred years, I would say, no?” Zinn denied there was any improvement.
As classes resume again this fall, it is difficult not to think that despite the late historian’s popularity, our students deserve better than the divisive pessimism of Howard Zinn.
Mr. Bobb, director of the Hillsdale College Kirby Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C., is author of Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, forthcoming from Thomas Nelson.
A version of this article appeared August 12, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: “Howard Zinn and the Art of Anti-Americanism.”


Let’s say the history teacher, a descendant of the 1960s, is talking (of course) about the Vietnam War, and how Walter Cronkite won the Tet Offensive, even though the North lost it, and the student is perhaps paying some attention, but when the teacher shifts to an explanation of the hardships of war in the hot weather and the humidity, the student, effortlessly, may begin to remember what his grandfather told him about the cold at the Chosin Reservoir in 1950, and how easy it was to get frostbitten or even to freeze to death.
The teacher, quite understandably, so often has no idea that the student is no longer listening to, or learning from him, no matter how “great” the teacher is.
Those who say that teacher quality is the most important variable in student academic achievement seem to have forgotten the student’s role in student academic achievement. They have failed to think about, and they have not come to realize, the fact that the student is the sole proprietor of his/her own attention, and that her/his attention is the sine qua non for student academic achievement.
Again, the history teacher might be talking about the rise of organized labor in American life, and the student’s mind could easily slip away to the stories her aunt has told her about the difficult labor she had to go through with her first daughter.
Attention wanders, and in class wandering attention means the end of learning on the current topic for the time being, at least for that student, and for the “education” planned for that class period for any and all distracted students.
What can be done about this wayward-attention phenomenon? We might start by realizing that students own their attention and that we must negotiate with them successfully if we are to convince them to bring that attention to our offerings and to their duties as students. (Doesn’t that sound quaint?–Students have duties?)
With this in mind, we might spend more time explaining why what we are teaching in a given period on any given day is worth the attention we need from students. We can order them to pay attention (that doesn’t work), but we might be able to sell them on the chance that if they give their attention to what we are offering, it might prove to be worth their while.
We won’t sell the opportunity to every one, but some students might be grateful for the respect we pay to their ownership of their own minds and their own attention, and more of them might be willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and give our
presentations and plans their attention on a trial basis. (And some students will surely be influenced by the attention they see their peers giving to the work at hand…)
Then, if what we are teaching is as important and as interesting to us as we hope it will be to them, there is a chance (well-tested in experience) that they may indeed find it of interest to them as well, and they will be, in that subject perhaps, on their way to becoming educated, and more than that even, they might be on their way to deciding to teach themselves more about the subject as well. Thus are scholars born.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

National Civics, History Tests to Disappear

Haley Stauss

The National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in civics, U.S. history, and geography have been indefinitely postponed for fourth and twelfth graders. The Obama administration says this is due to a $6.8 million sequestration budget cut. The three exams will be replaced by a single, new test: Technology and Engineering Literacy.
Without these tests, advocates for a richer civic education will not have any kind of test to use as leverage to get more civic education in the classrooms,” said John Hale, associate director at the Center for Civic Education.
NAEP is a set of national tests of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders that track achievement on various subjects over time. Researchers collect data for state to state comparisons in mathematics, reading, science, and writing. The other subjects only provide national statistics and are administered to fewer students. The tests provide basic information about students but do not automatically trigger consequences for teachers, students, and schools.
Students have historically performed extremely poorly on these three tests. In 2010, the last administration of the history test, students performed worse on it than on any other NAEP test. That year, less than half of eighth-graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights, and only 1 in 10 could pick a definition of the system of checks and balance on the civics exam.
Science vs. Humanities
Since most civic education is taught to first-semester high school seniors, Hale said, not testing in twelfth grade creates a major gap of information.
“Is it possible to have a responsible citizenry if we don’t teach them civics, history, and the humanities?” said Gary Nash, a professor of history education (sic) at the University of California Los Angeles. Postponing the exams, typically administered every four years, does not mean classroom education in the humanities will be cut. But the cuts indirectly say we can do without civics and U.S. history, Nash said.
Trading the humanities tests for technology tests is necessary to measure “the competitiveness of U.S. students in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-focused world,” said David Driscoll, chair of the NAEP Governing Board, in a statement. “The [Technology and Engineering Literacy] assessment, along with the existing NAEP science and mathematics assessments, will help the nation know if we are making progress in the areas of STEM education.”
Nash agrees the U.S. needs more engineers and scientists: “But what are they without humanities under their belt?” he said.
Excellence in one area flows into others
A summer report from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences explained the need for these subjects this way: “The humanities and social sciences provide an intellectual framework and context for understanding and thriving in a changing world. When we study these subjects, we learn not only what but how and why.”
Nash pointed out that Franklin High School in the Los Angeles Unified School district is 94 percent Latino, and many families are immigrants. Without changing anything in science and math, the school began to emphasize humanities. The scores in science and math improved, testing almost on par with students in Beverly Hills. “It’s about increasing their passion for learning,” he says. Furthermore, giving students a context for learning helps them learn more.
Masters of Our Government
Students must be prepared “to think for themselves as independent citizens,” said Hale. “Civics and Government (& History) is (are) as generative as math; we are not born as great democratic citizens. We aren’t born knowing why everyone should have the right to political speech, even if it is intolerant speech.”
Consider the current events of the last few weeks, he said: the Supreme Court rulings on marriage and the Voting Rights Act, the National Security Administration’s data collection, and Congress debating immigration and student loan rates.
“Our leaders make decisions every day based on interpretations on the proper role of government; we have no way of knowing if these [decisions] are good or bad,” Hale continued. “We are supposed to be masters of our government, not servants of it.”
Cutting the civics tests indicates the government’s priorities, and priorities affect curriculum, Nash noted. He suggested danger for a country that must govern itself if children do not learn how.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
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A Game-Changing Education Book from England

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.
E. D. Hirsch, Jr.

A British schoolteacher, Daisy Christodoulou, has just published a short, pungent e-book called Seven Myths about Education. It’s a must-read for anyone in a position to influence our low-performing public school system. The book’s focus is on British education, but it deserves to be nominated as a “best book of 2013″ on American education, because there’s not a farthing’s worth of difference in how the British and American educational systems are being hindered by a slogan-monopoly of high-sounding ideas–brilliantly deconstructed in this book.
Ms. Christodoulou has unusual credentials. She’s an experienced classroom teacher. She currently directs a non-profit educational foundation in London, and she is a scholar of impressive powers who has mastered the relevant research literature in educational history and cognitive psychology. Her writing is clear and effective. Speaking as a teacher to teachers, she may be able to change their minds. As an expert scholar and writer, she also has a good chance of enlightening administrators, legislators, and concerned citizens.
Ms. Christodoulou believes that such enlightenment is the great practical need these days, because the chief barriers to effective school reform are not the usual accused: bad teacher unions, low teacher quality, burdensome government dictates. Many a charter school in the U.S. has been able to bypass those barriers without being able to produce better results than the regular public schools they were meant to replace. No wonder. Many of these failed charter schools were conceived under the very myths that Ms. Christodoulou exposes. It wasn’t the teacher unions after all! Ms. Christodoulou argues convincingly that what has chiefly held back school achievement and equity in the English-speaking world for the past half century is a set of seductive but mistaken ideas.
She’s right straight down the line. Take the issue of teacher quality. The author gives evidence from her own experience of the ways in which potentially effective teachers have been made ineffective because they are dutifully following the ideas instilled in them by their training institutes. These colleges of education have not only perpetuated wrong ideas about skills and knowledge, but in their scorn for “mere facts” have also deprived these potentially good teachers of the knowledge they need to be effective teachers of subject matter. Teachers who are only moderately talented teacher can be highly effective if they follow sound teaching principles and a sound curriculum within a school environment where knowledge builds cumulatively from year to year.
Here are Ms Christodoulou’s seven myths:
1 – Facts prevent understanding
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive
3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything
4 – You can always just look it up
5 – We should teach transferable skills
6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination
Each chapter follows the following straightforward and highly effective pattern. The “myth” is set forth through full, direct quotations from recognized authorities. There’s no slanting of the evidence or the rhetoric. Then, the author describes concretely from direct experience how the idea has actually worked out in practice. And finally, she presents a clear account of the relevant research in cognitive psychology which overwhelmingly debunks the myth. Ms. Christodoulou writes: “For every myth I have identified, I have found concrete and robust examples of how this myth has influenced classroom practice across England. Only then do I go on to show why it is a myth and why it is so damaging.”

This straightforward organization turns out to be highly absorbing and engaging. Ms. Christodoulou is a strong writer, and for all her scientific punctilio, a passionate one. She is learned in educational history, showing how “21st-century” ideas that invoke Google and the internet are actually re-bottled versions of the late 19th-century ideas which came to dominate British and American schools by the mid-20th century. What educators purvey as brave such as “critical-thinking skills” and “you can always look it up” are actually shopworn and discredited by cognitive science. That’s the characteristic turn of her chapters, done especially effectively in her conclusion when she discusses the high-sounding education-school theme of hegemony:

I discussed the way that many educational theorists used the concept of hegemony to explain the way that certain ideas and practices become accepted by people within an institution. Hegemony is a useful concept. I would argue that the myths I have discussed here are hegemonic within the education system. It is hard to have a discussion about education without sooner or later hitting one of these myths. As theorists of hegemony realise, the most powerful thing about hegemonic ideas is that they seem to be natural common sense. They are just a normal part of everyday life. This makes them exceptionally difficult to challenge, because it does not seem as if there is anything there to challenge. However, as the theorists of hegemony also realised, hegemonic ideas depend on certain unseen processes. One tactic is the suppression of all evidence that contradicts them. I trained as a teacher, taught for three years, attended numerous in-service training days, wrote several essays about education and followed educational policy closely without ever even encountering any of the evidence about knowledge I speak of here, let alone actually hearing anyone advocate it….For three years I struggled to improve my pupils’ education without ever knowing that I could be using hugely more effective methods. I would spend entire lessons quietly observing my pupils chatting away in groups about complete misconceptions and I would think that the problem in the lesson was that I had been too prescriptive. We need to reform the main teacher training and inspection agencies so that they stop promoting completely discredited ideas and give more space to theories with much greater scientific backing.

The book has great relevance to our current moment, when a majority of states have signed up to follow new “Common Core Standards,” comparable in scope to the recent experiment named “No Child Left Behind,” which is widely deemed a failure. If we wish to avoid another one, we will need to heed this book’s message. The failure of NCLB wasn’t in the law’s key provisions that adequate yearly progress in math and reading should occur among all groups, including low-performing ones. The result has been some improvement in math, especially in the early grades, but stasis in most reading scores. In addition, the emphasis on reading tests has caused a neglect of history, civics, science, and the arts.
Ms. Christodoulou’s book indirectly explains these tragic, unintended consequences of NCLB, especially the poor results in reading. It was primarily the way that educators responded to the accountability provisions of NCLB that induced the failure. American educators, dutifully following the seven myths, regard reading as a skill that could be employed without relevant knowledge; in preparation for the tests, they spent many wasted school days on ad hoc content and instruction in “strategies.” If educators had been less captivated by anti-knowledge myths, they could have met the requirements of NCLB, and made adequate yearly progress for all groups. The failure was not in the law but in the myths.

Our educators now stand ready to commit the same mistakes with the Common Core State Standards. Distressed teachers are saying that they are being compelled to engage in the same superficial, content-indifferent activities, given new labels like “text complexity” and “reading strategies.” In short, educators are preparing to apply the same skills-based notions about reading that have failed for several decades.

Of course! They are boxed in by what Ms. Christodoulou calls a “hegemonic” thought system. If our hardworking teachers and principals had known what to do for NCLB– if they had been uninfected by the seven myths–they would have long ago done what is necessary to raise the competencies of all students, and there would not have been a need for NCLB. If the Common Core standards fail as NCLB did, it will not be because the standards themselves are defective. It will be because our schools are completely dominated by the seven myths analyzed by Daisy Christodoulou. This splendid, disinfecting book needs to be distributed gratis to every teacher, administrator, and college of education professor in the U.S. It’s available at Amazon for $9.99 or for free if you have Amazon Prime.

National Writing Board report on the First Paper from China

145K PDF

I. Reading (Sources)
Score: (1-6) Reader One 6 Reader Two 5
Reader One:
Yours is a mature and demanding subject. Your work is both convincing and authoritative, and your research is first class. From Jean Bethke Elshtain onward you cover all the bases in the field of ethics. Your use of primary source material is outstanding. There are flashes of genuine distinction in all you do. Congratulations.
Reader Two:
This paper is based on the author’s reading of an impressive number and quality of sources, 63 (!) of them altogether. ey include writings by Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, and Kant, articles in scholarly journals, and monographs on the subject, such as Michael Doyle’s examination of Kant’s “democratic peace thesis” and, especially, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s scholarship. e bibliography is not in alphabetical order, as it should be.

An Interview with Emma Scoble: Reflecting on The Concord Review

Michael F. Shaughnessy

Emma, first of all tell us about what you are currently, doing, studying, and the like.
I am graduating from high school this week and heading to New York University in the fall. Having gone through the grueling college admissions process and four years of high school, I am dedicating my summer to surfing, reading, and hanging out on the beaches of Santa Cruz…
2) Now, I understand that you were published a while ago in The Concord Review. What was your topic and when did this occur?
My paper on the Broderick-Terry Duel was published in the Spring 2013 Issue of The Concord Review. The Broderick-Terry Duel was a pistol duel in 1859 between U.S. Senator David Broderick and California Supreme Court Justice David Terry. The duel was the culmination of a decade of dramatic and divisive politics in California between the pro and anti-slavery democrats. Broderick’s legacy has been imprinted in history, for his death in the duel reversed the pro-slavery Democrats’ victory in the 1859 statewide elections and ensured that California would remain firmly in the Union.
3) What prompted you to write a major research paper on the topic of your choice?
I was inspired by Colonel Edward Baker’s eulogy for his friend, U.S. Senator David Broderick. One of the finest orators of his time, Baker wrote eloquently about how Broderick stood up to a pro-slavery president as well as the California and national legislatures, and repeatedly, won against all odds. He spoke of Broderick’s conviction and courage, his fight against the pro-slavery movement in California, and of how his unwillingness to cave to injustice ultimately cost him his life. Over one hundred years later, Baker’s words still had the power to move me to tears and compel me to research Broderick’s story and the context of his time.
4) Who helped you? Parents, teachers, principals?
My father is a constant source of information and support. My earliest childhood memories are playing with my doll while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary with my father. As I have grown older, we continue to share a love of history.
5) I understand you have some concerns about the current emphasis on Science, Technology, Electronics and Math. Tell us about your concern?
As was recently stated in The Concord Review’s blog, “The Emerson Prizes lost their funding last year…Intel still has $680,000 in prizes for High School work…” I can attest to the contrast in reception of academic achievement in STEM fields versus the Humanities, even at the small, academically-focused, independent school (The College Preparatory School in Oakland, California) that I attend. This year, one of my classmates received an Intel Award and teachers continually publicly recognize and celebrate her achievement in school assemblies and newsletters, which is entirely appropriate because she did extraordinary work.
However, I told several of my teachers about my paper being published in The Concord Review, an internationally recognized academic journal, and while they congratulated me, neither my published paper, nor my Emerson Prize, was acknowledged in a public forum until the last day of school, as a brief afterthought.
I understand that STEM is currently receiving a lot of attention in the national news because it is closely tied to our economic expansion and workforce. I recall a statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor stated that 5% of the American workforce is employed in a STEM related field while 50% of our economic expansion relies on STEM related professions. Clearly, there is a great demand for talent in STEM fields and we are looking to the next generation of brilliant young minds to fill the gap. However, it is essential that students with an aptitude for the humanities be encouraged as well, for man does not live by science alone.
How bland would life be without literature, history, poetry, and music? How will society advance, if we do not understand who we are and where we have been? We need young people who are gifted in English, History, or Language for our economy, too. Our nation needs teachers, writers, law makers, orators, translators, researchers, etc. We need brilliant minds–period, and academic excellence and achievement should be celebrated and nurtured across all fields.
6) Some people talk about “life changing events.” Do you see getting your paper published as a life changing event?
Being published in The Concord Review was one of the happiest moments of my life. The research that I put into the paper will stay with me forever, for through the course of my writing, Senator Broderick became my personal hero. His character and the life that he led have inspired me to live my life with principle and integrity. Serendipitously, by having my paper published, I met another hero, Mr. Fitzhugh, the founder and editor of The Concord Review.
Although I am only acquainted with him through email correspondence, I greatly admire that he has dedicated his life to advocating for youths and youth education. I follow his blog and posts on The Concord Review’s Facebook page, and although his posts are usually serious, they can also be really funny and sassy.
7) What kind of writing are you doing now?
Poems, love letters, creepy Facebook statuses…In all seriousness, I am hoping to write for NYU’s student newspaper in the fall.
8) What have I neglected to ask?
How is learning to write a history research paper relevant and useful to high school students?
In my opinion, writing a history research paper encompasses all of the skills of the humanities discipline–reading, writing, critical thinking, researching, and understanding a subject within its historical context. These abilities teach and reinforce essential skills for any student’s academic and professional career. Being able to think critically about an event or issue within its context is vital to understanding and solving any kind of problem, and in the modern age of the internet, it is crucial that everyone know how to research and identify credible sources. Furthermore, knowing how to methodically organize and support one’s ideas is key to being able to communicate or argue a point and understanding someone else’s argument.
Outside of the classroom, these skills have enabled me to give back to my community. Currently, I am on the Board of the Oakland Fund for Children and Youth, which guides the allocation of $12-20 million towards programs that serve impoverished and at-risk children and their families. Although I am the youngest on the commission, my vote has equal power, so I take my responsibility seriously. I prepare for each meeting by reading and analyzing briefs, data, and long government documents in order to understand the issues at hand as well as the greater community context.
It is not easy reading, and I have learned that many local and national policy and funding issues are complex and interconnected; but, by treating each meeting’s agenda as a subject to be researched, I am able to contribute to the Board’s discussions at public hearings and make funding recommendations.

The UnCommon Core of Learning: Researching and Writing the Term Paper

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico
1) Will, you have been advocating for the high school term paper for years–why the persistence?
I have worked on The Concord Review for 26 years for several reasons. It pays almost nothing, but we have no children, the house is paid for and my wife has a teacher’s pension. Most of all, I am constantly inspired by the diligent work of high school students from 39 countries on their history research papers. I thought, when I started in 1987, that I would get papers of 4,000, words. But I have been receiving serious readable interesting history research papers of 8,000, 11,000, 13,000 words and more by secondary students, who are often doing independent studies to compete for a place in this unique international journal.
2) I remember with fondness, my term papers in both high school and college–and the feeling of accomplishment I received. Am I alone in this regard?
We did the only study done so far in the United States of the assignment of term paper in U.S. public high schools and about 85% of them never assign even the 4,000-word papers I had hoped for. Most American high school students just don’t do term papers. Teachers say they are too busy, and students are quite reluctant to attempt serious papers on their own, so they arrive in college quite unprepared for college term paper assignments. Many of our authors say that their history papers were the most important and most satisfying work they did in high school.
3) People write and talk about “curriculum issues”–are there any curriculums that you are aware of that focus on library research and writing?
As you know the hottest topic in American education now is “The Common Core Standards,” which are quite explicit in saying over and over that they are “not a curriculum.” They say that nonfiction reading is important, but they recommend no history books, and they say nonfiction writing is important, but they provide no examples, of the kind they might find, for example, in the last 97 issues of The Concord Review. To my mind, the CC initiative is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” as the man said. As you know, by a huge margin, the focus for writing in our schools is on personal and creative writing and the five-paragraph essay, even for high school students.
4) Let’s discuss some of the skills needed to write a good term paper–what would you say they are?
The most important skill or effort that leads to a good term paper is lots and lots of reading. Too often our literacy experts try to force students to write when they have read nothing and really have nothing to say. So the focus becomes the students’ personal life, which is often none of the teachers’ business, and there is little or no effort to have students read history books and learn about something (besides themselves) that would be worth trying hard to write about. Many of our authors learn enough about their topic that they reach a point where they feel that people ought to know about what they have learned–this is great motivation for a good term paper.
5) You have been publishing exemplary high school research papers from around the world for years–how did you get started doing this and why?
I had been teaching for enough years at the public high school in Concord, Massachusetts to earn a sabbatical (1986-1987). That gave me time to read What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know, Horace’s Compromise, Cultural Literacy and some other books and articles that helped me understand that a concern over students’ knowledge of history and their ability to write term papers was not limited to my classroom or even to my school, but was a national issue. I had usually had a few students in my classes who did more work than they had to, and it occurred to me that if I sent out a call for papers (as I did in August, 1987) to every high school in the United States and Canada and 1,500 schools overseas, I might get some first-rate high school history essays sent to me. I did, and I have now been able to publish 1,066 of them in 97 issues of the journal. [Samples at] No one wanted to fund it, so I started The Concord Review with all of an inheritance and the principal from my teacher’s retirement.
6) Has the Internet impacted a high school student’s ability to research? Or is it a different kind of research?
I read history books on my iPad and so can high school history students. I also use the Internet to check facts, and so can students. There is a huge variety of original historical material now available on the Web, as everyone knows, but I would still recommend to students who want to do a serious history research paper that they read a few books and as many articles as they can find on their topic. This will make their paper more worth reading and perhaps worth publishing.
7) It seems that getting a paper into your Concord Review almost always guarantees admission to a top notch college or university–am I off on this?
Thirty percent of our authors have been accepted at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale, but I have to remember that these serious authors doing exemplary papers for my journal are usually also outstanding in many other areas as well. A number of our authors have become doctors as well, but at least at one point in their lives they wrote a great history paper!
8) I was recently on the East Coast and was reading The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. I was astounded by the quality of writing. There are still good writers out there–but do we treasure, promote and encourage good writing?
Those papers can hire a teeny tiny percent of those who want to make a living by their writing, and they provide a great service to the country, but for the vast majority of our high school students, reading and writing are the most dumbed-down parts of their curriculum. Many never get a chance to find out if they could write a serious history paper, because no one ever asks them to try. And remember, we have nationally-televised high school basketball and football games, but no one knows who is published in The Concord Review and they don’t ask to know.
9) What have I neglected to ask?
My greatest complaint these days is that all our EduPundits, it seems, focus their attention on guidelines, standards, principals, teachers, and so on, and pay no attention to the academic work of students. Indiana University recently interviewed 143,000 U.S. high school students, and found that 42.5% do one hour or less a week on homework. But no one mentions that. Our education experts say that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality (and thus all the attention on selection, training, assessment and firing of teachers). I maintain that the most important variable in student academic achievement is student academic work, to which the experts pay no attention at all. But then, most of them have never been teachers, and so they usually do not know what they are talking about.
The Concord Review

How Wisconsin’s Government Is Cheating the State’s Children and Public Schools

Diane Ravitch:

The Forward Institute of Wisconsin released a new study of education policy in the state.
This is a statement made by the Institute’s Chair, Scott Wittkopf:
Wisconsin has always been a leader in K-12 public education because we have long valued the right of every child to receive a quality public education. The fundamental nature of our values is reflected in the State Constitution, which guarantees all children equal access to educational opportunity in our public schools. That constitutional right is now being systematically eroded and defunded. The research presented in this report shows that current fiscal policy and education funding are depriving our poorest students access to a sound public education. Public schools are not failing our children, Wisconsin legislators and policymakers are failing the public schools that serve our children.
Our comprehensive report documents in detail that the resources being afforded schools and students of poverty are insufficient, and facing further reduction. Moreover, the resources being diverted from schools of poverty into non-traditional alternative education programs are producing questionable results with little to no accountability for the state funding they receive.
The following seven points highlight critical findings of our study:

What’s at Stake With Grade Inflation?

Robert Zaretsky

“By the time my students reach my classes, they’ve been deeply handicapped by a secondary-school system that teaches testing, not writing, and a culture that discourages what we once understood to be thinking.”
Truth, we’re told, is the first casualty of war. But as I hunker in my office bunker, the dull thud of history term papers landing on my desk, columns of sleep-deprived and anxiety-ridden students trudging past the door, I’m convinced that truth is also the first casualty of undergraduate paper writing. It is not only the historical truths trampled in the mangled and muddied papers written by my students. More insidiously, a deeper truth also suffers. Only tatters remain of the contract, implicit but immemorial, that teachers will grade student papers fairly and honestly. This shared conviction, that the students’ level of writing can be raised only if the teacher levels with them, now seems a historical artifact.
At the start of the spring semester, as with every semester, I told my students that while this was a history course, the most important thing I could teach them in 15 weeks was not the nature of the French revolutionary tradition, but instead to be better writers. Channeling George Orwell, I told my students that slovenliness of writing leads to foolish thoughts. Referring to France’s “mission civilisatrice,” I declared that to write well is not just a crucial skill: It is also a moral duty. They could not hope to think clearly, I intoned, if they could not write clearly. Failing this, I continued, we will also fail as citizens.
As I climbed into higher dudgeon, I said I would hold them to the highest standards–that if their writing was as sloppy at the end of the semester as it was at the start, I would have failed as a teacher. And…well, you get the idea.
To be honest, I’ve mostly failed. It is not, I think, for want of effort. I urge students to hand in rough drafts. Invariably, few take me up on the offer, and those rough drafts I receive I cover in red ink. As for the first batch of papers, I’m no less generous with corrections and suggestions. And just as my comments are in red, so too is the red line of grades: A’s are rare, C’s are common. I’ve drawn the line, and I mean business!
But, to be honest, I mean mostly funny business. Many of the final papers are as garbled as the first papers. As for the good papers, they are mostly the work of students who knew how to write when they arrived. And yet, an odd alchemy begins to crackle and pop. While the tenor of my comments remains as sharp as ever, the paper grades begin to rise toward the heavens. Or, more accurately, the grading standard–the one supposedly locked in that empyrean place–begins to sink earthward.
This has little to do with the papers, and everything to do with me.
I’ve discovered I’m weaving a fairy tale that will let me sleep at night. Not only must I believe I can repair failing writing skills and push against the tides of an increasingly post-literate popular culture, but I must also believe in my relevance as a teacher. But the future of my relevance is yoked to my students’ immediate pasts in our national high schools. By the time my students reach my classes, they’ve been deeply handicapped by a secondary-school system that teaches testing, not writing, and a culture that discourages what we once understood to be thinking.
Our mad rush to testing is, of course, the perverse consequence of our laudable determination to hold schools responsible for our children’s education. But the tests do little more than transform our schools into educational Potemkin villages. Our administrators affirm the necessity of standards, but when they are not lowering the bar, they are busily stripping from their curricula a sustained and serious apprenticeship in writing. As the graduation rate becomes the bottom line for our high schools, the pressure to pass grows irresistible–this is perhaps the most decisive factor in the “grade” the schools in turn receive every year.
Is there a similar logic at work with university professors? That the “grade” we receive in student evaluations, based on the grades we distribute, determines the making or breaking of our classes? Short of transforming my upper-level history classes into writing-composition courses–a class that my history majors do not need for their major any more than my Ph.D. in history trained me to teach–I become the students’ accomplice, not their instructor, and society’s enabler, not its critic.
Yes, this means that truth is a casualty. But we must not lose sight of who is really suffering: our students. Last year the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its “report card” on the performance in 2011 of our nation’s schools. They are flunking. Less than a quarter of high-school students performed at a proficient level of writing; only 3 percent rose to an advanced level. Increasingly, professors are called upon to teach remedial English, but often in courses based on the student’s ability to write (and read) at a proficient or advanced level. Neither student nor professor is willing to confront that truth, so we join hands in ignoring it.
The result, of course, is not the shattering of the illusions fostered by our testing culture, but their reinforcement. As Orwell sighed, we are all complicit in making lies sound respectable.

Robert Zaretsky, a professor of French history at the University of Houston Honors College, is the author of Albert Camus: Elements of a Life (Cornell University Press, 2010). His next book, A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning, will be published this fall by Harvard University Press.

On Serious Secondary School Scholarship

Patrick Bassett:

I’ve often said that all NAIS schools are “college-prep,” even the early childhood schools like The Children’s School (Connecticut) [age 2 through eighth grade], and the learning differences (LD) schools like Lawrence School (Ohio) [grades K – 12], and scores of other independent schools like them across the country. They, like their more traditional cousins in our membership, are college-prep because parents choose them with college in mind, believing, rightfully, that an independent school with a mission that matches their child’s needs and proclivities will be the surest path to success in secondary school and college. And all of our schools deliver on that expectation.
I’ve also often said that the early childhood programs in NAIS schools and our LD schools (or the LD “schools within a school” in the traditional school model) are often the most innovative, often the first to adopt the new thinking, the new technologies, and the new research (especially on brain-based learning and differentiated instruction). That said, we are collectively, in the independent school world, on the cusp of significant re-engineering of schools, and what it means to be an outstanding place to learn. This is exemplified by Grant Lichtman’s blogs on his journey across America to discover where innovation is sprouting up in independent schools. No better time, no better place for every independent school leader and teacher to think about where, and how, we will innovate at each of our schools.
While “Change is inevitable, growth optional” (John C. Maxwell), I’d like to note that a rapidly changing landscape does not mean that everything old should be subject to change. For me, character first is the defining quality that makes independent schools strong. The founders of the first independent schools in America knew that, as do the founders of our newest schools. For example, the constitutions of both Phillips Academy (Massachusetts) and Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) include a charge to the masters (teachers) exhorting them to attend to the character of their wards: “[T]hough goodness without knowledge (as it respects others) is weak and feeble; yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous; and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.”1 Have truer words ever been spoken? Or clearer insight into what makes great schools and successful (“good and smart”) graduates?
So, character first. And the adults are the moral mentors and models. But for college-prep schools, a second maxim should be “academics second,” meaning what one might call “serious scholarship.” While the means of conducting serious scholarship (video oral histories, crowd-sourcing, data mining via the Internet, etc.) are indeed changing, I like the case made by Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, that serious scholarship in the form of a substantial publication-worthy research paper is the entry ticket for future academic success (and selective college admissions).
The Concord Review, launched by Fitzhugh in 1987, is an excellent periodical of secondary school research in the subject of history. As Fitzhugh is fond of pointing out, The Concord Review is more “selective” than Princeton: one out of 20 submissions to the Review published vs. one out of 19 applicants to Princeton admitted. And the requirements of the paper would be daunting to all but the most ambitious student (typically 4,000 – 6,000 words, but sometimes much longer, 10,000 words or more).2 A quick scan of the research paper titles from the most recent issue of the Review reveals both the most esoteric and fascinating of subjects chosen by these young scholars.
I recommend that all teachers read (and perhaps weep about) any student essay from past Concord Review papers archived on the magazine’s website to find out what serious scholarship at the secondary school level looks, and sounds, like. (In fact, from what my college president colleagues tell me, much college student writing today wouldn’t have a chance of publication in The Concord Review.)

New Science Standards Put Global Warming at Core of Curriculum

Heather Mac Donald

One doesn’t need to be a global-warming skeptic to be appalled by a new set of national K-12 science standards. Those standards, developed by educrats and science administrators, and likely to be adopted initially by up to two dozen states, put the study of global warming and other ways that humans are destroying life as we know it at the very core of science education. This is a political choice, not a scientific one. But the standards are equally troubling in their embrace of the nostrums of progressive pedagogy.
Students educated under the Next Generation Science Standards will begin their lifelong attention to climate change as soon as they enter school. Kindergartners will be expected to “use tools and materials to design and build a structure that will reduce the warming effect of sunlight on an area” (perhaps this is what used to be known as “building a fort”) and “develop understanding of patterns and variations in local weather and the purpose of weather forecasting to prepare for, and respond to, severe weather.” Things get even scarier by the third grade, when students should be asking such questions as: “How can the impact of weather-related hazards be reduced?” The standards don’t mention protesting the Keystone pipeline as a possible “real-world” answer to the question of how to reduce “weather-related hazards,” but rest assured that the graduates of America’s left-wing education schools will not hesitate to include such hands-on learning experiences in their global-warming-politics–oops, make that “science”–classes. By high school, students are squarely in the world of environmental policy-making, expected to “evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.”
Hard as it may be for the groups such the Alliance for Climate Education, a purveyor of climate-change school programs and–surprise!–an enthusiastic backer of the new standards, there really are other important areas of knowledge and concern. As long as we’re picking and choosing among scientific problems, why not start kindergartners thinking about cell mutation or neural pathways so they can fight cancer and Alzheimer’s disease when they grow up?
But even without their preening obsession with climate, biodiversity, and sustainability, the standards are a recipe for further American knowledge decline. The New York Times reports that the standards’ authors anticipate the possible elimination of traditional classes such as biology and chemistry from high school in favor of a more “holistic” approach. This contempt for traditional disciplines has already polluted college education, but it could do far more damage in high school. The disciplines represent real bodies of knowledge that must be mastered before one can begin to be legitimately interdisciplinary.
The standards drearily mimic progressive education’s enthusiasm for “critical-thinking skills.” Fourth-graders sound like veritable geysers of high-level abstract reasoning, expected to “demonstrate grade-appropriate proficiency in asking questions, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, constructing explanations and designing solutions, engaging in argument from evidence, and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information.” I’d be happy if they knew all the planets, continents, major oceans and rivers, and a few galaxies. Such fancy-ancy cognitive talk gives teachers an excuse to gloss over the hard work of knocking concrete facts into their students’ heads–and ignores the truth that mastering such facts can be a source of pleasure and pride.
Chinese students are not flooding into American Ph.D. programs because they have spent their high-school years pondering “a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems,” as the standards propose. They are filling the slots that Americans are unqualified for because they have spent years memorizing the Krebs cycle, the process of meiosis and mitosis, the periodic table, and the laws of thermodynamics and motion. The new science standards guarantee that we will look back on the years when Americans made up a piddling 50 percent of graduate-level science students as the high-water mark of American scientific literacy.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

“Uncommonly Bad” (excerpt)

Jane Robbins – National Association of Scholars Academic Questions, Spring 2013, Volume 26, Number 1

The advent of the Common Core State Standards has prompted a new discussion
about how to produce students who are “college- and career-ready.” But this question differs from the one that governed education throughout most of our history. We used to ask, what should a student know to become an educated citizen? Education would prepare one for college or career, certainly, but, more broadly, for life. What vision of education are we now advancing? As with parents and state legislators, academia has been largely excluded from this discussion…
…Should students read entire books? This is generally unnecessary, apparently, to get the flavor of the work and to have something to think critically about. Will Fitzhugh of The Concord Review notes this truncating feature of Common Core:

“Let us consider saving students more time from their fictional non-informational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the ‘gist’ of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, ‘grist’ for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.”39

A member of the “Implementing Common Core Standards” team at the Center for Teaching Quality argues that excerpts can be as educational as complete works:
“Not every student needs to read every word of every work. We can pull essential excerpts and examine them in small chunks–words, phrases, sentences–asking students to wrestle meaning from the text.”40
It is unclear how students can “wrestle meaning” from “words” or “phrases” wrenched cleanly from their context.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Bend it Like Truman

In the United Kingdom the number of reports of the verbal and physical abuse of teachers is growing at a sad and steady rate. In the United States as well, a number of fine teachers say that they are leaving the profession primarily because of the out-of-control attitudes and behavior of poorly-raised children who will not take any responsibility for their own education and don’t seem to mind if they ruin the educational chances of their peers.
David McCullough tells us that when Harry Truman took over the artillery outfit, Battery ‘D’, “the new captain said nothing for what seemed the longest time. He just stood looking everybody over, up and down the line slowly, several times. Because of their previous (mis) conduct, the men were expecting a tongue lashing. Captain Truman only studied them…At last he called ‘Dismissed!’ As he turned and walked away, the men gave him a Bronx cheer….In the morning Captain Truman posted the names of the noncommissioned officers who were ‘busted’ in rank…the First Sergeant was at the head of the list…Harry called in the other noncommissioned officers and told them it was up to them to straighten things out. ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to get along with me. And if there are any of you who can’t, speak up right now, and I’ll bust you back right now.”
Now, I do realize the classroom is not a military unit, and that students cannot be busted back to a previous grade, however their behavior suggests that they don’t belong in a higher grade. But Truman realized poor discipline would endanger the lives of the men in his unit, and teachers, however much they yearn to be liked, relevant, and even loved, need to realize and accept that poor discipline in their classes will destroy some of the educational opportunities of their students. As it turned out, his unit respected and loved Truman in time, and lined Pennsylvania avenue for his inauguration parade.
For years, the Old Battleaxe was offered as a stereotype of the stern, demanding teacher who represented the expectations of the wider community in the classroom and required students to meet her standards.
In The Lowering of Higher Education, Jackson Toby quotes the experience of one man with an Old Battleaxe:
“Professor Emeritus of Religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, Walter Benjamin, wrote about a demanding freshman English teacher, Dr. Doris Garey, whose course he had taken in 1946, in an article entitled ‘When an ‘A’ Meant Something.’ Professor Benjamin praised the memory of Dr. Garey and expressed gratitude for what her demanding standards had taught him.
‘Even though she had a bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke and a doctorate from Wisconsin, Miss Garey was the low person in the department pecking order. And physically she was a lightweight–she could not have stood more than 4-foot-10 or weighed more than 100 pounds. But she had the pedagogical mass of a Sumo wrestler. Her literary expectations were stratospheric; she was the academic equivalent of my [Marine] boot camp drill instructor…The showboats (other instructors) had long since faded, along with their banter, jokes and easy grades. It was the no-nonsense Miss Garey whose memory endured.'”
In my view, too many of our teachers have been seduced by the ideas that they should be making sure their students have fun, and that their teaching should include “relevant” material from the evanescent present of her students, their egregiously temporary pop culture, and from current events of passing interest.
Once discipline and student responsibility for their own learning is established and understood, there can be a lot of interesting and even entertaining times in the classroom. Without them, classes are in a world of trouble. Samuel Gompers used to read aloud for their enjoyment to a room full of employees making cigars, but they continued to make the cigars while he did it.
In education reform discussions in general, in my view practically all the attention is on what the adults are and/or should be doing, and almost no attention is given to what students are and should be doing. Leaving them out of the equation quite naturally contributes to poor discipline and reduced learning.
A suburban high school English teacher in Pennsylvania wrote that: “My students are out of control,” Munroe, who has taught 10th, 11th and 12th grades, wrote in one post. “They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.” And one of her students commented: “As far as motivated high school students, she’s completely correct. High school kids don’t want to do anything…It’s a teacher’s job, however, to give students the motivation to learn.”
As long as too many of us think education is the teacher’s responsibility alone, we will have failed to understand what the job of learning requires of students, and we will be unable to make sense of the outcomes of our huge investments in education.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

White Wristbands: Wisconsin declares war on Caucasian privilege.

Stefan Kanfer:

Graham Greene’s observation has lost none of its salience in 50 years: innocence remains “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
The latest illustration comes from Wisconsin, where the state’s Department of Public Instruction website devotes a page to “Power and Privilege.” Caucasians who volunteer in the state’s AmeriCorps VISTA antipoverty programs are instructed to “set aside sections of the day to critically examine how privilege works”; “put a note on your mirror or computer screen as a reminder to think about privilege”; and, in order to underline white guilt, “find a person of color who is willing to hold you accountable for addressing privilege.” The site generously provides a link to a “diversity document,” recommending that Caucasians “wear a white wristband as a reminder about your privilege, as well as a personal commitment to explain why you wear the wristband.”

It’s the Students, Stupid

The billionaires’ club, with their long retinue of pundits, researchers, and other hangers-on, are giving their attention, some of the time, to education. But they are not paying attention to the academic work of students, or to their responsibility for their own education.
Mr. Gates spent nearly two hundred million dollars recently on a program for teacher assessment, but does he realize that in almost every class there are students as well, and that they have a lot to say about what the teacher can accomplish?
One pundit came to speak in Boston. When told that lots of good teachers were being driven out of the profession by the absence of discipline among students, he said, “They need better classroom management skills.” I don’t think he had ever “managed” a classroom, but I told him this story:
When Theodore Roosevelt was President, he had a guest one day in the oval office, and his daughter Alice came roaring through the room disturbing everything. The guest said, “Can’t you control Alice?” And Roosevelt said, “I can be President of the United States, or I can control Alice, but not both.”
Lots and lots of teachers have students in their classes who have not been taught by KIPP, to “Work Hard, Be Nice.” Their inability to control themselves and behave with courtesy and respect for their teacher and their fellow students frequently degrades and can even disintegrate the academic integrity of the class, which damages not only their own chance to learn, but prevents all their classmates from learning as well.
In 2004, Paul A. Zoch, a teacher from Texas, wrote in Doomed to Fail (p. 150) that: “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.” Nine years later that remains the problem with the Edupundits and their funders.
Of course, one problem for the edureformers is that you can fire teachers but you can’t fire students. If students fail, largely through their own poor attendance, inattention and destructive behavior in class, we can’t blame them. Only the teachers can be held to account. This is beyond stupid, verging on willful blindness.
The University of Indiana, in its most recent Survey of High School Student Engagement, interviewed 143,052 U.S. high school students and found that 42.5% of them spend an hour or less each week on homework and 82.7% spend five hours or less each week on their homework. The average Korean student spends fifteen hours a week on homework, and that does not include evening hagwon sessions of two or three hours. Can anyone see a difference here? And, by the way, American students spend 53 hours a week playing video games and using other sorts of electronic entertainment.
While they play, and consume expensive products of the technology companies, students in other countries are studying hard, behaving in class, and taking their educational opportunities seriously so they can eat our lunch, which they are starting to do.
But let’s blame the teachers in the United States and ignore what their students are doing, in class and after class. That will work, won’t it?
Of course what teachers and all the other employees of our school systems do is important. But ignoring students and their work, and blaming teachers for poor student academic performance, would be like blaming a trainer if his boxer gets knocked out in the ring, while not noticing that the boxer stands in front of his opponent with his hands at his sides all the time.
We need high academic achievement, but we will not get it by blaming teachers and driving them out of the profession, while not noticing that students have an important, and even crucial, responsibility for their own learning.
Ignoring the role of our students in their own education, which at the “highest” levels of funded programs we do, is not only dumb, it will virtually consign all the other efforts to failure. Think about it.
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

Citizens Against Corporate Collusion in Education (CACCE)

As American parents, students, educators, and concerned citizens, we are united in opposition to the agenda of those corporate, foundation, and government interests that seek to influence local district boards of education, state boards of education, state governments, governors, and the Office of the Secretary of Education. This agenda calls for standardization of national curricula in the form of the Common Core Standards mandated in the Federal initiative “Race to the Top,” data-driven assessments of students and teachers, and the creation and implementation of standardized discrete item testing to measure compliance to the Common Core Standards. The president of the College Board’s recent announcement that a new SAT will be created to measure Common Core Standards skills proficiency also alarms us. In addition, the Secretary of Education’s former press secretary has recently used the “revolving door” of public office to acquire a job with a company that is related to Pearson LLC.
We demand transparency and public accountability for decisions that are being made on the above issues without open hearings or public debate on the influence of corporate lobbying and marketing at local, state, and federal levels. We strongly suspect the existence of quid pro quo understandings between the current Secretary of Education and Bill Gates, The Bill and Melina Gates Foundation, The College Board and David Coleman, The Educational Testing Service (ETS), and Pearson Education LLC that amount to collusion between a Federal Public servant(s) and corporate interests that appear to be working together to limit competition in an open marketplace.
We therefore resolve:
1) That State Attorneys General investigate possible quid pro quo agreements between the above parties and members of state boards of education and commissioners,
2) That State Attorneys General investigate lobbying of the above parties to determine whether bribery laws have been violated,
3) That all state governments conduct investigations of the contributions of Pearson LLC, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Students First Foundation to local school board elections and the elections or appointments of state education commissioners and state boards of education,
4) And that each state file a complaint with the Anti-Trust Division of the Department of Justice in Washington preliminary to discovery of evidence of possible collusion of the above parties.
5) We call for a Joint House-Senate Committee to be formed to investigate possible collusion and influence peddling between the above parties.
6) We call for the Attorney General of the United States to select an independent prosecutor to investigate the possibility of quid pro quo dealings and collusion between the parties above.
7) We understand that the Tunney Act does not apply to this case and we argue that is precisely why collusion is involved, to avoid merger or the appearance of merger that would trigger a court hearing.
8) We strongly recommend that the Special Prosecutor (6) investigate all contracts let by the Department of Education to Pearson Education LLC.
9) We strongly recommend that all State Attorneys General investigate all state contracts let by Pearson LLC.
Read more, here.
Paul Horton
State Liaison
Illinois Council for History Education
History Instructor
University High School
The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools

Driven to Distraction

“We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”–George Orwell
While we spend billions on standards for skill-building and the assessment of skills, we don’t seem to notice that our students, in general, are not doing any academic work. This assumes that there is a connection between the academic work of students and their academic achievement, but for most of those who study and comment on education that link seems not to be apparent.
The Kaiser Foundation reported in January 2010, that:
Over the past five years, there has been a huge increase in media use among young people. Five years ago, we reported that young people spent an average of nearly 61/2 hours (6:21) a day with media–and managed to pack more than 81/2 hours (8:33) worth of media content into that time by multitasking. At that point it seemed that young people’s lives were filled to the bursting point with media. Today, however, those levels of use have been shattered. Over the past five years, young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from 6:21 to 7:38–almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day, except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five. [53 hours a week]
If our students spend that much time, in addition to sports, being with friends, and other activities, like sleep, when do they do their academic work?
Indiana University’ High School Survey of Student Engagement found most recently that:
Among (U.S.) Public High School students:
82.7% spend 2-5 hours a week on homework.
42.5% spend an hour or less each week on their homework.
This may help to explain how they manage to free up 53 hours a week to play with electronic entertainment media, but is there any effect of such low academic expectations on our students’ engagement with the educational enterprise we provide for them?
Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education reported on January 7th of this year that:
Gallup research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. We found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged. Our educational system sends students and our country’s future over the school cliff every year.
The statement of the obvious which applies here would seem to be that we have driven our high school students to distraction, by asking them to do little or no homework and by spending billions of dollars to lead them to prefer electronic entertainment media to the academic work on which their futures depend.
On June 3, 1990, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in his regular New York Times column that:
As we’ve known for a long time, factory workers who never saw the completed product and worked on only a small part of it soon became bored and demoralized. But when they were allowed to see the whole process–or better yet become involved with it–productivity and morale improved. Students are no different. When we chop up the work they do into little bits–history facts and vocabulary and grammar rules to be learned–it’s no wonder they are bored and disengaged. The achievement of The Concord Review’s authors offers a different model of learning. Maybe it’s time to take it seriously.
Despite my own bias for having students read history books and write history research papers, I think it may be argued that if we give students nothing to do academically, we clearly contribute to the disengagement which we now find.
If we don’t take their academic work seriously, neither will they. What we take seriously we have a chance of doing well, and when we don’t take something seriously, we have little chance of achievement there. Verbum Sap.
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

The School Cliff: A Clue from Shanker?

Albert Shanker, New York Times, 1990:

“As we’ve known for a long time, factory workers who never saw the completed product and worked on only a small part of it soon became bored and demoralized, But when they were allowed to see the whole process–or better yet become involved in it–productivity and morale improved. Students are no different. When we chop up the work they do into little bits–history facts and vocabulary and grammar rules to be learned–it’s no wonder that they are bored and disengaged. The achievement of The Concord Review’s authors offers a different model of learning. Maybe it’s time for us to take it seriously.”

Graphic via the Gallup Blog.

THE SIX/FORTY-ONE/SIX Weekly Reading Plan for American Students

Carol Jago, Past President of NCTE, and Will Fitzhugh, penniless drudge at The Concord Review,
ARE pleased (proud, humble, thrilled, inspired, excited, etc.)
Their innovative, new, exciting, transformative, breakthrough:
THE SIX/FORTY-ONE/SIX Weekly Reading Plan for American Students
The Kaiser Foundation finds that Americans 8-18 spend 53 hours
a week (A WEEK) with electronic entertainment media.
Jago and Fitzhugh propose a bold new initiative, potentially in collaboration
with CCSSO, NGA, the College Board, NASSP, the Department of Education,
and others, which will ask students to spend SIX HOURS a week reading
a novel, SIX HOURS a week reading a history book, and that will still leave
them Forty-One HOURS a Week, or nearly six hours each day, for their electronic
entertainment media…
It could be called the 41/6/6/ Plan or the 6/6/41 Plan if either would appeal more to the media
covering this transformative and bold new and exciting innovative initiative.
Tweets and other comments on this exciting new initiative welcomed.
Will Fitzhugh

The Mind of Students

What is on the minds of our students? We mostly have no idea. The Edupundits all seem to agree that the most important variable in student academic achievement is teacher quality. But isn’t the most important variable in student academic achievement really student academic work in the end?
The teacher can know a lot about her subject, can speak well, tell wonderful stories, have good control over the class, and so on, but if the student is thinking about something else, what is the result?
I have known first-rate teachers whose students didn’t do any work academically and mediocre teachers who had some students who achieved a lot academically.
All those hundreds of people spending many millions of dollars and countless months of effort on teacher assessment never seem to wonder what is going on in the minds of our students in a given class. How many times has an evaluator, visiting a class to judge the work of a teacher, ever thought to ask a few students, in those moments, what they know about the current subject, or even what they are thinking about at the time?
The Hindus say the mind is like a drunken monkey, and even a sober mind is pulled in many directions at once, by memories, worries, ideas, desires, impressions of all kinds, and even, occasionally, by the subject matter of the class the student is sitting in. But the point is that while we are teaching, even though we may get a student question from time to time, or we may ask a student for a comment from time to time, during the vast majority of the time we spend teaching, we have not the slightest insight into what is occupying the minds of almost all of our students while we are teaching our brains out.
A recent study found (mirabile dictu) that students who don’t come to class learn less than students who do. But the fact is that even when students do come to class, their attention and their minds may very well be absent from class. There are countless objects of interest to distract the minds of students from the current work of any class as presented by the teacher.
This is not to say that wonderful teachers cannot draw and hold the attention of almost all the students in their class for amazingly long stretches. But students have many concerns, both personal and academic. Not only the next athletic event, or personal relationship, but even the subject matter of the next class or the last class may occupy the minds of some or many of our students while we teach.
Teaching and learning are at least as subtle and complex as brain surgery, and the surgeon has one single anaesthetized patient, and the help of four or five other professionals, while the teacher may have thirty conscious high school students and no one to watch for signs of student distraction, if any…As every teacher knows it is ridiculously easy for a student to show every sign of serious attention while their mind is actually kilometers away on some other matter entirely.
Stitching knowledge and ideas into the existing mental and memory frameworks of students is a lot more difficult and intricate an undertaking than most of those designing teacher assessment projects even want to think about, but it is the actual daily venture of our teachers.
My main interest and experience are with history at the high school level, so I am not sure what bearing my suggestions would have for calculus, chemistry, or Chinese language courses. But I believe that the attention of our history students can be captured and rewarded by asking them to read at least one good complete history book each year, and to write one serious Extended Essay-type history research paper each year while they are in high school.
If they read and report on a good history book, the chances are that they will have given it their attention, and learned some history from it. If they write a 6,000-word history research paper (and I am regularly publishing 8,000-15,000-word papers by secondary students from 46 states and beyond), they will clearly have had to give the historical subject of their research their attention, and they will have learned some history (see: student academic achievement) in the process.
Of course, we should continue to try to recruit and retain the top 5% of college graduates as our school teachers, and we should encourage them to teach their hearts out. But unless we begin to look more closely in an effort to discover what, academically, is going on in the minds of students, we will continue to ignore the main engines of academic work in our schools. I hope one or two of our more elite and well-funded Edupundits may give this idea a passing thought or two.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Common Core: The Totalitarian Temptation

Jonah Goldberg
Liberal Fascism
New York: Doubleday, 2007, pp. 326-327
…Progressive education has two parents, Prussia and John Dewey. The kindergarten was transplanted into the United States from Prussia in the nineteenth century because American reformers were so enamored of the order and patriotic indoctrination young children received outside the home (the better to weed out the un-American traits of immigrants). One of the core tenets of the early kindergarten was the dogma that “the government is the true parent of the children, the state is sovereign over the family.” The progressive followers of John Dewey expanded this program to make public schools incubators of a national religion. They discarded the militaristic rigidity of the Prussian model, but retained the aim of indoctrinating children. The methods were informal, couched in the sincere desire to make learning “fun,” “relevant,” and “empowering.” The self-esteem obsession that saturates our schools today harks back to the Deweyan reforms from before World War II. But beneath the individualist rhetoric lies a mission for democratic social justice, a mission Dewey himself defined as a religion. For other progressives, capturing children in schools was part of the larger effort to break the backbone of the nuclear family, the institution most resistant to political indoctrination.
National Socialist educators had a similar mission in mind. And as odd as it might seem, they also discarded the Prussian discipline of the past and embraced self-esteem and empowerment in the name of social justice. In the early days of the Third Reich, grade-schoolers burned their multicolored caps in a protest against class distinctions. Parents complained, “We no longer have rights over our children.” According to the historian Michael Burleigh, “Their children became strangers, contemptuous of monarchy or religion, and perpetually barking and shouting like pint-sized Prussian sergeant-majors…Denunciation of parents by children was encouraged, not least by schoolteachers who set essays entitled ‘What does your family talk about at home?'”
Now, the liberal project Hillary Clinton represents is in no way a Nazi project. The last thing she would want is to promote ethnic nationalism, anti-Semitism, or aggressive wars of conquest. But it must be kept in mind that while these things were of enormous importance to Hitler and his ideologues, they were in an important sense secondary to the underlying mission and appeal of Nazism, which was to create a new politics and a new nation committed to social justice, radical egalitarianism (albeit for “true Germans”), and the destruction of the traditions of the old order. So while there are light-years of distance between the programs of liberals and those of Nazis or Italian Fascists or even the nationalist progressives of yore, the underlying impulse, the totalitarian temptation, is present in both.
The Chinese Communists under Mao pursued the Chinese way, the Russians under Stalin followed their own version of communism in one state. But we are still comfortable observing that they were both communist nations. Hitler wanted to wipe out the Jews; Mussolini wanted no such thing. And yet we are comfortable calling both fascists. Liberal fascists don’t want to mimic generic fascists or communists in myriad ways, but they share a sweeping vision of social justice and community and the need for the state to realize that vision. In short, collectivists of all stripes share the same totalitarian temptation to create a politics of meaning; what differs between them–and this is the most crucial difference of all–is how they act upon that temptation.

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Abolish Social Studies

Michael Knox Beran, via Will Fitzhugh:

Emerging as a force in American education a century ago, social studies was intended to remake the high school. But its greatest effect has been in the elementary grades, where it has replaced an older way of learning that initiated children into their culture [and their History?] with one that seeks instead to integrate them into the social group. The result was a revolution in the way America educates its young. The old learning used the resources of culture to develop the child’s individual potential; social studies, by contrast, seeks to adjust him to the mediocrity of the social pack.
Why promote the socialization of children at the expense of their individual development? A product of the Progressive era, social studies ripened in the faith that regimes guided by collectivist social policies could dispense with the competitive striving of individuals and create, as educator George S. Counts wrote, “the most majestic civilization ever fashioned by any people.” Social studies was to mold the properly socialized citizens of this grand future. The dream of a world regenerated through social planning faded long ago, but social studies persists, depriving children of a cultural rite of passage that awakened what Coleridge called “the principle and method of self-development” in the young.
The poverty of social studies would matter less if children could make up its cultural deficits in English [and History?] class. But language instruction in the elementary schools has itself been brought into the business of socializing children and has ceased to use the treasure-house of culture to stimulate their minds. As a result, too many students today complete elementary school with only the slenderest knowledge of a culture that has not only shaped their civilization but also done much to foster individual excellence.
In 1912, the National Education Association, today the largest labor union in the United States, formed a Committee on the Social Studies. In its 1916 report, The Social Studies in Secondary Education, the committee opined that if social studies (defined as studies that relate to “man as a member of a social group”) took a place in American high schools, students would acquire “the social spirit,” and “the youth of the land” would be “steadied by an unwavering faith in humanity.” This was an allusion to the “religion of humanity” preached by the French social thinker Auguste Comte, who believed that a scientifically trained ruling class could build a better world by curtailing individual freedom in the name of the group. In Comtian fashion, the committee rejected the idea that education’s primary object was the cultivation of the individual intellect. “Individual interests and needs,” education scholar Ronald W. Evans writes in his book The Social Studies Wars, were for the committee “secondary to the needs of society as a whole.”
The Young Turks of the social studies movement, known as “Reconstructionists” because of their desire to remake the social order, went further. In the 1920s, Reconstructionists like Counts and Harold Ordway Rugg argued that high schools should be incubators of the social regimes of the future. Teachers would instruct students to “discard dispositions and maxims” derived from America’s “individualistic” ethos, wrote Counts. A professor in Columbia’s Teachers College and president of the American Federation of Teachers, Counts was for a time enamored of Joseph Stalin. After visiting the Soviet Union in 1929, he published A Ford Crosses Soviet Russia, a panegyric on the Bolsheviks’ “new society.” Counts believed that in the future, “all important forms of capital” would “have to be collectively owned,” and in his 1932 essay “Dare the Schools Build a New Social Order?,” he argued that teachers should enlist students in the work of “social regeneration.”
Like Counts, Rugg, a Teachers College professor and cofounder of the National Council for the Social Studies, believed that the American economy was flawed because it was “utterly undesigned and uncontrolled.” In his 1933 book The Great Technology, he called for the “social reconstruction” and “scientific design” of the economy, arguing that it was “now axiomatic that the production and distribution of goods can no longer be left to the vagaries of chance–specifically to the unbridled competitions of self-aggrandizing human nature.” There “must be central control and supervision of the entire [economic] plant” by “trained and experienced technical personnel.” At the same time, he argued, the new social order must “socialize the vast proportion” of wealth and outlaw the activities of “middlemen” who didn’t contribute to the “production of true value.”
Rugg proposed “new materials of instruction” that “shall illustrate fearlessly and dramatically the inevitable consequence of the lack of planning and of central control over the production and distribution of physical things. . . . We shall disseminate a new conception of government–one that will embrace all of the collective activities of men; one that will postulate the need for scientific control and operation of economic activities in the interest of all people; and one that will successfully adjust the psychological problems among men.”
Rugg himself set to work composing the “new materials of instruction.” In An Introduction to Problems of American Culture, his 1931 social studies textbook for junior high school students, Rugg deplored the “lack of planning in American life”:
“Repeatedly throughout this book we have noted the unplanned character of our civilization. In every branch of agriculture, industry, and business this lack of planning reveals itself. For instance, manufacturers in the United States produce billions’ of dollars worth of goods without scientific planning. Each one produces as much as he thinks he can sell, and then each one tries to sell more than his competitors. . . . As a result, hundreds of thousands of owners of land, mines, railroads, and other means of transportation and communication, stores, and businesses of one kind or another, compete with one another without any regard for the total needs of all the people. . . . This lack of national planning has indeed brought about an enormous waste in every outstanding branch of industry. . . . Hence the whole must be planned.
Rugg pointed to Soviet Russia as an example of the comprehensive control that America needed, and he praised Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, which resulted in millions of deaths from famine and forced labor. The “amount of coal to be mined each year in the various regions of Russia,”
Rugg told the junior high schoolers reading his textbook,
“is to be planned. So is the amount of oil to be drilled, the amount of wheat, corn, oats, and other farm products to be raised. The number and size of new factories, power stations, railroads, telegraph and telephone lines, and radio stations to be constructed are planned. So are the number and kind of schools, colleges, social centers, and public buildings to be erected. In fact, every aspect of the economic, social, and political life of a country of 140,000,000 people is being carefully planned! . . . The basis of a secure and comfortable living for the American people lies in a carefully planned economic life.”
During the 1930s, tens of thousands of American students used Rugg’s social studies textbooks.
Toward the end of the decade, school districts began to drop Rugg’s textbooks because of their socialist bias. In 1942, Columbia historian Allan Nevins further undermined social studies’ premises when he argued in The New York Times Magazine that American high schools were failing to give students a “thorough, accurate, and intelligent knowledge of our national past–in so many ways the brightest national record in all world history.” Nevins’s was the first of many critiques that would counteract the collectivist bias of social studies in American high schools, where “old-fashioned” history classes have long been the cornerstone of the social studies curriculum.
Yet possibly because school boards, so vigilant in their superintendence of the high school, were not sure what should be done with younger children, social studies gained a foothold in the primary school such as it never obtained in the secondary school. The chief architect of elementary school social studies was Paul Hanna, who entered Teachers College in 1924 and fell under the spell of Counts and Rugg. “We cannot expect economic security so long as the [economic] machine is conceived as an instrument for the production of profits for private capital rather than as a tool functioning to release mankind from the drudgery of work,” Hanna wrote in 1933.
Hanna was no less determined than Rugg to reform the country through education. “Pupils must be indoctrinated with a determination to make the machine work for society,” he wrote. His methods, however, were subtler than Rugg’s. Unlike Rugg’s textbooks, Hanna’s did not explicitly endorse collectivist ideals. The Hanna books contain no paeans to central planning or a command economy. On the contrary, the illustrations have the naive innocence of the watercolors in Scott Foresman’s Dick and Jane readers. The books depict an idyllic but familiar America, rich in material goods and comfortably middle-class; the fathers and grandfathers wear suits and ties and white handkerchiefs in their breast pockets.
Not only the pictures but the lessons in the books are deceptively innocuous. It is in the back of the books, in the notes and “interpretive outlines,” that Hanna smuggles in his social agenda by instructing teachers how each lesson is to be interpreted so that children learn “desirable patterns of acting and reacting in democratic group living.” A lesson in the second-grade text Susan’s Neighbors at Work, for example, which describes the work of police officers, firefighters, and other public servants, is intended to teach “concerted action” and “cooperation in obeying commands and well-thought-out plans which are for the general welfare.” A lesson in Tom and Susan, a first-grade text, about a ride in grandfather’s red car is meant to teach children to move “from absorption in self toward consideration of what is best in a group situation.” Lessons in Peter’s Family, another first-grade text, seek to inculcate the idea of “socially desirable” work and “cooperative labor.”
Hanna’s efforts to promote “behavior traits” conducive to “group living” would be less objectionable if he balanced them with lessons that acknowledge the importance of ideals and qualities of character that don’t flow from the group–individual exertion, liberty of action, the necessity at times of resisting the will of others. It is precisely Coleridge’s principle of individual “self-development” that is lost in Hanna’s preoccupation with social development. In the Hanna books, the individual is perpetually sunk in the impersonality of the tribe; he is a being defined solely by his group obligations. The result is distorting; the Hanna books fail to show that the prosperous America they depict, if it owes something to the impulse to serve the community, owes as much, or more, to the free striving of individuals pursuing their own ends.
Hanna’s spirit is alive and well in the American elementary school. Not only Scott Foresman but other big scholastic publishers–among them Macmillan/McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–publish textbooks that dwell continually on the communal group and on the activities that people undertake for its greater good. Lessons from Scott Foresman’s second-grade textbook Social Studies: People and Places (2003) include “Living in a Neighborhood,” “We Belong to Groups,” “A Walk Through a Community,” “How a Community Changes,” “Comparing Communities,” “Services in Our Community,” “Our Country Is Part of Our World,” and “Working Together.” The book’s scarcely distinguishable twin, Macmillan/McGraw-Hill’s We Live Together (2003), is suffused with the same group spirit. Macmillan/McGraw-Hill’s textbook for third-graders, Our Communities (2003), is no less faithful to the Hanna model. The third-grade textbooks of Scott Foresman and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (both titled Communities) are organized on similar lines, while the fourth-grade textbooks concentrate on regional communities. Only in the fifth grade is the mold shattered, as students begin the sequential study of American history; they are by this time in sight of high school, where history has long been paramount.

Today’s social studies textbooks will not turn children into little Maoists. The group happy-speak in which they are composed is more fatuous than polemical; Hanna’s Reconstructionist ideals have been so watered down as to be little more than banalities. The “ultimate goal of the social studies,” according to Michael Berson, a coauthor of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt series, is to “instigate a response that spreads compassion, understanding, and hope throughout our nation and the global community.” Berson’s textbooks, like those of the other publishers, are generally faithful to this flabby, attenuated Comtism.
Yet feeble though the books are, they are not harmless. Not only do they do too little to acquaint children with their culture’s ideals of individual liberty and initiative; they promote the socialization of the child at the expense of the development of his own individual powers. The contrast between the old and new approaches is nowhere more evident than in the use that each makes of language. The old learning used language both to initiate the child into his culture and to develop his mind. Language and culture are so intimately related that the Greeks, who invented Western primary education, used the same word to designate both: paideia signifies both culture and letters (literature). The child exposed to a particular language gains insight into the culture that the language evolved to describe–for far from being an artifact of speech only, language is the master light of a people’s thought, character, and manners. At the same time, language–particularly the classic and canonical utterances of a people, its primal poetry–[and its History?] has a unique ability to awaken a child’s powers, in part because such utterances, Plato says, sink “furthest into the depths of the soul.”
Social studies, because it is designed not to waken but to suppress individuality, shuns all but the most rudimentary and uninspiring language. Social studies textbooks descend constantly to the vacuity of passages like this one, from People and Places:
“Children all around the world are busy doing the same things. They love to play games and enjoy going to school. They wish for peace. They think that adults should take good care of the Earth. How else do you think these children are like each other? How else do you think they are like you?”
The language of social studies is always at the same dead level of inanity. There is no shadow or mystery, no variation in intensity or alteration of pitch–no romance, no refinement, no awe or wonder. A social studies textbook is a desert of linguistic sterility supporting a meager scrub growth of commonplaces about “community,” “neighborhood,” “change,” and “getting involved.” Take the arid prose in Our Communities:
“San Antonio, Texas, is a large community. It is home to more than one million people, and it is still growing. People in San Antonio care about their community and want to make it better. To make room for new roads and houses, many old trees must be cut down. People in different neighborhoods get together to fix this by planting.”
It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay [History] and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.
McGuffey adapted to American conditions some of the educational techniques that were first developed by the Greeks. In fifth-century BC Athens, the language of Homer and a handful of other poets formed the core of primary education. With the emergence of Rome, Latin became the principal language of Western culture and for centuries lay at the heart of primary- and grammar-school education. McGuffey had himself received a classical education, but conscious that nineteenth-century America was a post-Latin culture, he revised the content of the old learning even as he preserved its underlying technique of using language as an instrument of cultural initiation and individual self-development. He incorporated, in his Readers, not canonical Latin texts but classic specimens of English prose and poetry [and History].
Because the words of the Readers bit deep–deeper than the words in today’s social studies textbooks do–they awakened individual potential. The writer Hamlin Garland acknowledged his “deep obligation” to McGuffey “for the dignity and literary grace of his selections. From the pages of his readers I learned to know and love the poems of Scott, Byron, Southey, and Words- worth and a long line of the English masters. I got my first taste of Shakespeare from the selected scenes which I read in these books.” Not all, but some children will come away from a course in the old learning stirred to the depths by the language of Blake or Emerson. But no student can feel, after making his way through the groupthink wastelands of a social studies textbook, that he has traveled with Keats in the realms of gold.
It might be objected that primers like the McGuffey Readers were primarily intended to instruct children in reading and writing, something that social studies doesn’t pretend to do. In fact, the Readers, like other primers of the time, were only incidentally language manuals. Their foremost function was cultural: they used language both to introduce children to their cultural heritage [including their History] and to stimulate their individual self-culture. The acultural, group biases of social studies might be pardonable if cultural learning continued to have a place in primary-school English instruction. But primary-school English–or “language arts,” as it has come to be called–no longer introduces children, as it once did, to the canonical language of their culture; it is not uncommon for public school students today to reach the fifth grade without having encountered a single line of classic English prose or poetry. Language arts has become yet another vehicle for the socialization of children. A recent article by educators Karen Wood and Linda Bell Soares in The Reading Teacher distills the essence of contemporary language-arts instruction, arguing that teachers should cultivate not literacy in the classic sense but “critical literacy,” a “pedagogic approach to reading that focuses on the political, sociocultural, and economic forces that shape young students’ lives.”
For educators devoted to the social studies model, the old learning is anathema precisely because it liberates individual potential. It releases the “powers of a young soul,” the classicist educator Werner Jaeger wrote, “breaking down the restraints which hampered it, and leading into a glad activity.” The social educators have revised the classic ideal of education expressed by Pindar: “Become what you are” has given way to “Become what the group would have you be.” Social studies’ verbal drabness is the means by which its contrivers starve the self of the sustenance that nourishes individual growth. A stunted soul can more easily be reduced to an acquiescent dullness than a vital, growing one can; there is no readier way to reduce a people to servile imbecility than to cut them off from the traditions of their language [and their History], as the Party does in George Orwell’s 1984.
Indeed, today’s social studies theorists draw on the same social philosophy that Orwell feared would lead to Newspeak. The Social Studies Curriculum: Purposes, Problems, and Possibilities, a 2006 collection of articles by leading social studies educators, is a socialist smorgasbord of essays on topics like “Marxism and Critical Multicultural Social Studies” and “Decolonizing the Mind for World-Centered Global Education.” The book, too, reveals the pervasive influence of Marxist thinkers like Peter McLaren, a professor of urban schooling at UCLA who advocates “a genuine socialist democracy without market relations,” venerates Che Guevara as a “secular saint,” and regards the individual “self” as a delusion, an artifact of the material “relations which produced it”–“capitalist production, masculinist economies of power and privilege, Eurocentric signifiers of self/other identifications,” all the paraphernalia of bourgeois imposture. For such apostles of the social pack, Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Milton’s and Tennyson’s “soul within,” Spenser’s “my self, my inward self I mean,” and Wordsworth’s aspiration to be “worthy of myself” are expressions of naive faith in a thing that dialectical materialism has revealed to be an accident of matter, a random accumulation of dust and clay.
The test of an educational practice is its power to enable a human being to realize his own promise in a constructive way. Social studies fails this test. Purge it of the social idealism that created and still inspires it, and what remains is an insipid approach to the cultivation of the mind, one that famishes the soul even as it contributes to what Pope called the “progress of dulness.” It should be abolished.


Since the disaster of the Marxist/Victims-history standards produced by UCLA in 1996, which were censured by a vote of 99-1 in the United States Senate, (the one negative voter thought the “standards” were even worse), History has become, in the comment this year of David Steiner, former Commissioner of Education in New York State, “so politically toxic that no one wants to touch it.”
This situation has developed in part because every tiny little multicultural group in the country is outraged if their history does not receive equal (or better) treatment in any history textbook, and in part because the late Howard Zinn’s proudly Marxist textbook of United States History has sold more than 2 million copies (not bad for an anti-capitalist who believed “private property is theft”).
Most of those who write about the dashing new nonfiction reading suggestions of the Common Core lament the altered and unreasonable burdens on English teachers, and they all seem to have forgotten that most of our high schools have both History departments and History teachers as well. But it seems to be inconceivable and unmentionable that our History teachers might dare to assign history books (nonfiction) and history research papers (nonfiction writing).
The story of how all reading and writing became the complete monopoly of the English Departments is surely a long and complicated one, but however it developed, it seems clear that our History departments have given away any responsibility for assigning books and research papers they may once have owned to the English teachers.
In an October 24, 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal, Michael S. Malone argues that even tech company CEOs are now looking for people who can tell stories (about their enterprise, their product, etc.), and so Mr. Malone of course looks to the English departments to offer the needed expertise in storytelling:
“Could the humanities rebuild the shattered bridge between C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” and find a place at the heart of the modern world’s virtual institutions? We assume that this will be a century of technology. But if the competition in tech moves to this new battlefield, the edge will go to those institutions that can effectively employ imagination, metaphor, and most of all, storytelling. And not just creative writing, but every discipline in the humanities, from the classics to rhetoric to philosophy. Twenty-first-century storytelling: multimedia, mass customizable, portable and scalable, drawing upon the myths and archetypes of the ancient world, on ethics, and upon a deep understanding of human nature and even religious faith.
The demand is there, but the question is whether the traditional humanities can furnish the supply. If they can’t or won’t, they will continue to wither away. But surely there are risk-takers out there in those English and classics departments, ready to leap on this opportunity. They’d better hurry, because the other culture won’t wait.”
Where did we lose the understanding that History is all storytelling, with the additional benefit that it is based on evidence, which is not always so important with fiction? Mr. Malone mentions English and classics departments (“classics to rhetoric to philosophy”), but perhaps for him History has lost its membership in the Humanities? He wants “imagination, metaphor and most of all, storytelling…and myths and archetypes of the ancient world,” but he leaves unmentioned the sources of the greatest true stories (nonfiction) ever told in the world–our Historians.
Nevertheless, he is in the mainstream of those who, when asked to think, talk and write about reading and writing in the schools, faithfully and regularly default to the work of the English department and its wonderful world of fiction as the only place to introduce nonfiction!
When did the ideas of having our high school students read an actual complete history book or two and write an actual history research paper or two disappear into the woodwork? The result is that our students arrive in college poorly prepared to read nonfiction books and to write the required term papers, not to mention their inability to do any research.
Neil Postman tells us that “Cicero remarked that the purpose of education is to free the student from the tyranny of the present.” That freedom seems more and more out of reach among those who cannot even think about History, which has made History the most unmentionable among all the necessary academic subjects in our schools.

The Chosun News; Seoul, South Korea; 19 November 2012: “For College and Jobs, Practice your Non-fiction Writing skills”

“The Secrets to Good Writing” from the editor of The Concord Review [TCR]
Increase time spent on research, hone the quality of your writing
Stay away from “How to Write Well” books
Serious writing is no longer the specialty of a scholar. Ever since writing essays have become an important part of the college admission process, high schools have become in the grip of “writing fever.” Also known as the “Olympiad of History,” TCR is the first organization to put the publication of high school students’ essays into practice. Since 1987, TCR has published history papers by 1044 students in 39 countries around the world. Of all the participants, 36% (371) of them have been admitted to an Ivy League university. The rest have been admitted to Stanford, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge. Delicious Study held an interview on November 12th with Mr. Will Fitzhugh, the founder of TCR, and two students, Han Jae Hyuk (Seoul International School, Senior) and Lee Seon Woo (Asia Pacific International School, Sophomore), who are preparing for applying to colleges in the States. With the invitation from the Asian representative of TCR, Caroline Lee, Mr. Fitzhugh visited Korea for the first time. The following article describes what Mr. Fitzhugh had told the students about “Writing for College.”
The Quality of Writing comes from the Strong Facts
For each issue of The Concord Review, Mr. Fitzhugh reads at least 140 essays every 3 months. His “criteria for a good paper” were rather simple. “An interesting history paper is a good paper. However, for a paper to be enjoyable to read, the writer must have a genuine interest in the topic. In essays, for example, an interesting work has both a unique stance on a topic and a solid support of evidence. No matter how original one’s perspective is, without evidence, the essay is empty. It’s rare to find sources of evidence that fit perfectly with your interpretations. In fact, some students who have published essays in TCR have spent 18 months writing the essay. Had these students not been interested in what they were writing, they could not have put in such an effort.”
Then, Lee Sun Woo pointed out a difficulty many students faced: “Even with interest in a topic, it can be difficult to connect that to a topic one can write about.” Mr. Fitzhugh responded with an anecdote. “A student in an international school in Hong Kong sent an essay about the Needham Question (1900~1995). Cambridge Professor Joseph Needham studied why Chinese science had stopped advancing ahead of Western Science in 1500 as it had been until the 16th century. To satisfy his curiosity about Needham, Jonathan Lu organized an answer in essay form. He was able to connect the familiar topic of China with an unfamiliar one, science, through history. It’s a good example.”
Read First…Write Later
Throughout the interview, Mr. Fitzhugh continued to emphasize the importance of reading. From finding an interesting subject to research, reading has to be continually done. However, it is not necessary to read books that surpass one’s reading level. “How to Write Well” tutorials will jeopardize the genuineness of your writing and only the fancy phrases and diction will stand out.” Pertaining to writing, Han Jae Hyuk raised a concern whether “Other forms of communication (debating for example) can be as helpful as writing.” “Well,” Mr. Fitzhugh simply answered, “the main way to improve one’s writing skills is to write more.” “Writing a 1,000-word paper is much harder than speaking for the same amount. Of course, during the process of preparing for a speech, you encounter knowledge that you can use for a paper. However, without writing a single word, there will be no improvement in one’s writing aptitude.” He added, “What is needed for high school students today is practice in non-fiction writing.” “Today’s American high school students are given fiction-writing assignments to test and expand their creativity. However, even those who receive such assignments will one day attend college and encounter a variety of non-fiction writing. Because there is such a big gap between reality and today’s high school education, some companies spend $3 billion dollars each year in remedial writing courses for their employees. I’m assuming that the situation in Korea is not so different.”
The Concord Review
The only journal in the world that publishes papers written by high school history students (American school standard 9th to 12th grade). Under the principle “writing skill is a valuable asset,” TCR publishes 11 essays in each online issue every 3 months. Created by Mr. Will Fitzhugh in 1987. Funded by donations and subscriptions. Chooses 5 exceptional essays (of 44) each year for the Emerson Prize. The number of Koreans who have published in the journal is 22. With a payment of $40 (43,000 won), any high school can submit an essay for consideration.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
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Is There an Echo in Here? The Making of a Relic

In the March 14, 2001, issue of Education Week, Victor Henningsen, director of the history department at Phillips Academy in Andover, had this to say about term papers: “There’s no substitute for the thrill that comes from choosing a topic of your own and wrestling with a mass of evidence to answer a question that you have posed, to craft your own narrative and your own analysis. We’ve been teaching kids to write research papers here for a long time. Kids don’t remember the advanced placement exam, but they do remember the papers they have written, and so do I.”
Teacher Magazine
March 1, 2002
It seems likely that the history research paper at the high school level is now an endangered species. Focus on creative writing, fear of plagiarism, fascination with PowerPoint presentations, and lack of planning time have been joined by a notable absence of concern about term papers in virtually all of the work on state standards. As a result, far too many American high school students never get the chance to do the reading and writing that a serious history paper requires. They then enter college with no experience in writing papers, to the continual frustration of their professors, and of the employers who later hire them. The Ford Motor Co., for example, had to institute writing classes to ensure that their people are able to produce readable reports, memos, and the like.
A few years ago, a survey of English and social studies standards by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation showed that term papers are, indeed, ignored. The Pew Charitable Trust’s Standards for Success program, with its focus on high school and college articulation of standards and expectations, likewise includes no term papers. Neither has the American Diploma Project in Washington, D.C., working to define the expectations of high schools, colleges, and employers, yet found a place in its deliberations for history research papers. One problem for these groups and others, of course, is that serious term papers cannot be assessed in a one-hour objective test. But their impact on students and the consequences of never having done one can be incalculable.
In the early 1980s, while I was teaching American history to high school sophomores in Concord, Massachusetts, each of my students had to write a biographical paper on a U.S. president. One student chose John F. Kennedy, and I lent him a copy of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days. The boy took a look at the rather large book, and told me, “I can’t read this.” I said, “Yes, you can,” and eventually, he was able to finish it. Five or six years later, out of the blue, I got a letter from the student. He was now a Junior at Yale, and he wanted to thank me for making him read Schlesinger’s book. It was the first serious work of nonfiction he had ever read, and being able to get through it had done something for his self-confidence. Of course, he was the one who had forced himself to read the book, but the anecdote points up one of the great advantages of working on a history term paper. The experience often will mark the first time a high school student discovers that he or she is capable of reading a book on an important topic.
When I was an alumni interviewer for Harvard College, I asked one high school boy what he thought he might major in. History, he replied. I had said nothing about my own interest in the subject, and all he knew about me was that I was an alum. But after he gave me his answer, I naturally asked what his favorite history book was. Before long, it became clear that, while this student had achieved good grades and advanced placement scores, he had studied only textbooks. No one had ever handed him a good history book and encouraged him to read it, apparently. More than likely, he had never had to write a serious history paper either. If he had, he might have been forced to read a book or two in the field.
In the March 14, 2001, issue of Education Week, Victor Henningsen, director of the history department at Phillips Academy in Andover, had this to say about term papers; “There’s no substitute for the thrill that comes from choosing a topic of your own and wrestling with a mass of evidence to answer a question that you have posed, to craft your own narrative and your own analysis. We’ve been teaching kids to write research papers here for a long time. Kids don’t remember the advanced placement exam, but they do remember the papers they have written, and so do I.”
Since 1987, I have been the editor of The Concord Review, a quarterly journal of history research papers written by high school students. We’ve published 528 [1,044] papers (averaging 5,000 words, including endnotes and bibliography) by students from 42 [46] states and 33 [38] foreign countries. Out of some 22,000 public and private high schools in the United States, we receive about 600 essays a year, from which we publish 11 in each issue. If you do the calculation, that means that more than 21,000 high schools do not even submit one history essay for consideration in a given year. While this may not prove that exceptional history essays are not being written at those schools, it is not an encouraging sign.
As for what teachers expect in their high school history classes in lieu of research papers, I have only anecdotal evidence. I met with the head of the history department at a public high school in New Jersey once, a man very active in the National Council for History Education, and asked him why he never sent papers from his best students to The Concord Review. He said he didn’t have his students do research papers anymore; they make PowerPoint presentations and write historical fiction instead. When I asked the now-retired head of history at Scarsdale High School in New York, why, even though he subscribed to The Concord Review, he never submitted student papers for consideration, he too said he no longer assigned papers. After the AP exam, he would hold what he called the Trial of James Buchanan for his role in helping to precipitate the Civil War. His students would then write responses on that subject instead.
After I published her paper on the Women’s Temperance Union, the class valedictorian at a public high school on Staten Island wrote me to say she felt weak in expository writing and offered some reasons. Here are her words: “I attend a school where students are given few opportunities to develop their talents in this field. It is assumed students will learn how to write in college.” I feel confident in saying that, on the college side, there is the expectation that students will learn at least the rudiments of putting together a research paper while they are still in high school. College humanities professors, slow to learn perhaps, are routinely surprised when they find that this is not the case. And rightly so. What is at work here?
For one thing, creative writing often rules at the high school level (and earlier in many cases). Even the director of Harvard’s Expository Writing program for undergraduates has said she thinks that teenagers don’t get enough chances to write about their feelings, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, and that they shouldn’t be pushed to work on research papers until college. The National Writing Project in Berkeley, California, a program that reaches hundreds of teachers each year, takes a postmodern approach to what it calls “Literatures,” and never comes within a mile of considering that students could use some work on research skills and expository writing.
I have actually seen what teenagers can do, and it is more like the following, an excerpt from an essay published a few years back in The Concord Review. (more examples at This passage concludes an essay by a high school Junior who went on to major in civil engineering at Princeton, get a Ph.D. in earthquake engineering at Stanford, and she is now an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell.
As is usually the case with extended, deeply-held disagreements, no one person or group was the cause of the split in the woman suffrage movement. On both sides, a stubborn eagerness to enfranchise women hindered the effort to do so. Abolitionists and Republicans refused to unite equally with woman suffragists. Stanton and Anthony, blinded for a while by their desperation to succeed, turned to racism, putting blacks and women against each other at a time when each needed the other’s support most. The one thing that remains clear is that, while in some ways it helped women discover their own power, the division of forces weakened the overall strength of the movement. As a result of the disagreements within the woman suffrage movement, the 1860s turned out to be a missed opportunity for woman suffragists, just as Stanton had predicted. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, they were forced to wait another 50 years for the fulfillment of their dream.
High school kids are fully capable of writing long, serious history papers. And they will get a lot out of doing so, not only in terms of reading nonfiction, but also in learning to write nonfiction themselves. These days, too many of our students are not given that chance to grow. Colleges may continue doing what they can to help teenagers master the rudiments of expository writing, but much of what these high school students have lost can never be recouped in remedial coursework.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics™

Adults Only

I may be one of a tiny minority who think that schools are for student academic work.
Of course, sports, concerts, social programs, dances, and all sorts of other youth activities are important, but students don’t need schools to do them in.
My view is that without student academic work, all the buildings, bond issues, budgets, school boards, teacher unions, superintendent and teacher training programs, Broad/Gates/WalMart grants, local-state-federal education departments, NCLB, RTT, CC, CCSSO, Schools of Education, standards projects, legislation, regulations, and all the rest of the Adults Only paraphernalia surrounding education in this country these days are just a waste of money and time.
The Education Punditocracy, including blogs, magazines, newspapers, foundations, Finn/Hess/Petrilli, etc., and even my friend and inspiration, Diane Ravitch, among hundreds and hundreds of others, are completely preoccupied with and absorbed in their consideration of what Adults are doing in education. The actual academic work of students takes place at much too low a level to attract their notice. They seem to be making the assumption that if they can just fix all the Adults Only stuff, then somehow student academic work will take care of itself. But they don’t pay any attention in the meantime to whether students are actually doing any academic work or not. And they have not learned that the students, and the students alone, have the power to determine whether they will do any academic work, and also what its quality will be.
To reiterate: without student academic work, all the rest of the bustle, noise, commentary, and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent will amount to nothing, so it should be important to pay attention to student academic work, should it not?
I came to understand this because for the last 25 years in particular, and for about 10 years before that, I have been fully engaged in efforts that completely depend upon good student academic work, and I have been fascinated to discover how few Education people seem to be involved with that, and that just about every one of them, though laboring away quite seriously and conscientiously, seems to spend all their time on the Adults Only matters, and to have almost no interest, other than to give it lip service and quickly move on, in the serious academic work of students.
If that should somehow change, and if student academic work were to become the central focus of what we pay attention to in education, there is a chance we might see more of it, and that its quality might improve too. But if we continue to ignore it and focus on Adults Only, that most assuredly is not going to happen. As the Hindus say: “Whatever you give your Attention to grows in your life,” and we have been giving, IMHO, far too much attention (almost all of it) to the Adults Only aspects of education and far too little to student academic work.
To test what I am saying, if a kind Reader would go back over articles, books, blogs, and speeches on education in recent years, please do let me know if you find any that talk about student science projects, the complete nonfiction books they are reading, or the serious history research papers they are writing. I believe if you look closely, almost all that you find will show people caught up in what Adults Only are doing, should do, will do, must do, or might do, and there will be little to no attention to the actual academic work of students in our schools. But please prove me mistaken, with evidence, if you would be so kind.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
Consortium for Varsity Academics® [2007]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics™

Scholars or Customers?

Diane Senechal, Ph.D., has written a book (The Republic of Noise–2012) about the virtues of solitude for young people living in our mad, mad, Wired World.
I fear she may be insufficiently aware that every moment one of our high school students spends in reflection, musing, thinking, contemplation, meditation or indeed in solitude, unless those moments are product-focused, can grow, over time, into a huge barrier to sales of computers, software, games, and other products of our marketing efforts in technology. After all, the business of education is business, right?
To put it plainly, thinking, and other sorts of reflection, constitute a serious threat to all efforts to meet hardware/software sales quotas, especially in the huge and growingly lucrative education market.
This should make it clearer why the companies which are the commercial engines of our economy, especially the technology companies which are concentrating on education for a large portion of their consumer marketing and sales, are so opposed to having students read actual nonfiction books or spend time working on history research papers while they are in high school.
While it may be true that having students read one or more complete history books while they are still in high school may not only teach them some history, but will also help them to get ready for the nonfiction books they will be asked to read in the college, and that any work they do in high school on serious history research papers will better
prepare them for college writing tasks, it must be borne in mind that both of those activities can seriously cut into their use of social media and associated products, and limit the time they will spend buying and using video games and other important products!
We have to decide if we want our high school students to be scholars or customers! Apple Computer did not spend $650 million or thereabouts to persuade our students to read books and write papers to further their education, but instead to buy iPhones and iMacs to help distract them from homework and other obstacles to buying products. As Mark Bauerlein noted in The Dumbest Generation, one sign in an Apple store promised that the MacBook would be “the only book you will ever need.”
There has been attention recently given to the disadvantages of colleges inflating grades and doing other things in their attempts to attract paying customers, because treating students as customers interferes with the essential responsibility of Upper Education to serve and challenge them as students.
But even in Lower Education, the multi-multi-billion market in digital equipment and software has employed major efforts to induce students to spend 53 hours a week with electronic entertainment media, according to the Kaiser Foundation, while most of them spend no more than 3 or 4 hours a week on homework.
There are always a few people who don’t get the Word of course. Since 1968, the International Baccalaureate Program has required a 4,000-word (16-page) Extended Essay for candidates for the Diploma, and that may very well have resulted in some students reading nonfiction books.
In addition, the Advanced Placement Program of the College Board, while it has not yet managed to include a serious term papers (a small pilot experiment is now underway), nevertheless has not exiled some teachers who go ahead and assign them anyway, a good number of which have been published in The Concord Review since 1987. In fact a special issue of AP history essays was published by The Concord Review in 1995, and this issue is available on the the website at But those teachers (and students) have always been outside the mainstream with their efforts.
A few high school students, in some cases inspired by the exemplary work of their peers published in The Concord Review have worked to read for and write their serious history term papers as independent studies, some ranging from 8,000 words (24 pages) up to 15,000 words (60 pages), but without any encouragement from the electronic entertainment, computer/software and STEM communities, these scholarly “mountaineers” have not been numerous over the years.
If we continue to value sales over education for our students, we will sell a lot of products, but we will also naturally continue to have students in need of extensive remediation and to produce unemployable graduates. However, if we decide to relax our visa barriers for skilled immigrants, we can continue to count on them to carry our civilization forward or at least keep it going by making use of the benefits they bring with them from the non-commercial educations still available in other countries in South and East Asia and elsewhere.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Why Are We Afraid to Show Off Our Brightest Students’ Work?

[Atlantic Editor: High school athletes are the pride of their communities. But if we want to inspire kids to write well, we should be putting the exemplary work of our best young high school scholars on display.]
As the editor of The Concord Review, I have been glad to publish more than 1,000 exemplary high school history research papers by students from 46 states and 38 other countries since 1987. Yet I have long been aware that little “personal” essays have killed off academic expository writing in most of our schools.
For generations, American children in our schools have had their writing limited to short pieces about themselves, from primary school up through their “college essays” (those little 500-word “personal” narratives). As long as English teachers have borne all the responsibility for reading and writing in the schools, the reading has been fiction, the writing personal and “creative.” Lately a genre has emerged called “creative nonfiction,” but that turns out to be just more solipsistic autobiography.
Most of our students never read a single history book and they very rarely write a serious term paper before graduating from high school. They learn to write without learning anything beyond their own feelings and the events of their present lives, and their teachers are able to grade that work without knowing much either.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, put it very well in August this year: “The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to.” As a result, the member companies of the Business Roundtable have been saddled with a $3 billion bill for remedial writing courses every year, not only for their hourly hires but for their current and new salaried employees.
There are a few exceptions, of course. For decades, the International Baccalaureate has required a 4,000 (16-page) Extended Essay for the Diploma, and thousands of American students have done that. Even the College Board has begun to think of a small pilot program on term papers as well.
The New Common Core standards, a set of reforms that will soon be applied by most states, talk about nonfiction reading, but that category seems to include more memos, short speeches, brochures, and technical articles than anything like a complete history book. The standards also mention something about nonfiction writing, but all of the examples in the Appendix seem to be only more two-page efforts that will far from challenge the capability of our students in academic writing.
By publishing Peg Tyre’s story “The Writing Revolution,” The Atlantic is doing a great service for our students who need to learn to do some serious academic expository writing while they are still in high school. However, I would add that students also benefit from seeing exemplary expository essays written by their peers.
At The Concord Review, I’ve seen many examples of first-rate academic writing on historical topics. Students are startled, challenged, and inspired when they see this kind of work by people their own age. “When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it,” one New Jersey public school girl wrote to me. “The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me, and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History.”
It may be objected that this is a letter from a good student. Where are the letters from struggling students? I would respond that in sports, we are quite happy to present other students with the very best public performances of their most athletic peers. But when it comes to academics, we seem afraid to show students the exemplary work of their peers, for fear of driving them away. This dichotomy has always seemed strange to me.
Of course we must pay attention to our least able students, just as we must pay attention to the those who have the most difficulty in our gym classes. But it would’t hurt, in my view, to dare to recognize and distribute some of our students’ best academic work, in the hopes that it may challenge many others of them to put in a little more effort. Surely that is worth a try.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Ruth and Lovett Peters Fellowship in Education Policy

The Pioneer Institute:

Pioneer Institute is thrilled to announce the second annual Ruth and Lovett Peters Fellowship, an opportunity for a current or recent graduate student with a passionate interest in education policy and strong entrepreneurial and analytic abilities.
The fellow, who carries the title of Ruth & Lovett Peters Fellow, will develop a broad range of research and public policy skills; he or she will also have an opportunity to devise and complete a “Lead” project, which can consist of research or a practical policy project. The Fellowship will commence in the spring/summer of 2013.
Forge Your Future in Public Policy
Click to download forms:
The Ruth and Lovett Peters Fellowship will commence in the spring/summer of 2013. A Peters Fellow at Pioneer Institute will:

  • Enhance leadership skills
  • Gain extensive training in research writing and the peer review process
  • Apply statistical knowledge to research output
  • Publish at least one research paper that may be sponsored by Pioneer
  • Develop public speaking experience
  • Procure grant-writing experience
  • Develop wide-ranging social media communications experience
  • Advance presentation skills
  • Develop a broad network within the public policy community
  • Participate in coordinating a policy event
  • Interact with opinion writers
  • Learn how to successfully market a research project

The Fellowship may span up to 15 months. During the first six months of the Fellowship, the fellow will receive training and research assistance as well as develop a thorough grounding in think tank and idea marketing. Staff and outside trainers will ensure skill acquisition in research project assistance, op-ed and press release writing, blogging, foundation grant management, event direction, and public speaking.
During the final nine months, the fellow will work on a self-directed “Lead” project and may continue to work out of Pioneer’s office in Boston or, if mutually agreed with Pioneer, work remotely. The “Lead” project, defined and managed by the fellow, can be oriented toward research or practice. Pioneer’s staff will continue to be available for the Fellow’s guidance during this project phase. The Lead project will be compatible with Pioneer’s mission and approved by Pioneer’s
Executive Director prior to this second phase of the fellowship.
The Institute’s education policy priorities are related to charter, vocational, and virtual schools; inter-district public and private school choice; standardized testing and assessments; and teacher quality. Applicants are encouraged to submit proposals for projects as part of the application process.
The Ruth & Lovett Peters Fellowship is available to applicants with Master’s level course completion; preferably those with an MBA, MPA, MPP, other Master’s programs or those currently enrolled in a doctoral program. The Fellow will report to James Stergios, Pioneer’s
Executive Director.
The Fellow will receive a stipend ranging from $45,000 to $56,000, depending on experience and other criteria, for the 15-month period. Doctoral students may be eligible for a higher stipend.
Mandatory Requirements for Application

  • Reside in the Boston area during the initial six months of the program.
  • Be a recent graduate or currently enrolled in an accredited Masters or PhD program.
  • Possess a passion for public policy and goals consistent with Pioneer’s mission.
  • Possess solid skills in quantitative analysis, evidenced by graduate-level statistics and methods courses.
  • Be a U.S. citizen, have permanent residency, or possess Curricular Practical Training (CPT) authorization.
    Applications and Process

Applications must be submitted and received electronically by November 30, 2012. Selection of the fellow will be determined by a team consisting of both Pioneer Institute staff as well as external professionals.
No application will be considered unless all of the required information is submitted by the deadline. Please e-mail:

  • Application form (attached).
  • A copy of both undergraduate and graduate transcripts (if selected, an official copy will be requested).
  • A recommendation from a faculty member using the form included above.
  • An essay (no greater than 600 words) explaining why you chose your current field of study, why your goals are consistent with Pioneer’s mission and how this Fellowship would help you to achieve your goals. We encourage you to also include the nature of projects you would propose for the last nine months of the Fellowship (with an understanding that the projects are subject to refinement).
  • If selected to proceed further, an interview will be conducted.

If you have questions about the fellowship, please contact:
Mary Z. Connaughton
Director of Finance and Administration
Pioneer Institute
85 Devonshire Street
Boston, MA 02109

Why Are We Afraid to Show Off Our Brightest Students?

[Atlantic Editor: High school athletes are the pride of their communities. But if we want to inspire kids to write well, we should be putting the exemplary work of our best young high school scholars on display.]
As the editor of The Concord Review, I have been glad to publish more than 1,000 exemplary high school history research papers by students from 46 states and 38 other countries since 1987. Yet I have long been aware that little “personal” essays have killed off academic expository writing in most of our schools.
For generations, American children in our schools have had their writing limited to short pieces about themselves, from primary school up through their “college essays” (those little 500-word “personal” narratives). As long as English teachers have borne all the responsibility for reading and writing in the schools, the reading has been fiction, the writing personal and “creative.” Lately a genre has emerged called “creative nonfiction,” but that turns out to be just more solipsistic autobiography.
Most of our students never read a single history book and they very rarely write a serious term paper before graduating from high school. They learn to write without learning anything beyond their own feelings and the events of their present lives, and their teachers are able to grade that work without knowing much either.
Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, put it very well in August this year: “The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to.” As a result, the member companies of the Business Roundtable have been saddled with a $3 billion bill for remedial writing courses every year, not only for their hourly hires but for their current and new salaried employees.
There are a few exceptions, of course. For decades, the International Baccalaureate has required a 4,000 (16-page) Extended Essay for the Diploma, and thousands of American students have done that. Even the College Board has begun to think of a small pilot program on term papers as well.
The New Common Core standards, a set of reforms that will soon be applied by most states, talk about nonfiction reading, but that category seems to include more memos, short speeches, brochures, and technical articles than anything like a complete history book. The standards also mention something about nonfiction writing, but all of the examples in the Appendix seem to be only more two-page efforts that will far from challenge the capability of our students in academic writing.
By publishing Peg Tyre’s story “The Writing Revolution,” The Atlantic is doing a great service for our students who need to learn to do some serious academic expository writing while they are still in high school. However, I would add that students also benefit from seeing exemplary expository essays written by their peers.
At The Concord Review, I’ve seen many examples of first-rate academic writing on historical topics. Students are startled, challenged, and inspired when they see this kind of work by people their own age. “When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it,” one New Jersey public school girl wrote to me. “The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me, and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History.”
It may be objected that this is a letter from a good student. Where are the letters from struggling students? I would respond that in sports, we are quite happy to present other students with the very best public performances of their most athletic peers. But when it comes to academics, we seem afraid to show students the exemplary work of their peers, for fear of driving them away. This dichotomy has always seemed strange to me.
Of course we must pay attention to our least able students, just as we must pay attention to the those who have the most difficulty in our gym classes. But it would’t hurt, in my view, to dare to recognize and distribute some of our students’ best academic work, in the hopes that it may challenge many others of them to put in a little more effort. Surely that is worth a try.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Most students not proficient in writing, test finds

Christine Armario, Associated Press

Just a quarter of eighth and 12th grade students in the United States have solid writing skills, even when allowed to use spell-check and other computer word-processing tools, according to results of a national exam [NAEP} released Friday.
Twenty-seven percent of students at each grade level were able to write essays that were well-developed, organized, and had proper language and grammar-3 percent were advanced and 24 percent were proficient. The remainder showed just partial mastery of these skills.
“It is important to remember this is first draft writing,” said Cornelia Orr, executive director of the National Assessment Governing Board, which administers the Nation’s Report Card tests. “They did have some time to edit, but it wasn’t extensive editing.”
Students who took the writing test in 2011 had an advantage that previous test takers did not: a computer with spell-check and thesaurus. Previously, students taking the National Assessment of Educational Progress writing test had to use pencil and paper, but with changes in technology, and the need to write across electronic formats, the decision was made to switch to computers.
Orr said students use technology and tools like spell-check on a daily basis. “It’s as if we had given them a pencil to write the essay and took away the eraser,” she said.
She said word processing tools alone wouldn’t result in significantly better writing scores if students didn’t have the core skills of being able to organize ideas and present them in a clear and grammatical fashion.
Still, students in both grades who used the thesaurus and the backspace more frequently had higher scores than those who used them less often. Students in the 12th grade who had to write four or five pages a week for English homework also had higher scores.
Because this was the first version of the computerized test, the board cautioned against comparing the results to previous exams. In 2007, 33 percent of eighth grade students scored at the proficient level, which represents solid writing skills, as did 24 percent at grade 12.
The results at both grade levels showed a continued achievement gap between white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students.
There was also a gender gap, with girls scoring 20 points higher on average than boys in the eighth grade and 14 points higher in 12th grade. Those who qualified for free and reduced price lunch, a key indicator of poverty, also had lower scores than those who did not; there was a 27 point difference between the two at the eighth grade.
For the 2011 exam, laptops were brought into public and private schools across the country and more than 50,000 students were tested to get a nationally representative sample. Students were given prompts that required them to write essays that explained, persuaded, or conveyed an experience.
Kathleen Blake Yancey, a professor at Florida State University who served on the advisory panel for the test, said one factor is that research show most students in the United States don’t compose at the keyboard.
“What they do is sort of type already written documents into the machine, much as we used to do with typewriters four decades ago,” she said.
Yancey said for this reason there was some concern about having students write on the computer as opposed to by hand.
Likewise, having the advantage of spell-check assumes student know how to use it. And in some schools and neighborhoods, computers are still not easily accessible.
“There are not so many students that actually learn to write composing at the keyboard,” she said.
Yancey added that many students who do have access to computers are not necessarily using them to write at school, but to take standardized tests and filling in bubbles.
“Digital technology is a technology,” she said. “Paper and pencil is a technology. If technology were the answer, that would be pretty simple.”

“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

An expert’s view of Common Core’s focus on nonfiction texts

Jim Stergios 165K PDF

The Common Core national standards are increasingly controversial, with Utah, Indiana and a number of states that had adopted them now reconsidering. A recent New York Times education blog notes the following:
Forty-four states and United States territories have adopted the Common Core Standards and, according to this recent Times article, one major change teachers can expect to see is more emphasis on reading “informational,” or nonfiction, texts across subject areas:
While English classes will still include healthy amounts of fiction, the standards say that students should be reading more nonfiction texts as they get older, to prepare them for the kinds of material they will read in college and careers. In the fourth grade, students should be reading about the same amount from “literary” and “informational” texts, according to the standards; in the eighth grade, 45 percent should be literary and 55 percent informational, and by 12th grade, the split should be 30/70.
And seeing itself as a potential vendor, the Times chirps cheerfully: “Well, The New York Times and The Learning Network are here to help”
There’s been a lot written on the loss of literature in curricula around the country. And there is good reason for that. As I noted in testimony to the Utah Education Interim Committee:
“Massachusetts’ remarkable rise on national assessments is not because we aligned our reading standards to the NAEP. Rather, it is because, unlike Common Core, our reading standards emphasized high-quality literature. Reading literature requires the acquisition in a compressed timeframe of a richer and broader vocabulary than non-fiction texts. Vocabulary acquisition is all-important in the timely development of higher-level reading skills.”
But even if you agree with the idea of refocusing our classrooms on nonfiction texts, what is the quality of the offerings suggested by Common Core, a set of standards copyrighted by two Washington-based entities (the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association)?.

American School Board Journal: Q&A with Will Fitzhugh, research paper advocate

September 2012 Q&A School Board News;
Will Fitzhugh is a great believer in the educational power of the high school research paper. In fact, he’s such a fan that he founded The Concord Review in 1987 to publish student research papers and highlight the academic quality of their work.
But his mission is a bit tougher these days. In 2002, he conducted a study of high school history teachers and discovered that, although nearly all of them said a term paper was a good idea, 62 percent never assigned a 12-page paper–and 27 percent never assigned an eight-page paper.
Page numbers aren’t the only measure of a writing project, but the consensus is that the rigor of high school research papers hasn’t improved over the years. And that means that–outside of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses–very few students are tested by this kind of rigorous writing project.
That’s not a good trend, and Fitzhugh champions the idea that school policymakers should bring back the practice of assigning serious research papers to high school students. He encourages schools to adopt his Paper Per Year Plan©, which calls on schools to assign research papers that require students to write one more page, with one more source, for every grade of schooling. Even a first-grader should be writing one-page papers with one source listed.
Recently, Fitzhugh shared his thoughts on the poor showing of high school writing projects with ASBJ Senior Editor Del Stover.
Why should it matter if students are writing lengthy term papers?
“Two great things about serious research papers: They ask for a lot of reading, and as a result, the student learns a lot about something. This encourages students to believe that, through their own efforts for the most part, they can learn about other things in the future. In addition, a serious research paper can help them keep out of remedial reading and writing classes at college.”
To engage students, some educators are allowing students to communicate through a variety of media. Is this innovative–or a mistake?
“This is a mistake by teachers desperate to pander to student interests instead of requiring them to do the hard work essential to their education. When the Business Roundtable companies spend $3 billion-plus each year on remedial writing courses for their employees–hourly and salaried, current and new–they do not have them write blogs, read comic books, or enjoy PowerPoint presentations. That would waste their money and the time of students, and it wouldn’t accomplish the remedial writing tasks.”
Is the term paper really dead? You’re still publishing term papers in your quarterly, so you must still be seeing teachers–and students–who are rising to the highest standards?
“The papers I have been getting continue to impress me. I could tell you stories of students who spend months on their submissions to The Concord Review and then send me an Emerson Prize-winning 15,000-word paper. Many of these students are going well beyond the expectations and standards of their schools because they seek to be published. But, as I say, for most students, they are never asked even to try a serious history research paper.
In general, it is safe to say that all U.S. public high schools are unlikely to assign rigorous term papers, and the kids suffer accordingly.”

What advice can you offer to school board members and administrators as they struggle to raise student skills in reading and writing?

“The California State College System reports that 47 percent of their freshmen are in remedial reading courses, and in a survey of college professors by The Chronicle of Higher Education, 90 percent of them said their students are not very well prepared in reading or writing, or in doing research.
So school board members should be aware of how poorly we are preparing our kids in nonfiction reading and academic expository writing–and they should ask their superintendents what can be done about that.
I’ve argued that, if reading and writing is a serious skill that kids need, then we have to decide if we are willing to invest [in this effort]. Kids are spending three or four hours of time on homework a week and 54 hours on entertainment. It’s not going to kill them to spend four more hours a week on a paper.”
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Conclusion of a speech given by Neil Armstrong at the National Press Club in 2000

The majority of the top 20 achievements would not have been possible without electricity. Electrification changed the country’s economic development and gave rural populations the same opportunities and amenities as people in the cities. It provides the power for small appliances in the home, for computers in control rooms that route power and telecommunications, and for the machinery that produces capital goods and consumer products. If anything shines as an example of how engineering has changed the world during the twentieth century, it is clearly the power that we use in our homes and businesses.
So, there you have it, the top 20. My descriptions have been sometimes trite, and it’s likely that I missed some of the most important societal contributions from the nominees. And, without question, I did not even mention the work from those nominations that did not make the top 20 list, yet in many cases were of enormous importance to certain sectors of society or certain parts of the world. And in all honestly, I am guilty of a bit of subterfuge. Certainly the nominations were worthy and the committee was honest and diligent in evaluating them. And certainly you have been given their well-reasoned conclusions. The subterfuge is that my purpose was not to promote the competitive nature of the event, or to congratulate the winner, or to convince you that electrification was the most important technical activity of this past century. All of you have your own opinions on the importance of various technical developments to our society. What I really hoped to do was shamelessly use this occasion to remind you of the breadth, and the depth, and the importance of engineering as a whole to human existence, human progress, and human happiness.
There are perhaps, even more far-reaching consequences of this exercise. The likelihood of today marking the end of creative engineering is nil. The future is a bit foggy, but it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the twenty-first century will enjoy a rate of progress not unlike the twentieth. And a century hence, 2000 may be viewed as quite a primitive period in human history. It’s something to hope for.
For three decades I have enjoyed the work and friendship of Arthur Clarke, a prolific science and science fiction writer, who back in 1945 first suggested the possibility of the communications satellite. In addition to writing some wonderful books, he has also proposed a few memorable laws. Clarke’s third law seems particularly apt today: Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Truly, it has been a magical century.

About the Author: Neil Armstrong, NAE, is a former astronaut and chairman of AIL Technologies. This article is an edited version of his remarks delivered at the National Press Club, 22 February 2000.


The New Common Core Standards call for a 50% reduction in “literary” [aka fictional noninformational texts] readings for students, and an increase in nonfiction informational texts, so that students may be better prepared for the nonfiction they will encounter in college and at work.
In addition to memos, technical manuals, and menus (and bus schedules?), the nonfiction informational texts suggested include The Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and perhaps one of the Federalist Papers.
History books, such as those by David Hackett Fischer, James McPherson, David McCullough, Ron Chernow, Paul Johnson, Martin Gilbert, etc. are not among the nonfiction informational texts recommended, perhaps to keep students from having to read any complete books while they are still in high school.
In the spirit of Turnabout, let us consider saving students more time from their fictional noninformational text readings (previously known as literature) by cutting back on the complete novels, plays and poems formerly offered in our high schools. For instance, instead of Pride and Prejudice (the whole novel), students could be asked to read Chapter Three. Instead of the complete Romeo and Juliet, they could read Act Two, Scene Two, and in poetry, instead of a whole sonnet, perhaps just alternate stanzas could be assigned. In this way, they could get the “gist” of great works of literature, enough to be, as it were, “grist” for their deeper analytic cognitive thinking skill mills.
As the goal is to develop deeply critical analytic cognitive thinking skills, surely there is no need to read a whole book either in English or in History classes. This will not be a loss in Social Studies classes, since they don’t assign complete books anyway, but it may be a wrench for English teachers who probably still think that there is some value in reading a whole novel, or a whole play, or even a complete poem.
But change is change is change, as Gertrude Stein might have written, and if our teachers are to develop themselves professionally to offer the new deeper cognitive analytic thinking skills required by the Common Core Standards, they will just have to learn to wean themselves from the old notions of knowledge and understanding they have tried to develop from readings for students in the past.
As Caleb Nelson wrote in 1990 in The Atlantic Monthly, speaking about an older Common Core at Harvard College:
The philosophy behind the [Harvard College] Core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so….
The New Common Core Standards are meant to prepare our students to think deeply on subjects they know practically nothing about, because instead of reading a lot about anything, they will have been exercising their critical cognitive analytical faculties on little excerpts amputated from their context. So they can think “deeply,” for example, about Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, while knowing nothing about the nation’s Founding, or Slavery, or the new Republican Party, or, of course, the American Civil War.
Students’ new Common academic work with texts about which they will be asked to Think & Learn Deeply, may encourage them to believe that ignorance is no barrier to useful thinking, in the same way that those who have written the Common Core Standards believe that they can think deeply about and make policy for our many state education systems, without having spent much, if any time, as teachers themselves, or even in meeting with teachers who have the experience they lack.
It may very well turn out that ignorance and incompetence transfer from one domain to another much better than deeper thinking skills do, and that the current mad flight from knowledge and understanding, while clearly very well funded, has lead to Standards which will mean that our high school students [those that do not drop out] will need even more massive amounts of remediation when they go on to college and the workplace than are presently on offer.
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
24 August 2012

Skip the Knowledge!

Poor James Madison, back in the day, spending endless hours reading scores upon scores of books on the history of governments, as he prepared to become the resident historian and intellectual “father” of the United States Constitution in the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia! If he had only known what we know now thanks to the new Common Core, he could have saved the great bulk of that time and effort if he had only acquired some Thinking Skills instead!
Our schools of education have long understood that if a student teacher [sideguider] can acquire enough pedagogicalistical sophistication and the right Thinking Skills, she will be able to teach [sideguide] anything, from Mandarin to European History to Calculus to Home Economics, to classes with any number of students.
The Harvard College faculty wasted many hours in the 1980s trying to derive a Common Core of knowledge which every undergraduate ought to acquire. No one on the faculty wanted to allow any other member of the faculty to tell her/him what knowledge students needed to learn at Harvard, and none wished to give up teaching what he/she was currently studying to devote any time to a survey course in the general knowledge of their field or any other field. So they agreed, thirty-odd years ago, on a Common Core of Thinking Skills instead.(1)
It is not clear whether the knowledge-free curricula of the graduate schools of education, or the Core experiences at Harvard College, in any way guided the authors of our new Common Core in their achievement of the understanding that it is not knowledge of anything that our students require, but Thinking Skills. They took advantage of the perspective and arguments of a famous cognitive psychologist at Stanford in designing the history portion of the Core. Just think how much time they saved by not involving one of those actual historians, who might have bogged down the whole enterprise in claiming that students should have some knowledge of history itself, and that such knowledge might actually be required before any useful Thinking Skills could be either acquired or employed. If we had followed that path, we might actually be asking high school students to read real history books–shades of the James Madison era!!
Just think of all the time and effort that was expended by Professor Hirsch and all those who worked to develop, and are now working to offer, a Core Knowledge curriculum to thousands of our students. If they had only had the benefit of the cognitive psychology undergirding at least the history portion of the new Common Core, they could have skipped all that and gone straight to the Core Thinking Skills now being promoted across the country.
The whole idea that knowledge is so important, or should precede thinking about anything, is so antedeluvian (which means–oh, never mind–just more of that knowledge stuff!). What is the value of being 21st Centurians and right up-to-date, if we can’t ignore the past and skip over its history?
Our advance into the brave new world of thinking skills was anticipated by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which, as far as I can tell by looking over the research interests of the faculty, long ago left behind such mundane matters as the chemistry, foreign languages, history, literature and mathematics that students used to (and some still do, I suppose) study in our high schools. The Education faculty has moved boldly on beyond all that academic knowledge to, in addition to lots of psychology/diversity/poverty/sociology/disability studies, the new bare essentials of Thinking Skills.
During the discussions over Harvard’s Common Core decades ago, one physics professor pointed out that in order to think like a physicist it is important to know quite a bit of physics, but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He had spent his whole career in the pursuit of a knowledge of physics, so naturally he would think that knowledge is more important than Thinking Skills, or, at least, should come first in the study of physics or anything else.
We have finally come to realize that, after all, Google has all the knowledge we will ever need, and so, with keyboarding skills, and some time in Common courses on Thinking Skills, our students will be well prepared to launch their careers as ignoramuses, and make their own unique contributions to the disappearance of knowledge, understanding and wisdom in the United States, and to the decline of our civilization (which means–oh, never mind–just look it up!).
Let those history-minded Asian countries continue to ask their students to acquire lots of knowledge. Our students will have their new Common Core Thinking Skills, and all the pride and self-esteem that the ignorance we have given them can support.
(1) Caleb Nelson, Harvard Class of ’88 (Mathematics) “Harvard’s Hollow Core,” The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

A Review of Sunday is for the Sun; Monday is for the Moon

Sandra Priest Rose and Glen Nelson
New York: Reading Reform Foundation, 2012
There seems to be a growing frustration and concern, among Upper Education professors, and many teachers in Lower Education as well, with the poor reading and writing abilities of our students. If they cannot read, they cannot understand the material being assigned, and their academic writing has discouraged many educators from even trying to assign term papers.
This book, by Sandra Priest Rose and Glen Nelson, explains the thirty-year effort of the Reading Reform Foundation to ensure that at least some students in New York learn to read well early, and so to enjoy the knowledge and understanding they can get from reading with ease. It should be widely read and its programs sought out by educators all over the country who want to do more to introduce their students as soon as possible to such success.
I did not learn to read in the first grade. When I brought home an “F” in reading, it is not too much to say that my mother (Wellesley BA, Radcliffe MA, in English Literature) was not happy. That summer she taught me (unrelentingly) to read phonetically. When my first report card came back from second grade (the school had let me advance) it showed a “D”in reading. My mother went to the school and said “What is this? He is an excellent reader!” The problem, as it turned out was that I “would not stay with the rest of the class”–that is, when the class started a story, I finished it by myself–thus my grade of “D.”
That was probably in 1942, so I am not sure whether I was being offered the “look-say” method in my first school year or not, but my mother’s phonics instruction was very helpful to me in my reading at Harvard and later at Cambridge University, again in English Literature.
This new book about the reading program of the Reading Reform Foundation is not just about the essential value of phonics. It also takes the now unorthodox view that there are obvious connections between reading and knowledge, between knowledge and understanding, and between understanding and writing.
Over the last thirty years, for about 2,000 students a year in New York, the Reading Reform Foundation has offered 160 hours of teacher training, 60 visits a year by a mentor for each participating teacher, and an engaging curriculum to immerse young students in the excitement of sounding out words, and discovering not only their meaning, but very soon the meaning of the reading material in which they appear.
More than 14,000 teachers have attended the annual conferences of the Reading Reform Foundation over the years, and the Program is now at work in 75 New York classrooms each year.
This book includes the results of a study conducted by the City University of New York into the work of the Reading Reform Foundation. They may mean more to those who got a better grade in Statistics in graduate school than I did, but they look very encouraging to anyone concerned over the slow progress in reading of too many of our current youngsters who don’t have explicit phonics instruction on their side.
One of the authors, Sandra Priest Rose, has been a supporter of The Concord Review for years, and is assuredly one of the small group of dedicated people who have enabled the Reading Reform Foundation to serve students and teachers for thirty years with only 20% of their expenses coming from the schools which participate.
For those with an English major Wellesley graduate at home, learning to read phonetically (after school) may not be a problem. For all other elementary students, and especially for their teachers, I recommend the Reading Reform Foundation’s program. Jeanne Chall’s idea that after third grade students will be “reading to learn,” will not come true for too many students if they don’t have the benefit of a vigorous and engaging reading and writing program like the one offered by the Reading Reform Foundation in New York.

Common Core Anyone? Anyone?

The totalitarian left has been similarly clear that decision-making power should be confined to a political elite–the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the leader of a “master race,” or whatever the particular phrase that might become the motto of the particular totalitarian system. In Mussolini’s words, “The mass will simply follow and submit.”
Thomas Sowell
Intellectuals and Society
New York: Basic Books, 2011, pp. 104-106
…Reliance on systemic processes, whether in the economy, the law, or other areas, is based on the constrained vision–the tragic vision–of the severe limitations on any given individual’s knowledge and insight, however knowledgeable or brilliant that individual might be, compared to other individuals. Systemic processes which tap vastly more knowledge and experience from vastly more people, often including traditions evolved from the experience of successive generations, are deemed more reliable than the intellect of the intellectuals.
By contrast, the vision of the left is one of surrogate decision-making by those presumed to have not only superior knowledge but sufficient knowledge, whether these surrogates are political leaders, experts, judges or others. This is the vision that is common to varying degrees on the political left, whether radical or moderate, and common also to totalitarians, whether Communist or Fascist. A commonality of purpose in society is central to collective decision-making, whether expressed in town-meeting democracy or totalitarian dictatorship of other variations in between. One of the differences between the commonality of purpose in democratic systems of government and the totalitarian systems of government is in the range of decisions infused with that commonality of purpose and in the range of decisions reserved for individual decision-making outside the purview of government.
The free market, for example, is a huge exemption from government power. In such a market, there is no commonality of purpose, except among such individuals and organizations as may choose voluntarily to coalesce into groups ranging from bowling leagues to multinational corporations. But even these aggregations typically pursue the interests of their own respective constituents and compete against the interests of other aggregations. Those who advocate this mode of social decision-making do so because they believe that the systemic results of such competition are usually better than a society-wide commonality of purpose imposed by surrogate decision-makers superintending the whole process in the name of “the national interest” or of “social justice.”
The totalitarian version of collective surrogate decision-making by government was summarized by Mussolini, who defined “totalitarianism” in the motto: “Everything in the State, nothing outside of the State, nothing against the State.” Moreover, the state ultimately meant the political leader of the state, the dictator. Mussolini was know as Il Duce–the leader–before Hitler acquired the same title in German as the Führer.
Democratic versions of collective surrogate decision-making by government choose leaders by votes and tend to leave more areas outside the purview of government. However, the left seldom has any explicit principle by which the boundaries between government and individual decision-making can be determined, so that the natural tendency over time is for the scope of government decision-making to expand, as more and more decisions are taken successively from private hands, since government officials constantly have incentives to expand their powers while the voters’ attention is not constantly focussed on maintaining limits on those powers.
Preferences for collective, surrogate decision-making from the top down are not all that the democratic left has shared with the original Italian Fascists and with the National Socialists (Nazis) of Germany. In addition to political intervention in economic markets, the democratic left has shared with the Fascists and the Nazis the underlying assumption of a vast gap in understanding between ordinary people and elites like themselves. Although both the totalitarian left–that is, the Fascists, Communists and Nazis–and the democratic left have widely used in a positive sense such terms as “the people,” “the workers” or “the masses,” these are the ostensible beneficiaries of their policies, but not autonomous decision-makers. Although much of the rhetoric on both the democratic left and the totalitarian left has long papered over the distinction between ordinary people as beneficiaries and as decision-makers, it has long been clear in practice that decision-making has been seen as something reserved for the anointed in these visions.
Rousseau, for all his emphasis on “the general will,” left the interpretation of that will to elites. He likened the masses of the people to “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.” Godwin and Condorcet, also on the eighteenth century left, expressed similar contempt for the masses. Karl Marx said, “The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing”–in other words, millions of human beings mattered only if they carried out his vision. George Bernard Shaw included the working class among the “detestable” people who “have no right to live.” He added: “I should despair if I did not know that they will die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.” As a young man serving the U.S. Army during the First World War, Edmund Wilson wrote to a friend: “I should be insincere to make it appear that the deaths of this ‘poor white trash’ of the South and the rest make me feel half so bitter as the mere conscription or enlistment of any of my friends.”
The totalitarian left has been similarly clear that decision-making power should be confined to a political elite–the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the leader of a “master race,” or whatever the particular phrase that might become the motto of the particular totalitarian system. In Mussolini’s words, “The mass will simply follow and submit.”
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

Bound Hand & Foot

In ancient China, upper-class women had their feet tightly bound as children, preventing the bones from growing normally, so that they could be hindered in their walking, and only capable of cute little “feminine” steps around the house.
We don’t do that, of course. What we do instead with all our young people is see to it that they do not read a single complete history book in school (maiming their knowledge of history) and we confine their writing mostly to fiction, compositions about themselves, or brief little five-paragraph “essays” about something else (doesn’t matter what), which cripples their ability to write.
Even when we ask them to apply to college and show us their writing, admissions officers ask only for 500-word pieces in which they talk about themselves and their lives.
In Boston the Boston Globe has a competition that asks young people to write about courage. But is it the courage of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, or John Quincy Adams, or James Otis, or Patrick Henry or John Paul Jones, or Florence Nightingale that they want to hear about? Not a chance. They want the youngsters to write about their own courage, for instance perhaps when they spoke to a fellow student who was not popular, etc.
Thus we bind their learning and their imagination, and we try to prevent their access to knowledge of history and the achievements of mankind, and we try to keep them from learning how to write a serious term paper or read a substantial history book.
Why is this happening? One example of the problem is a writing consultant from Teachers’ College, Columbia, who was given a $50,000,000 (yes, $50 million) contract to teach students reading and writing in New York City. When I asked her if she would be having the students write about history, she told me: “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” So, naturally, the students her grant enabled her to “work” with probably didn’t get into content that much either.
Mark Bauerlein wrote (The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future) that on the NAEP history test 57 percent scored “Below Basic.” To score “Basic,” the student has to know who George Washington was. To score “Below Basic” the student has to know that Scooby-Doo was never President, but they probably could not name anyone who ever was President. “Of those taking the exam, a majority, 52 percent, when asked to identify a U.S. Ally during World War II selected a member of the Axis powers–Germany, Italy, and Japan–rather than the Soviet Union” [or Great Britain].
We hear lots of complaints from many quarters that our kids are ignorant of history and cannot write. It would have made as much sense to criticize upper-class Chinese women in the Imperial days because they had such poor times in the 100-yard dash.
If we continue to keep history books away from our students, and limit their writing to brief solipsistic exercises, then we can only expect that they will continue to demonstrate the damage we have done to them, when we test them and look over the writing they are able to produce for us.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776-3371 USA
978-443-0022; 800-331-5007;
Varsity Academics®

A cure for bad teaching of writing

Jay Matthews:

Forty-five years ago, I married the best editor I have ever known. Most of the reasons I love Linda have nothing to do with writing, but it’s useful to have her around when wrestling with a difficult column.
I’m lucky. Few people are willing to and capable of helping others produce engaging and instructive prose. Many editors of my books were helpful, but I still remember the one who did not change a word, good for my ego but not for the book. Newspaper editors, at The Washington Post and elsewhere, have more stories to deal with than ever before, but no more time to fix them.
This problem is particularly acute in our schools, where almost all of us learn to write. I got little instruction before a required composition class my sophomore year of college. The situation has gotten worse since then. Few teachers have enough experience and training to show students what is good writing and what is not. Those who have that skill lack the time to share it with all their students and still have lives.
In a recent column, Michael Shaughnessy of discussed this with Will Fitzhugh, whose Concord Review publishes exemplary high school research papers. They agreed that writing instruction is in crisis. The latest solution – letting computers grade papers – is a dead end.
“These programs don’t care if you are writing an ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ or an ‘Ode to an iPhone,’ ” Fitzhugh said. “The content is of no interest to the robo-graders. They are programmed only to ‘worry’ about a small circumscribed set of writing skills, and the subject of your composition counts for nothing. You can write a dull composition, which amply displays ignorance, and still get a good score from the computers.”

To be fair to the software that reads essays, and the people who created it, in most cases at least one human being also assesses the writing when the grade means something. Rachel Toor, a former editor who is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University, acknowledged in a piece she wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education that a student can be helped by an Apple program that points out clichés, wordy phrases and needlessly complex words, such as “conceptualizing” instead of “thinking.”
But the rest of Toor’s essay was chilling. She cares about improving her students’ writing. She finds that most college professors won’t or can’t do it. At a party, she met a political scientist with an Ivy League education who teaches at a good liberal arts college. He told her he never commented on his students’ writing. “It’s simply not part of his grading process,” she wrote. “He assesses their ideas, he says, not the prose.”
When she asked how he could separate the ideas from their expression, he said “he didn’t feel that he had the expertise to comment on their writing,” she wrote. “He wouldn’t know, he said, what good writing looked like.” She asked whether he thought he was a good writer. “He said yes, because he’s been published,” she wrote.
That suggests that it is better to teach writing in high school. I know several fine, if marginally employed, journalists who could do it. Writing is often mentioned as one of the premier 21st century skills, and it can be taught without exhausting the teachers.
Require students to take at least one semester of reading and writing instead of their regular English class. A paper is due each Monday. In class, students read whatever they like or work on next week’s essay while the teacher calls them up in turn and edits their papers as they watch.
At the end of the day, there are no stacks of student papers to ruin the instructor’s home life. Each student gets personal attention. Even Linda Mathews might be persuaded to teach that class.

Down in Lower Education

In 1893, when the Committee of Ten published its recommendations for high school education, Upper Education and Lower Education academics were still talking to each other. Harvard president Charles William Eliot was the chairman, and the committee, Diane Ravitch reported in Left Back (Simon & Schuster, 2000), included four other college presidents, three high school principals, and a college professor. In 1918, when the NEA Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education issued its report, the chairman was, as Diane Ravitch wrote, “Clarence Kingsley, a former social worker, former teacher of mathematics at Brooklyn Manual Training High School, and–at the time of the report–supervisor of high schools in Massachusetts.” (Ravitch, pp. 42,123)
The main objectives for high school students in the NEA report were: “1. Health, 2. Command of fundamental processes, 3. Worthy home membership, 4. Vocation, 5. Citizenship, 6. Worthy use of leisure, and 7. Ethical character.” These “became famous among educators as ‘the Seven Cardinal Principles,’ the seven objectives based on the needs of life.” (Ravitch, p. 124)
With this new set of objectives in view, and with the transformation of the Normal Schools
into psychobabbling Graduate Schools of Education hostile to academic content, perhaps it is not surprising that college professors and other academics were increasingly estranged from the goings on in Lower Education. What professor of history or physics or Romance languages or nanotechnology could find common ground with those at the Lower Level who were dedicated to teaching secondary students the “worthy use of leisure”?
Nevertheless, as the number of high schools grew, along with the number of colleges, one Upper Education group formed a growing interest in what people were doing in sports at the Lower Level. This would be college coaches, who saw in the strong interest in athletics at the high school level a vital breeding ground for the athletes they would need to recruit for their college programs. As a consequence, college coaches began to keep track of the progress of especially promising high school athletes in a variety of sports, and in their Lower Education Level coaches. In fact, friendly relations were often formed between high school coaches and college coaches, so that news about really good athletes could get to the Upper Level in time to enable recruiting to begin (now at about the 10th grade).
Coaches in colleges recognized that success in their jobs depended in part on their ability to locate good candidates and persuade them to come to their place of work to be athletes after high school. Lower Education coaches understood that their work and their opinions were valued by those in the Upper Education reaches of their sports.
Meanwhile, among teachers of academic subjects in Lower Education, a very different situation could be found. Teachers who identified and prepared promising students of history or physics or literature realized that their counterparts in Upper Education did not want to know them or to hear about their students. Upper Education professors left recruitment of great candidates in their disciplines completely up to the Upper Education Admissions Committees.
By contrast, Upper Education coaches have decided not to depend on the Admissions people to find the best athletes for them. In fact, they typically bring the Admissions Committees lists of the athletes who they would like to have admitted to meet the needs of their teams. Upper Education professors rarely, if ever, come to the Admissions Committees with names of scholars from the high schools they wanted admitted to strengthen their academic departments.
Of course there are many differences in the reward systems for Upper Level coaches and for Upper Level professors. If the coaches do not get good athletes they will not be able to win games, matches, or other athletic competitions and before long their jobs will be in jeopardy. On the other hand, most Upper Education professors believe they lose nothing by simply ignoring their Lower Education colleagues, their students, and their curricula. Their jobs depend on their research and publications, for the most part, and they are content to let the Admissions Committees select their students for them. When the students arrive in their courses, they often complain that these recruits are ignorant and unable to do serious Upper Education academic work, but that never seems to increase their interest in meeting Lower Education teachers or finding out what academic work is being done at that Lower level.
One result of this situation is that Lower Education teachers and scholars are aware that Upper Education academics don’t much care about what they do, while Lower Education coaches and athletes (often the same people) are quite sure that Upper Education coaches are very interested in what they are doing, to the extent, in some cases of forming good relationships between them. It is understood that Upper Education coaches may even wish to visit promising high school athletes in their homes in an effort to recruit them for their programs. It is beyond imagination that an Upper Education professor would do anything like that.
In their battles against anti-intellectualism, Lower Education people can expect little or no interest or assistance from their Upper colleagues, and the professors in Upper Education will no doubt continue to bemoan the level of preparation of their students, especially in reading and writing, without wondering, it seems, if that is the result in part of anything they have failed to do.
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
17 July 2012

“I was free to ask the unanswered questions probing my mind, and determine my own answers and conclusions accordingly. That feeling of liberation and freedom in the writing process proved crucial to the success of my paper.”

Ayana Gray:

The Concord Review: A Process
“I really hope it’s worth it, Ayana.” I can still hear my dad, exasperated, as I sat hunched over the family computer typing frantically at two a.m. one Sunday morning. I’d been writing for hours, determined to finish this paper, and now even he’d grown weary watching me work. I couldn’t explain to him that, for me, writing this paper to be submitted for possible entry into The Concord Review was worth it for more than one reason. I couldn’t explain, to him nor anyone else, that while this paper was the chance for me to delve more thoroughly into a research project than I ever had before, it was also a chance for me to prove to myself that I could do it, that at seventeen years old, I could write a twenty-page paper.
Interest in the main topic of my research paper, female infanticide, began as a sophomore in the previous school year. It was my first opportunity in my academic career to write about anything I wanted. There were no boundaries, no specifics, and few requirements; I was free to ask the unanswered questions probing my mind, and determine my own answers and conclusions accordingly. That feeling of liberation and freedom in the writing process proved crucial to the success of my paper.
It is significantly easier to break a research paper writing project into stages. Alongside my peers, I believe the most common difficulty we all faced was finding the academic support to affirm and corroborate the claims and statements we made. Thus, I learned to break the process into two simpler stages: reading and then writing. Never mind trying to write and read alternately; know your topic absolutely. Read as much as possible–highlighting and marking frequently–and note important facts. When beginning to write, write your own opinions, and then use the facts you’ve accumulated to further affirm what you have to say. Not only is this process less tedious and consuming than sifting back and forth from your research to your paper, it allows room for your own “voice” as you write.
Finally, the power of drafting and continuous editing can never be overstated. By the end of writing, my entire paper had probably been edited six times, and each sub-section of the paper innumerably. It is crucial to edit your work not only grammatically, but conceptually throughout its entire production.
At the close of my junior year, one faithful Monday morning, I submitted my paper for possible submission to The Concord Review with more than a feeling of gratification. In writing and researching over the course of two months, not only had I phenomenally expanded my knowledge on a global issue I felt justified my concern, I’d expanded my skill as a writer. I learned, most essentially, that what you write about must be what most impassions you. There will, inevitably, be periods of doubt as you write, and certainly times when you’d like nothing more than to rid yourself of all things relevant to your topic and even start anew. But if you choose to research something you truly care about, hopefully you feel the same way I did, as if it’s your duty to write about it so that others may read and learn and desire to change something.


With a consistency comparable only to the world’s abil- ity to change daily, humanity undergoes evolution. Politically, economically, and particularly socially, changes throughout the contemporar y world are unavoidable and, at best, only understood in part. Yet amidst many changes that threaten the global com- munity’s future, demographic changes have caused increasing concern of late. As author Thomas Homer-Dixon notes in his The Upside of Down: “to understand the destiny of our global society… it is good to start with global demographics.”1 Populations, most notably in impoverished areas of the world, are expected to grow astronomically in subsequent decades, resulting in an unprec- edented youth bulge2 in many developing countries. China and India–presently two of the world’s most densely populated coun- tries–are especially affected by this rapid population increase. Yet despite impending threats of mass starvation and economic
downfall resulting from widespread poverty and overpopulation, sex-selective abortion and female infanticide are undoubtedly most threatening to populations in China and India.

Upper Education Myopia

Not long ago, an associate professor of Creative Writing (the most popular subject in which is now not Ozymandias or Dover Beach or Westminster Bridge, but “ME”)…at an Upper Education institution west of the Mississippi wrote an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, bemoaning the incompetence and/or indifference of her Upper peers in evaluating, correcting or coaching the academic writing of their students:
“…And since there’s little room in most graduate curricula to focus on writing, many future faculty members simply never learn. The truth is, everyone thinks whoever went before him or her was responsible for the job of teaching writing: College instructors believe students learned the mechanics in high school; graduate advisers assume their students learned as undergraduates what they needed to know about style and argumentation.
By the time people become professors, they have no one to turn to for help with their writing. Some hope or pray that editors will save them; sometimes that happens. But most acquisitions editors don’t have the time or energy to do line-editing, and they assume that the copy editors will clean up the prose…And so, bad prose gets published and bad models proliferate….
…What, then, to make of the political scientist who didn’t think he had the expertise to comment on his students’ writing? I believe he’s shirking an important aspect of his job…If professors don’t tell students that the writing matters, who will? If professors don’t know what good writing looks like, who does?”
I followed up this welcome interest in academic writing at the Upper Education level by sending her information about The Concord Review, which, for 25 years has been working to encourage, distribute and, with the National Writing Board, to assess, serious academic expository writing by high school students around the world (Lower Education Level).
The replies I got from the Upper Education personage were:
“I got a whole bunch of messages that I don’t think were meant for me. You might check your computer for viruses.”
When I sent more information, she replied that she had seen material about these efforts when she was in Admissions at an Upper Education place in the Southeast but:
“What made a big impression on me is that there was (as I recall) a submissions fee. At Duke, I saw a lot of ‘honors’ that came with a price tag. That troubles me.”
So, of course, she never inquired further. (And yes, Duke takes an admissions fee…)
Now, so as not to charge all Upper Education people with having the same dim or poor vision about writing at the Lower Education Level, here is a letter I got from a physicist at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study…
Einstein Drive, Princeton, New Jersey 08540
22 June 2000
Mr. Will Fitzhugh, President
National Writing Board
The Concord Review
730 Boston Post Road, Suite 24
Sudbury, Massachusetts 01776
Dear Mr. Fitzhugh,
I recently came across The Concord Review, and I would like to express my appreciation for your leadership role and your continuous dedication to this endeavor. Not only am I impressed with the high quality of the history articles that appear in the Review, but I am also impressed with the very idea of a publication which provides a forum for the academic work of high school students in history.
As a physicist, I am accustomed to the many initiatives, such as math competitions and physics olympiads, instituted to recognize and promote interest and talent in the sciences among high school students. However, I have always felt that there was no equivalent mechanism to encourage and nurture students in the humanities, and to recognize their accomplishments. The Concord Review strikes me as a simple yet brilliant idea to help fill that gap, and as a very effective way to promote high standards and excellence in the humanities.
Chiara R. Nappi
Theoretical Physicist
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
12 July 2012

Level of Expectations

It has become an educational cliché to say that “students will rise to the level of expectations.” But how do we explain the students whose work rises well above our level of expectations? Mostly, we just ignore them. In the local media, coverage of high school sports “blanks” any and all accounts of exemplary academic work by high school students.
In the mid-1980s, when I was teaching (as I thought) United States History to Sophomores at the high school in Concord, Massachusetts, I assigned, following the advice of my colleagues, history papers of just 5-7 pages, but I did tell the students that the title page did not count as one of the pages.
One quiet student, who I did not know at all, turned in a 28-page paper on the current balance of nuclear/thermonuclear weapons between the United States and the USSR. He later graduated summa cum laude from Tufts in economics. Why did he do that paper? He didn’t need to, and he didn’t do it for me. He was “rising” to the level of his own expectations. As Laurence Steinberg wrote in Beyond the Classroom: “Within a system that fails (flunks) very few students, then, only those students who have high standards of their own–who have more stringent criteria for success and failure–will strive to do better than merely to pass and graduate.”
In the last 25 years I have published more than 1,000 history research papers by crazy motivated secondary students like that from 46 states and 38 other countries. (I am happy to provide pdfs of some of these exemplary history research papers on request to
Since the 1960s, the International Baccalaureate has been expecting students to complete a 4,000-word Extended Essay to qualify for the Diploma. In 2011, I published an 11,000-word (Emerson Prize) paper on the stagnation in science and technology in China for five centuries after 1500, and the student had to cut it down to 4,000 words to meet the expectations for the Extended Essay and the IB Diploma. ACT and the College Board have not yet included an expectation for that sort of academic expository writing.
Often we work to limit what students do academically. Several years ago, when The Concord Review was receiving submissions of high school history research papers of 6,000, 8,000, and 10,000 words, I asked the Executive Director of National History Day, which has as one option for competitors a 2,500-word history paper, if they had considered accepting essays that were longer. She said that no, they didn’t want any paper that took more than 10 minutes to read.
Recently when I published a 108-page (Emerson Prize) paper on the War of Regulation in North Carolina in the 18th century by a student from an independent school west of the Mississippi, I found out that she had to reduce it to 9 pages, without endnotes, to enable her to win first place nationally in the National History Day competition.
One student whose (Emerson Prize) work I published went to her teacher and said: “My paper is going to be 57 pages, is that all right?” And the teacher (may his tribe increase) said, “Yes.”
Five or six years ago I received a paper (Emerson Prize) on the history of economic reform in China in recent years from a student at a public high school in Ohio. Like high schools generally, hers expected her to complete their requirements in four years. Instead she did it in two and spent the next two years as a full-time student at The Ohio State University before applying to Harvard as a freshman. She recently graduated from there with high honors in mathematics, with an economics minor.
I should say that, even though Asian students have the highest academic achievement of any group in the United States, not all of the students I have published have been Asian, nor did the high level of expectations for their own academic work all come from the Confucian influence of their parents.
When it comes to academics, we seem to give the vast majority of our attention to, and spend the bulk of our efforts on, students whose efforts fall far below our expectations, those who, if not among the 25-30% who fail to finish high school, may enter community college reading at the fifth-grade level, and more than half of whom will drop out from there. Naturally we want to help those who are doing poorly in school. Still, we do want our most brilliant students to start companies, become scientists, be our judges, diplomats, and elected officials, teach history, write good books, and otherwise work to sustain and advance our civilization. But our basic attitude is–let them manage on their own.
How different it is for our promising young athletes, for whom we have the highest expectations, on whom we keep the most elaborate statistics, and to whom we dedicate the most voluminous local media coverage, as well as nationally-televised high school football and basketball games.
If we matched for them the expectations we have for our students’ academic work, we might be asking them to run just one lap, do two pushups, and spend most of their time helping out in gym classes, or playing video games, instead of practicing their sport. But our young people, being the way they are, would no doubt “cheat,” as some do in academics, by deriving higher standards from their own ambition and from seeing the achievements of their peers, and the athletes for whom we might try to set such low expectations, like the young scholars for whom we do, would continue to rise above them, and to astonish us with their accomplishments. Dumb Lucky us.
Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
25 June 2012

The Bigger Picture on MMSD School Board Conflicts of Interest

I found the recent Wisconsin State Journal article on the school board elections and Nichelle Nichols’ Urban League employment odd and at the same time interesting. When I was elected in 2006, there was a well established practice that board members would abstain from both discussion and voting if there was a conflict of interest OR the APPEARANCE of a conflict of interest. I distinctly remember leaving the room, and watching other board members leave the room when discussions involved employment, financial interests, leadership positions in nonprofits, and other factors involving the board member or a close member of their family. This practice is less codified than it was in 2006, and perhaps should be revisited when the new board member(s) take(s) office.
In tapping members of the community, there are few board members who have zero conflicts of interest. I have stepped out of participation when the discussion involved agreements with my employer, or decisions that would possibly affect the value of property owned by my husband. Arlene has stepped out of discussions involving Promega, her employer. As a retired teacher with related MMSD benefits, Marj has stepped out of negotiations and bargaining. Ed has, in the past, stepped out of decisions involving the Goodman Center where his wife is a board member. More than one of us has stepped out of disciplinary decisions that have affected the children of colleagues or friends of the family.
I believe that this high standard of conduct has been good practice for the district. People openly acknowledge that they oughtn’t discuss or vote on a matter because they may not be entirely neutral or lacking in interests other than the best interest of the district. Which is what board members are elected to consider first and foremost.
Nichelle Nichols has acknowledged the issues throughout her campaign and has indicated that she would step out where discussions and decisions overlap with her ULGM responsibilities. Mary Burke, if elected, will need to do her own soul searching about whether it is appropriate to vote on matters related to AVID, Boys and Girls Club, Dane County United Way, and perhaps other organizations where she plays a significant philanthropy and/or leadership role. If re-elected, I expect that Arlene will continue to take the high road as she has done in the past. The candidate who appears to carry the least conflict of interest baggage is Michael Flores, and I would expect that other board members and district counsel would play a role in helping him to decide how to handle conflicts if they arise.
What concerns me at this time is a subtle shift that has de-emphasized the higher standard to which board members once held themselves. The GAB response to DeFour appears to narrowly focus on whether there is an employment relationship between a board member and an organization that may benefit from a board vote, ignoring other types of relationships that would make impartiality challenging to exercise or demonstrate.
In addition, the post-election orientations for board members that were formerly in place have fallen by the wayside in recent years. As a result, people elected in recent years did not receive the printed copies of board policies and discussion of how they worked – including conflicts of interest – that helped to train and inform myself and other longer-serving board members.
In addition, Board Policy 1540 – School Board Ethics that addresses ethics was rewritten in recent years. That rewrite added a good deal of language about board behavior, but the relevant language on conflicts of interest is relegated to the MMSD “Code of Conduct” Board Policy 9000A, in which the following sections are overshadowed by concern about decisions made to enter into contracts or purchase services:

3 No employee or member of the Board of Education shall participate in or attempt to influence any District decision-making process in which s/he has a substantial personal or financial interest.
4 No employee or member of the Board of Education may use her/his employment or position with the District in a way that produces or assists in the production of a substantial benefit for the employee.
“Substantial personal interest” or “substantial benefit” to the employee or member of the Board of Education includes, but is not limited to, such interest or benefit that an immediate family member has, as well as an interest in an organization with which the employee or member of the Board of Education is associated.

It is my hope that as the newly configured board takes shape in a few weeks, it will use the orientation and settling period to review and reflecting on the above sections of board policy and procedure. My personal perspective is that such an effort would be time well spent, if only to collectively remember and affirm the fundamental and primary responsibility of elected board members to serving the best interests of the district and its students. There is no question that individual board members ‘get it,’ but there also is something very powerful about making a group commitment to these values at the beginning of the annual school policy cycle.

Dates for MMSD Achievement Gap Input Sessions

Article on first Input Session (held at West last night) in Feb. 22 Wisconsin State Journal.
Whatever your position/perspective may be, please participate in these important discussions that will have a significant impact on the future of MMSD schools and the students that they serve.
Feb. 28 (Tuesday), Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 S. Park St.
Feb. 29 (Wednesday), La Follette High School, 702 Pflaum Road.
March 1 (Thursday), Memorial High School, 201 S. Gammon Road.
March 6 (Tuesday), East High School, 2222 E. Washington Ave.
March 7 (Wednesday), Bridge Lakepoint Waunona Neighborhood Center (in Spanish), 1917 Lake Point Drive.
March 8 (Thursday), Lussier Education Center, 55 S. Gammon Road.
March 10 (Saturday), Vera Court Neighborhood Center, (10 a.m. to noon), 614 Vera Court.
March 14(Wednesday), CUNA Mutual, 5910 Mineral Point Road.
March 17 (Saturday), Centro Hispano (in Spanish) (10 a.m. to noon), 810 W. Badger Road.
March 22 (Thursday), Allied Family Center, 4619 Jenewein Road. [Time not listed in paper]
March 27, East Madison Community Center, 8 Straubel Court. [Time not listed in paper]

Madison 360: On school ‘gap’ issue, there’s also a gap between leaders

I am quoted in the article. This is the full response that I made to the proposition that it would be terribly “hard to confront achievement gap issues head on without potentially fueling feelings that regular or high-achieving kids are not front and center in Madison, perhaps even increasing white flight. It must be a very hard balancing act.”
That may be the case, but to divert attention from a very real crisis rooted in over 50 years of failed effort to focus attention on achievement and opportunity for African American students, is something that I cannot accept. It has taken a lot of work and controversy to get the issue of the achievement gap (no, it is not a “gap”) on the table. How ironic (and morally reprehensible) it would be to refocus on white flight while letting the opportunity to unite around racial achievement slip through our fingers.
Dear Paul,
I realize that my answer is blunt and edgy. I was going to apologize but I really cannot. How long must this community live with its head in the sand when it comes to racial justice? And how long must families of color hear words of concern followed with “but we are worried about our white middle class families leaving?” Please watch the video taped testimony from December 19, and then think about what it is that you really want to write. If you do not want to watch 5.5 hours of painful commentary, then please watch (separate video) James Howard’s statement during the board comments on how and why we each voted the way that we did.
To be honest, I would find the column that you propose to write to be offensive at best. Especially to the families who provided over 10 hours of testimony at 3 minutes per person, with very few repeat testifiers, over the course of the Madison Prep debate. Some of those families have waited over 40 years for someone to take their aspirations and their children’s achievement seriously. And as thanks for raising the issue, parents of African American students are being told that the problem is really broken homes, lack of value for education, poor parenting, addiction, and poverty. Well, I AM one of “those parents.” James Howard, the president of the school board, is one of “those parents.” As are [names redacted], and many many other parents.
I wonder if you and others are aware that not all middle, upper middle class, and/or affluent people are are white. Or the number of African American kids who can achieve but are sent direct and indirect messages that they really aren’t “high achiever” material. Or that many white middle class families are every bit as unhappy and uncomfortable with the racism that they see in our schools and in the people who wish to cater to it in order to prevent the white flight of privilege. The “real” problem is not white flight. It is the failure to take achievement seriously, particularly when it comes to students of color.
There is a very real reason why many UW African American faculty, and African American religious and business leaders who have school age children will not live in the Madison district. There is a very real reason why many African American graduates of our schools will not send their children to Madison schools. There is a very real reason why families who can afford to send their kids to Edgewood, St. James, and other schools are doing so. It boils down to where they think their kids will have the best chance of being seen and nurtured as achievers, and that is not the Madison Metropolitan School District.
I am sorry to say this, but I find it repulsive that, particularly during black history month, you are interested in writing a pity piece for the people who are always at the forefront of our concerns, while ignoring the very real, raw, and painful experience of the people who cannot get any acknowledgment of their conditions. And, frankly, if that is what you got out of your conversation with Dan Nerad, I would respectfully suggest that the ability of this district and this leader to address achievement need no further explanation.
Full article at

Educating black males: Closing the gap: What Works, what doesn’t

The current issue of the Phi Delta Kappan magazine is devoted to articles on “Educating black males: Closing the gap: What Works, what doesn’t.”
Table of Contents — February 2012, 93 (5)
Featured articles include:
Pedro A. Noguera –
Saving black and Latino boys: What schools can do to make a difference
Christopher Emdin –
Yes, black males are different, but different is not deficient
Sandra Hughes-Hassell,Casey H. Rawson,Lisa McCracken,Mary Gray Leonard,Heather Cunningham,Katy J. Vance,and Jennifer Boone –
Librarians form a bridge of books to advance literacy
Terry Husband – Why can’t Jamal read?
Jerome E. Morris and Adeoye O. Adeyemo –
Touchdowns and honor societies: Expanding the focus of black male excellence
Gregory A. Patterson – Separating the boys from the girls
Tracey Sparrow and Abby Sparrow –
The voices of young black males

School Board rips Nerad’s diversity proposal

It is taken as conventional wisdom that “there aren’t any” teachers, administrators, or other people of color and that’s why MMSD’s staff lacks diversity. According to the document at the link below, people of color are applying. They aren’t getting hired. That is happening in many cases because the applicants – even for entry level jobs – are “screened out” because they “lack the qualifications” or have other deficits. Others are referred for interviews but not hired. This is the case from custodians and educational assistants up through principals and high level administrators.
It is true that recruitment must improve for teachers, but I would argue that is about missed opportunities (e.g. job fairs in urban districts undergoing layoffs, continuing to rely on UW-Madison as the largest source of teacher candidates given the lack of diversity in the School of Education, etc.). It also is about entrenched patterns of hiring, that could be changed with high quality leadership.
The decision to post a position as a strongly HR/employment-related position and then hire someone with no experience in those areas is disturbing given the MMSD’s track record and the need to make knowledgeable, skillful, and significant change. Indeed, it points to the fundamental problem in diversifying MMSD staff at any level.
Full story at:

Improved Videos of December 19 Public Appearances and Vote on Madison Prep Are Available

MMSD has now posted the videos from the December 19, 2011 meeting at which the Board of Education voted on the proposed Madison Preparatory Charter School. The first video contains the public appearances statements; the second contains the board comments, vote, etc., through the vote to adjourn.
The versions that are now posted are much improved – the video that was originally posted had issues with sound quality and ended abruptly during board statements. The new videos have terrific sound quality and contain the full meeting. (Thanks to MMSD staff for the work that went into this.)

Two contested School Board Races

From today’s Wisconsin State Journal.
Two Madison School Board races are shaping up as the city’s most high-profile election contests this spring, with the board’s vote last month against a controversial charter school proposal front and center.
All four candidates who filed paperwork by Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline say the election is about more than Madison Preparatory Academy, the proposed single-sex charter school that was voted down by the board last month.
But they agree the issue that drove the charter school debate — raising achievement levels of low-income, minority students — will be a key issue over the next three months.
Madison last had multiple contested School Board races in 2007. In the past four years, only two of nine races were contested.
The election will be a referendum on both the district’s handling of Madison Prep and the achievement gap, said former School Board member Ray Allen, a Madison Prep supporter.
“The community has a unique opportunity,” Allen said. “They’ve got choices and they can voice their opinions.”
The achievement gap has been a critical issue for the district for the past 20 years, said former School Board member Carol Carstensen, a Madison Prep opponent. The Madison Prep debate elevated the conversation about the issue, but there are “a host of issues that you have to deal with as a School Board member.”
“You want people coming in who don’t have a set agenda, but who have principles that are important to them,” Carstensen said. “They are elected to represent the entire district ultimately.”
Other major issues include the future of the teachers union contract after it expires in 2013, school building maintenance needs, limited state funding and how to reverse the increasing number of families opting to leave the district.
Read more:

Code of Conduct – Proposed Changes and Approved Changes

At the last meeting of the full board, we voted (5-1) to make specific amendments to the existing Code of Conduct rather than accept the changes proposed by administration. In the past week, the board has received a few e-mails arguing that we should have adopted the proposed changes. Unfortunately, the description of what happened and why has been incomplete at best, so I have posted my thoughts on making the motion to amend the existing code rather than adopt the administration’s proposal.

My Thoughts on the MMSD Budget Gap

After some time for quiet reflection, I have posted some thoughts on the recent WSJ article on the Madison public schools’ budget gap. I am responding to comments that have been flying around since the board president indicated his sense that the board is not interested in raising property taxes.
About those property taxes and the MMSD budget gap…
I recently wrote this response to TJ Mertz’s blog on the newly-discovered shortfall in state aid to the Madison Metro School District. It places the gap, and the WSJ article on the gap, in perspective. At least it provides my perspective on where we are and what is likely to happen next.
Read full post at:

Video of High School Plan Meeting Now On-line
The high school piece begins c. 9 minutes into the video.
Please note that district staff initially present as if the ACT model is a given. As 1 of 7 board members, I would say that I have not seen the compelling case that this is the only model to use. I did not raise questions at the meeting about the ACT model; other members did. I do not take using the ACT model is a given. I am open to learning more and considering other models.
I found the discussion to be helpful despite my impatience with eduspeak, and came away from the workshop with new questions. I also came away from the workshop seeing the potential for benefits by taking up the proposed changes or perhaps alternatives to those changes.
This is a topic that evokes a great deal of passion among board members, staff, parents, and concerned community members. It is a topic that deserves our attention because we must review and enhance the education that our students receive before they graduate and enter the highly competitive worlds of work and/or higher education.

Are Single-Sex Schools Legal in Wisconsin?

I am not a lawyer, but I can read policy documents. WI statutes were revised to permit single-sex schools and courses. DPI has a very good question and answer page about the law and how DPI is interpreting it, at:
The page begins:
On April 14, 2006, the Governor approved Act 346, which allows school boards and charter schools to establish single-sex schools and courses. Act 346 amended §§ 118.13(1), 118.40(4)(b)2, 119.04(1), and 119.22, Wisconsin Statutes, and created §§ 118.40(4)(c) and 120.13(38), Wisconsin Statutes. You can access Act 346 online at

What I Might Hope To See in High School Reform

Right now I am struggling to get my head around what the proposed high school reforms are or are not, what problems they are intended to address (TAG? achievement gap? readiness for life after high school? other?), the many interpretations of what is proposed, and whether the proposed reforms would be effective in achieving any of the stated purposes.
In an interesting twist, this process has brought me back to my own personal wish list of what I would like to see in comprehensive high school reform. I believe that any one of the items on the list would make a real difference and in ways that are compatible with DPI requirements and national standards.
My thinking is informed by sources that are predictable and others that may not be obvious but are equally important: personal observation, years of listening at parent meetings and testimony to the school board, numerous national studies and commentaries, and what I have learned from my highly skilled colleagues who work with undergraduate programs at UW-Madison.
In some ways, the debates over the proposed two-strand system, the fate of electives (which I want to keep), consistency across the four high schools, college preparation, national standards, etc., are less important to me than the basic expectations and requirements for the students who enter and graduate from our schools. Without changing those things, I believe that we will be confined to tinkering around the edges without touching some of the fundamental expectations that students will confront after graduation.
I believe that we could make a serious dent in the achievement gap, address long standing dissatisfaction with academic opportunities and challenges, and move toward rebuilding Madison’s reputation for schools that draw people to invest in homes in our metro area and neighborhoods by truly making the changes – vs. planning to study and eventually implement changes – to address the items that are on this list:
1. Increase opportunities for advanced study at all grade levels, whether it is part of an AP curriculum or other courses developed and taught at a higher level with or without special labels. Then remove the unmovable obstacles that keep students from participating.
2. Restore West’s 9th and 10th grade honors courses.
3. Conform MMSD policy and practice to meet or exceed DPI standards at all grade levels, and particularly in regard to graduation requirements.
4. Guaranty that ALL middle school math teachers are proficient in algebraic reasoning and other skills necessary to prepare students to master the high school math and science curriculum.
5. Teach students to write using complete sentences, correct spelling and standard grammatical conventions.
6. Make a compelling case for consistency and then truly implement consistency across the board if that is going to be a rationale for homogenizing the curriculum in our high schools.
For the entire post, go to:

West: TAG Complaint and Proposed High School Redesign Create Perfect Storm

The parent complaint to DPI over MMSD’s failure to comply with WI laws on Talented and Gifted education have combined with administration’s recent proposal to create more consistency across the four major high schools, to create a perfect storm of controversy at Madison West. Within the past 24 hours, allegations that the proposal eliminates all electives have spawned a number of calls and e-mails to the Board of Education, a FB page (Walk-out Against MMSD School Reform) promoting a student walk out on Friday, and a YouTube video created to protest the elimination of electives.
As a board member, I have a somewhat different take largely because I know that allegations that the proposal to standardize core high school curriculum is not a product of the DPI complaint. Anyone who has watched MMSD operate, would probably agree that nothing is put together that quickly (the complaint is less than a month old), especially when it involves a proposal.
I also just received the proposal a day or so ago. In full disclosure, I did not take advantage of the briefings conducted for board members who met with the superintendent and assistant superintendent individually or in pairs. I’m a certifiable pain in the neck and thought that any presentations should be made to the board as a whole in an open board or committee meeting, but that is just my issue.) I am just beginning to read and think through what is being proposed, so have no firm opinion yet.
More at

A $30 Million Puzzle ‘Solution’? What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate

Like many citizens, journalists, and some of my fellow board members, I have been struggling to make sense of the projected $30 million budget or tax gap. Like others who have tried to understand how we got to the number “$30,” I have tried several approaches to see if I could come to the same conclusion. Some of them focused on an unexpected major rise in spending, or, an unexpected or unexplained loss of revenue beyond the $17 million in state cuts. (See Susan Troller’s Madison School’s ‘Budget Gap’ is Really a Tax Gap, for example.)
The answers for the portion of the gap that I could not understand or explain kept coming back to the tax levy. District staff were patient and helpful in trying to answer my questions, but we still didn’t understand each other. The shortest version of the tax levy explanation comes from the district’s Budget Questions and Answers handout.
To recap, the MMSD $30 million budget gap has been explained thusly by
administration. There are two parts to the gap, $1.2 million in expenses that cannot be met, and $28.6 million shortfall from a combination of state funding cuts and tax levy. To date, administration has explained the gap thusly:
This gap is $28.6 million. This total is composed of three parts:
* $9.2 million cut in state aid the MMSD sustained this year;
* $7.8 million cut in state aid the district will sustain next year;
* $11.6 million of increased costs that come with levying authority – broken out in two parts:
— $7.6 million of increased costs in order to deliver the same services next year that the MMSD is delivering this year, and which the state funding formula allows;
— $4.0 million of increased costs and with levying authority from the approved 2008 referendum)
$28.6 million Tax Shortfall Total
For me, and for others, the sticking point has been the idea that additional levying authority through the referendum and the state funding formula, would add to the shortfall in funds to run our schools. That is, how could more funds turn into a funding loss? Or, put in mathematical terms, how could -17 + 11.6 become -28.6? My math is rusty, and I don’t understand connected math, but it did seem to me that it was unlikely that a negative number would get larger after adding a positive number to it.
Full post on-line at

The Edgewater TIF. Or, Can I Use My MasterCard to Pay My Visa Bill???

As I watch the debates and political maneuvering around the proposed Edgewater development, it is hard not to consider ALL of the repercussions of the decisions that will be made before this is all over. One of the most invisible aspects of the debate is how TIF financing will affect the already-strained finances of Madison’s public schools.
No matter where one lands on the question of how many permanent jobs will be created, the right of people to be heard on development issues that affect their neighborhoods, the value of historic preservation, or public financing for private development, there is one issue that should be made visible to all parties: the TIF financing package is going to hurt the tax base available to our public schools until the TIF is closed out (which could be over 20 years from now).
While proponents of TIF financing rightly assert that TIF increases property value and by extension increases the tax base for the jurisdictions that levy property taxes, there is a hidden side that is rarely discussed publicly in the crush to jump on the “pro-economic development” bandwagon: that benefit does not become available until the district is closed. While districts often close earlier, they may remain open for over 20 years. The benefit does not accrue for years down the road, and in the meantime the value of the affected properties is frozen at the start year of the district.
Not to worry, says the Department of Revenue:
In many areas the school levy represents the biggest portion of the local property tax bill, so it is not a surprise that a large portion of tax increment revenues comes from the school levy. This doesn’t mean that schools don’t get the money they need, however. The school levy that goes toward the tax increment is levied on top of the taxes they need to operate. The school levy is subject to the revenue caps, but within those constraints the schools get all the money they require. The tax increment makes the levy higher than it would otherwise be, but only for as long as the district has a TID in it. Once the TID is closed the larger tax base can help to reduce the tax burden on district residents. (emphasis added)
In other words, the Department of Revenue adopts the same posture adopted by the Joint Finance Committee when it went forward with the plan that left Madison with the biggest cut in state aid to any Wisconsin district: “It’s OK. Schools don’t need to be hurt because districts can raise property taxes to cover the revenue that they lost.” This leaves the dirty work to school districts, who must choose between raising taxes and hurting property owners during a recession, or cutting programs and adding to the damage done by successive years of cuts since Wisconsin’s revenue caps went into effect in 1993.
The Double Whammy
In the case of the Edgewater, and the recently-approved expansion of the capitol square TID #23, Madison Metropolitan School District gets a double whammy of revenue loss. How does this work and what does it mean?
Full post at

4K Update: New Questions and Some Answers

At our January 11 monthly board meeting, we made two decisions about how we would proceed on implementing 4-year-old kindergarten. The media of that meeting are available on the School Information System blog, so I won’t repeat them here.
Implement 4K in Fall 2011
The board voted to defer implementation of 4K until fall 2011 due to concerns about whether the district or many of the community providers could be ready to go in less than 7 months (assuming time for registration and orientation in August.
I voted to defer until 2011 for several reasons. I support 4K. I would have liked to be able to implement in Fall 2010. However, I also had to listen when people who had pushed hard to start in 2010 — especially those from the early childhood education community — asked us to wait a year so that there is adequate time to do all of the steps that are necessary to “get it right.”
More on the decision to defer until 2011 and on new questions on 4K financing at

4K in Madison : Some Answers but More Questions

On Monday night, the Madison Board of Education will vote on whether to implement 4-year-old kindergarten. It has taken the Madison school district years to get to this point, and for some time it looked like 4K would not happen. Several obstacles were removed in the past year, however, and the district was able to work with community early childhood educators and with Madison Teachers, Inc., to arrive at a model that is acceptable to the district, the community, and the teachers’ union.
That’s the good news. On Monday night, there are two outstanding issues that will need to be resolved: financing for the first two years and, the start date for the first 4K cohort. I speak for myself, but believe that my board colleagues would agree that the need and value for such a program was resolved some time ago, so the issues are not whether to implement 4K, but rather the best way to proceed.
Full post at School Daze blog.

Monthly Update From Madison BOE President Arlene Silveira

Reading Programs: The Board received a presentation on Reading Recovery in the district. A number of questions were raised about our reading programs and how programs worked together to ensure we were meeting the needs of all of our students. Therefore, the Board requested a full evaluation of all reading programs at the elementary level so we have a better understanding of the big reading picture.

Superintendent Goals:
As part of the Superintendent evaluation process the Board, in conjunction with the Superintendent, developed goals for the Superintendent. There are a lot of details associated with each goal. The Goal area and targeted Results of each goal are below:
1. Goal Area: Increase the percentage of students who are proficient and advanced in reading. Results: Increased proficiency and advanced proficiency on WKCE or its replacement, other district assessment or standards-based tests. By 2012-14, 100% of students will meet this target.
2. Goal Area: Increase the percentage of students at all grade levels who attend school at 96% or more. Results: Increase attendance for students in every grade, with a specific focus on the students in key transition grades. By 2014-15, 96% or more of students will meet this target.
3. Goal Area: Increase the percentage of students on track for credit attainment for graduation in four years. Results: Increased percentage of students on track for credit attainment for graduation. By 2014-15, 90% or more will meet this target.
4. Goal Area: Completion of a review of the District’s organizational structure and organizational systems/processes and develop a plan to align the work of the Administration to the District’s mission and Strategic Plan. Results: This goal will be assessed by Board approval and successful Administrative implementation of a Plan that aligns the work of the Administration with the District’s mission and Strategic Plan and to principles of quality organizations, and is fiscally sustainable over time.
5. Goal Area: Board relations. Results: Development and implementation of a sustainable system for improving and demonstrating effective communication with the Board of Education.
6. Goal Area: Implement the Strategic Plan action steps targeted for year one as approved by the Board of Education. Results: A report in June 2010 outlining progress toward implementation of the action steps including any evaluation of new programs that has occurred using the approved performance measures.
7. Goal Area: Leadership development goal. To focus on encouraging the heart in others and challenging the process.
What’s Up in January?: 2010 will be a busy year. Items of interest on our January agenda: Decision on the implementation of 4-year-old kindergarten; Race to the Top funds; initial presentation of an environmental charter middle school; core performance measures associated with the strategic plan; and kick-off of the 2010-11 budget process.
Thanks for all you do for our children. Please let us know if you have any questions or comments at .

My Full Set of Questions on the Strategic Plan

First, thank you Jim Z for posting the responses to our questions. I should note that we did not get answers to ALL of our questions. I am uploading the PDF that I sent with my questions in case you are interested in the full set. I apologize for the size of the document – I took the PDF, added notes and highlighting where I was requesting answers, and saved only the pages that were marked up. There are 25 pages in all.
Also, I found the following text while looking for something on the web in my day job. I liked the formulation, so am passing it along:

To meet the challenges of the twenty-first century, our students need not only knowledge, but also the skills to use that knowledge, the responsibilities associated with using it and practice in the integration of that knowledge in new and complex ways.


Mark Miller “explains” how State budget isn’t all that bad

In a remarkable act of denial, Senator Mark Miller has issued the following release absolving himself and his colleagues of all responsibility for the legislative actions that have exacted significant hits on public schools. Passing the buck for the accuracy of the data that was used to calculate aid cuts, and omitting the critical information that federal economic recovery funds will make up for some but not all of the loss in state aid, Miller claims that somehow public schools do not have it so bad. Or at least not as bad as other state agencies.
Regardless of how the comparisons stack up, it takes real imagination to assert that somehow the legislatures protected public education in this budget.

For Immediate Release Contact: Sen. Mark Miller
July 15, 2009 (608) 266-9170
Sen. Mark Miller issued the following statement regarding DPI’s July 1 preliminary general school aid distribution:
In May, when the Joint Finance Committee confronted a dramatic $1.6 billion additional loss in anticipated state revenue, it acted decisively to limit reductions in school aids to $147 million; substantially less than the $237 million cut originally feared necessary. It also took action to limit any aid reduction resulting from the $147 million cut to no more than 10% of a school district’s aid. This goal was accomplished using the most current data available to the committee as provided by the Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB).
Preliminary data provided by DPI affirms that the Legislature’s action was successful at limiting aid reductions attributable to the $147 million cut to 10% for individual school districts. In fact, for the Madison Metropolitan School District, the only reduction in
aid attributable to the $147 million cut approved by the Legislature is $4,519, or 0.0088%.
There are, however, 99 school districts that will see aid reductions of approximately 15%, including the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) which will see a cut of 15.2% according to the latest figures from DPI. These large cuts are primarily a function of the school aid formula, not the Legislature’s action on the 2009-11 budget. According to a recent LFB memo, MMSD is losing aid because of increases in its property values and per pupil expenditures relative to the rest of the state, not because of the $147 million school aid reduction. In fact, even if the legislature acted today to restore the $147 million cut, the majority of these districts – including MMSD – would effectively experience the same reduction in aid.
With the help of federal stimulus dollars and the Legislature’s action to limit reductions in school aids, we were able to protect one of our most basic priorities – educating our children for the jobs of tomorrow – from the deeper cuts that many state agencies received.

2009-2010 MMSD Budget

We passed the 2009-2010 Madison public school district budget last night. This was the second year in a row that we were able to reallocate to avoid ugly ugly cuts.
This was the first year that we moved to undo damage by reallocating money to put back beginning of the year “Ready Set Goal” parent-teacher conferences AND stop doubling up our art, music, gym, and computer classes through “class and a half.” Both items were cuts from past years that were absolute disasters for elementary students.
We expect to receive the strategic planning report in June, and it will inform planning for the 2010-11 budget as we move forward this coming year. In the meantime, we are waiting to hear how the state budget will impact school finance. And we are continuing work to modernize and refine the ways that we work with resources to find additional ways to strengthen our schools.

Severson on McKenna

Jim, thank you for posting the link to this fascinating set of rants on the MMSD school board. I STRONGLY suggest that people watch the committee meeting video that is available at:
Simply put, many of the critiques that Severson complains are not happening are in fact very much alive in school board debate, whether it comes to what needs to happen to improve the math curriculum to the reviews and changes in fiscal practice that are making it possible to close the spending gap without further trashing programs. I guess that Don was napping during the three meetings when the discussions were underway?
Or, I may be wrong. This may not be a manipulation of the truth for political purposes. You be the judge – watch the video – and see whether nothing is being done on significant issues as Severson asserts.

Math Task Force Feedback Sessions Slated for January

Last year the MMSD School Board appointed a committee to look at the math curriculum in the district. The task force recently presented their findings to the School Board. We accepted their report and referred it to the Superintendent for recommendations. The next step in the process is a community input session.
Sessions were originally scheduled for December 8 and 9. Those sessions have been postponed until January in order to better publicize the sessions and avoid conflicts with holiday-season events. The dates have not yet been selected, and I will post the dates, places, and times when they have been confirmed.
If you want to comment directly on the math curriculum/task force recommendations, you can send e-mail or post here. I’ll make sure the Superintendent receives your feedback.

School taxes lower than expected

The Madison Metropolitan School District has announced that the school portion of the local property tax will be lower than anticipated in 2008-09.
The drop in the rate translates to an anticipated savings of $67.50 in 2008-09 for a home assessed at $250,000.
“What this means is that property tax rates will be lower because the overall district property values have increased more than we originally expected, while building the 2008-09 budget estimates,” according to Superintendent Dan Nerad.
“The referendum on November 4, 2008 is still necessary to avoid $8.1 million of reductions to direct programs to students within the classroom for the 2009-10 school year,” according to Nerad. “This positive news simply reduces the school portion of individual property tax bills beginning in the 2008 tax year. The Madison School District would still need permission to go above state imposed revenue limits on property tax increases to meet increasing annual expenditures such as utilities, transportation, and employee compensation increases guided by state law.”
With a successful passage of a referendum on November 4, 2008 the Madison School District is committed to creating efficiencies or reducing services by $3.1 million in the 2009-10 school year. This will be accomplished by planned cost saving measures and further financial strategies that will have the least impact on learning in the classroom.
Under the current funding formula in Wisconsin, the property tax levy is set by a state law referred to as the revenue limit formula. The total levy for the 2008-09 school year was approved to increase by $6,039,802 or 2.74% over the prior year. Due to property values increasing at a higher rate than expected, residents within the school district boundaries will see a direct benefit as the property tax bill into the future. With a successful referendum passage for a home valued at $250,000 in 2007-08 the total property tax bill is projected to increase $22 by the 2011-12 school year.
This chart shows the estimated tax impact to owners of a $250,000 in 2007 from 2007-08 through 2011-12.
Estimated school tax rate 2007-08 to 2011-12
Year Tax Rate Tax Bill
2007-08 $10.08 $2,520.00
2008-09 $ 9.81 $2,452.50
2009-10 $ 9.92* $2,480.00*
2010-11 $ 9.70* $2,522.00*
2011-12 $ 9.40* $2,542.00*
*These amounts are estimates
Original estimate of property value increase in 2008 for Madison area property values was 4%
Actual increase in property value in 2008 for Madison area property values was 5.60% (SOURCE: WI Department of Revenue)

Local elected leaders: Vote ‘yes’ Nov. 4 for Madison schools

The Capital Times — 10/27/2008 4:31 am
Dear Editor:
As elected officials, we work hard to make Madison and Fitchburg the best places in the country.
The foundation of our vibrant community is our public schools. Our kids and schools need our support this fall. We urge you to vote for the Madison schools referendum on Nov 4.
Talented professionals, the people who start and build new businesses, don’t do it in a vacuum. They choose communities with the resources for a good life, as well as a good business. First among those resources is quality schools.
Schools in Madison and across Wisconsin are suffering from state-imposed cuts in funding. Some public schools are literally on the verge of bankruptcy. Madison schools have cut programs and services by over $60 million since 1993, when the restrictions began. Every year it’s harder and harder to provide our children the education they need and deserve.
The long-term solution lies with the Wisconsin Legislature. But until there’s a majority working toward a solution, we have to protect our kids.
The Nov. 4 proposal will increase taxes by about $28 on a $250,000 home in 2009, $43 in 2010, and $21 in 2011. The school district’s Web site has details:
For that investment, we’ll maintain smaller class sizes, keep first rate teachers, help our special needs kids, keep up with basic maintenance — and much more. This referendum is very reasonable. The increase in taxes is modest. The commitment to our kids is enormous.
In America, every child deserves a chance to succeed — not just the rich. Public schools make the American dream a reality.
Join us by voting YES on the Madison schools referendum on Nov 4!
Madison School Board: Arlene Silveira, Ed Hughes, Lucy Mathiak, Beth Moss, Marjorie Passman, Johnny Winston Jr.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz
Madison Alders: Brenda Konkel, Mike Verveer, Robbie Webber, Marsha Rummel, Eli Judge, Brian Solomon, Tim Gruber, Satya Rhodes-Conway, Julia Kerr, Tim Bruer, Larry Palm, Judy Compton, Joe Clausius, Mark Clear
Fitchburg Alders: Roger Tesch, Bill Horns, Steve Arnold
Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk
Dane County Supervisors: Scott McDonell, Barbara Vedder, Brett Hulsey, Wyndham Manning, John Hendrick, Matt Veldran, Carousel Andrea Bayrd, Dianne Hesselbein, Paul Rusk, Chuck Erickson, Melanie Hampton, Dave de Felice, Tom Stoebig, Dorothy Wheeler, Sheila Stubbs, Kyle Richmond

State Senators:
Mark Miller, Fred Risser, Jon Erpenbach
Assembly Representatives: Sondy Pope-Roberts, Joe Parisi, Mark Pocan, Spencer Black, Terese Berceau

Final Budget With Lower Taxes

From the Wisconsin State Journal (similar article in Cap Times). Counter-intuitive but true.

Madison School Board OKs tax rate cut

Wisconsin State Journal
The Madison School Board approved lowering taxes on the average Madison home by $67.50, or 2.70 percent, at its meeting Monday night.
The tax rate will be $9.81 per $1,000 of assessed value, down from $10.08 for the 2007-2008 school year, a decrease of 2.7 percent. The owner of a $250,000 home in Madison will pay $2,452.50 in school taxes for 2008, according to the district. Last year, school taxes on a $250,000 home were $2,520.
Of the total budget, $226 million will come from the local property tax levy, an increase of $6 million, or 2.74 percent, according to district figures. The vote was 7-0.
A preliminary budget was approved in the spring. The board makes adjustments in October after enrollment and state aid figures are in for the school year.
A referendum appearing on voters’ ballots next week would increase property taxes for schools by $13 million over three years. If passed, the referendum would add about $28 to the property tax bill of a home assessed at $250,000.

Is the 2008 School Referendum Just More of the Same? No!

On November 4, the Madison School Board is asking voters to vote yes on a referendum that will increase the property tax support base for Madison’s public schools by a total of $13 million after three years. For owners of a $250,000, that translates to an additional $90 in property taxes by the third year.
This is not the first school referendum in recent years. But is it just more of the same? No. The need for a referendum stems from our broken system for funding Wisconsin’s public schools, but that is where the connections end. From the earliest planning through the unanimous Board of Education vote to go to referendum, the 2008 request is a big change from what voters have seen in the past.
The referendum is about funding a community service – K12 education – that is essential to vital neighborhoods and property values, an educated workforce, and, most important, a strong start for the children and youth who hold our future in their hands.
Our proposal is one of two major elements in Superintendent Nerad’s vision of a new partnership between the Madison Metropolitan School District and its communities. The second part is commitment to a long-range planning process that will include strong community input, assessment and review of district staffing and programs, and reallocation of resources to critical areas of need.
The 2008 plan was developed with input from the community. The final proposal represents more than some people want and less than others want; all comments were taken into account by the superintendent and the board.
Additional financial steps that reduce the tax impact on homeowners:

1) Using our 2008 windfall to pay off short term debt and reduce the amount we are asking by $400,000 per year
2) enacting Fund 41 to manage on-going maintenance and protect the district from losing state aid;
3) decreasing the community service fund (Fund 80) property tax levy by $2 million for one year to offset the referendum’s property tax increases;
4) revising our financial forecasts so that the referendum asks only for what we believe we will need; and,
5) using a recurring referendum so that the district will not face the significant new gap that would occur after a fixed-term referendum.

The 2008 referendum does not fix the way that Wisconsin pays for public schools, which has not worked for Madison or other communities. The referendum does not restore programs that were among the $35 million in budget cuts made by the board in the past 5 years, nor does it include new programs. It is one step in our ongoing work to balance school needs with taxpayer means under state laws.

Fine Arts Task Force Report Available On-line

Last night, Fine Arts Task Force co-chairs Barb Schrank and Anne Katz presented the committee’s report at the regular school board meeting. It is a fine document and a reminder of how fortunate we are to have a community that is rich in arts resources and people with a clear understanding of the importance of the arts in educational programs. We all owe this group a significant debt for their diligence in putting together a comprehensive document and set of recommendations.
The report and committee minutes and meeting materials are available on-line at:
Last night the board voted to receive the report and turn it over to administration and staff for analysis and comment. Later this school year, the superintendent and board will hold input sessions to give the community a chance to weigh in on the report and on priorities. I am not sure if this will be done as part of the strategic planning process that the new superintendent has in mind or as a separate process, but I am confident that there will be opportunities to weigh in.
For now, this group deserves a big THANK YOU for their work.

Board of Education Activity in 2006-07

A few weeks ago, the Madison BOE received a summary of what the board and its committees had done in its meetings during the past year. I am posting the entire document as an extended entry as community information. It provides a lot more detail, a good overview, and a glimpse at the pieces that didn’t make it into the print and broadcast media.

Continue reading Board of Education Activity in 2006-07

Naming our newest elementary school

In the interest of transparency, I am posting one of the e-mails received in relation to the decision to restart the naming process for the new school on Madison’s far West side. I also am posting my response, which shares the reason for my apology to the Hmong community on Monday night, and also for advocating that the board go back to square one on the naming process.
It is my expectation/understanding that the board will establish a time line for the nomination and selection process at our July 9 meeting. People who nominated names the first time can resubmit the materials without revision. People who want to submit new or alternate names must follow the process (e.g., commentary on public forums does not constitute a nomination or formal objection).

Dear Board members:
Thank you for doing the right thing and removing Vang Pao*s name from the new west side elementary school. I know it was a difficult decision for you, although I*m not sure why. I was a bit disconcerted about the *regret* and apologies issued to the Hmong community about your votes. How much controversy does a person need before he is unacceptable as a name for an elementary school? You would have never considered General Westmoorland*But, I digress. I really do appreciate the political situation you felt yourself to be in and appreciate your vote for what is best for the children of Madison. You are to be commended!
On another note, I*d like to encourage you to amend your policy to proceed with naming by using the three names left on the original list. My concerns are that the community is not going to heal properly if we have to go through all this again. Naming a school shouldn*t be this difficult. You have an opportunity here to take the best way out and allow the community to move on and give yourselves the chance to deal with more pressing issues*like budget!
Please*take the high road and go back to the list of three and let*s be done with this.
Thanks again, for removing Vang Pao*s name. Your courage is greatly appreciated.
Heidi Reynolds

Dear Ms. Reynolds,
Thank you for taking the time to write. I am not sure that I understand your response, since you so often said – and have gone to great lengths to present yourself to the media as someone who wants to compromise, have nothing against the Hmong, and want to heal the rift between communities.
I cannot speak for my fellow board members, but state for the record that my apologize comes from compassion for the pain and suffering that the Hmong community have experienced in their lives and have been experiencing again since Vang Pao’s arrest. My comments are sincere, just as are my comments that there are no winners in this unfortunate set of events.
As for reopening the process, it seems to me that we have been subjected to repeated allegations that we did not follow board policy the first time around. I cannot speak for my colleagues, but it is my personal hope that by going back to square one we can ensure that the process is followed to the fullest. (There is no policy that mandates going back to the list of finalists in a case such as this, so we are in fact following board policy by starting over.)
Lucy Mathiak

Thoughts on Vote to Reconsider

As other members have posted, it takes 4 votes to place an item on a board agenda. The big issue is that it takes a minimum of 5 votes to change the budget once it has been passed.
I have tried to emphasize that issue in conversations that have taken place in recent days. I have done so, not to be mean, but to encourage people to be highly pragmatic as they try to think through “what next” in this extremely painful time.
I have been asked if I would vote to reconsider. HOWEVER, it seems to me that there are two very different questions at hand:
1)is there a sustainable (e.g. more than a year or two)source of income that was not available or obvious to the board on Monday night. If not, any request to undo the consolidation is likely to fail. I would have trouble supporting it, for example, because of the strong chance that we will be having the same debate in a year or so. That doesn’t seem like a healthy choice for staff or students.
2) is the implementation plan for consolidation structured in the best way for the schools and neighborhoods? This is a very different question and speaks to a number of legitimate concerns that have been raised and which should be considered and addressed by the board and by district administration.
I strongly advise advocates for the pair to ask themselves whether there is a plan that would substantially alter the outcome of a vote on the first question – especially because success requires 5 votes in this case.
I would have a very hard time supporting a reconsideration that rests on reopening other budget decisions that were made on Monday. Similarly, I would have a hard time supporting reconsideration if there is not a viable new scenario to consider.
In short, it is a lot easier for me to envision reopening the consolidation to look at how to proceed in the best and most sustainable way, and to consider how to best work with neighborhoods and staff to rally around the merged school.
I realize that this is not as open ended as some of you may hope. However, IF there is going to be a successful move to reconsider, it will need to be firmly rooted in solid proposals that provide viable alternatives to the existing plan.

For the record

I don’t want there to be misunderstandings about my vote against consolidation. I have made it clear from the beginning that I would not vote against consolidation unless we took a serious look at ways to achieve cost savings in the Marquette-Lapham pair.
I was quite clear that I included in that assessment, the reality that one or both schools would need to host one or more alternative programs as an element of any cost savings. In phone calls, e-mails, conversations with Steve Hartley, and other conversations, I have been quite clear that it would be desirable for people to stop trashing the programs and students (talk about caught in the middle) and start thinking about what it would take to make it work.
In short, I have never supported a plan that would leave the Alternative Programs without a stable home.

My Thoughts on Lapham-Marquette

Over the past week, I have had several heartfelt e-mails from residents of the Lapham-Marquette neighborhood, urging me and other board members to oppose closing Lapham School. To put the e-mails in context, let us all remember that there are MANY proposals out there because EVERYTHING is on the table thanks to the $10 million structural deficit that the district faces.
For those of you who are unaware of my background, let me share with you that I have lived in the Marquette neighborhood since 1978, first as a renter and now as a home owner. My membership # at Willy St. is 10. Yes, ten. My roots go deep, as does my memory of community history. After all, I chose to live there when we had to step over drunks to get to the laundromat, and anyone could get a good dose of grease and indigestion at Dolly’s. I moved in when there were crack houses around the corner, and stayed because it was a values choice.
So where do I stand on “don’t close Lapham?” This is the gist of what I am replying to the e-mails:
I have lived in the Marquette neighborhood since 1978 and was engaged in the vigorous and divisive neighborhood debate over whether to reopen Lapham. Having opposed reopening Lapham at the time because the optimistic demographic projections seemed unsupportable, and having predicted that we would end up at exactly this point, I am now disinterested in closing it so that we can debate the issue once more in ten years. I would note that the majority of children in Lapham are still being bused from the Marquette side of the isthmus; after all these years, the school as family magnet argument has not lived up to predictions.
That said, there is a brutal bugetary reality before the district. $10 million in structural – ongoing – deficit is going to mean change for all of our schools. For that reason, I will be supporting a review of staffing levels for the current population and demographics. (I urge everyone considering the debate to look at the demographics for ALL of our elementary schools and understand that as a progressive I must be concerned for the schools that are functioning with high levels of poverty and inadequate staffing.)
I urge the people who are so passionate about not closing Lapham or combining the pair to be proactive about proposals that can make keeping the school open easier to support. This means finding ways to use the space for some segment of district administration or renting space to community groups or finding some other use that goes beyond the current structure. E.g., the district used to rent space to the Tenney Lapham nursery school.
This time around, it is going to take a lot more than rhetoric or advocacy for referenda to address the very real shortage of resources that we face.

Letter to East Community From Principal Harris Nov. 22, 2006

From the East High Web Site
November 22, 2006
Dear East High School Community:
When I decided to become a principal I promised myself that I would do several things. One was to work as hard as I could to make quality education a reality for all of the students in my building and the second was to pay attention when confronted by people’s concerns and hopes.
As I have worked at East over the last year and a half I have pushed to get the building under control, to begin a conversation with the teaching staff about high quality instruction, to empower students, and to take an honest look at our data.

Continue reading Letter to East Community From Principal Harris Nov. 22, 2006

State Tightening SAGE class size compliance

State tightening class-size initiative
Schools receiving funding must get formal waiver to exceed 15-1 ratio

By AMY HETZNER, Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel
Posted: May 31, 2006
In an effort to get a better handle on state money schools use to reduce class sizes, the state Department of Public Instruction plans to tighten its control over schools that seek to escape from standards set by a state class-size reduction program.
The state agency has imposed a new requirement that schools seek formal waivers before exceeding a 15-to-1 student-teacher ratio guideline set by the Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program.
DPI Deputy Superintendent Tony Evers acknowledged that requiring schools to get a waiver could end some practices the DPI had not known were in effect. Yet the requirement isn’t designed to limit flexibility schools have had, he said.

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Get Real PAC Money

This past Monday, I learned that the PAC Get Real planned to take out independent ads urging people to vote for Maya Cole and me for school board.
I have spoken with Get Real members and have been clear with Get Real and its leadership from the start: I do not accept PAC money or group endorsements. Its members need to read my responses to MTI and other campaign statements to see if they agree with my positions before offering support, because there are issues on which I do NOT agree with Get Real or its individual members. I am talking to all groups who invite me because I want all voters to understand what I believe and stand for.
After learning about the planned ads, I called Nancy Harper, as did several other people including Maya Cole, Ruth Robarts, and Lawrie Kobza. Some of us also called current Get Real president, Sam Johnson. Our message was clear and simple: you do not have permission to use our names, and we do not want you to run an ad in our behalf. They didn’t listen.
I, and other people, then consulted the editors of the two dailies and Isthmus to ask what recourse we had under the circumstances. It turns out that we have no recourse, legal or otherwise, if an independent political group wishes to post an ad using our names. That information was confirmed by my consultation with a lawyer.
While I support freedom of speech, I am deeply disappointed that Get Real chose to insert itself into my campaign at this time and in this way. And troubled that there is no way to prevent the false impression that I sought and accepted their endorsement.

Channel 3000 on the school board election

Yesterday, Juan Jose Lopez and I had the honor of debating in Mr. Borowski’s AP American Government and Politics class. The debate was open to anyone at East High School who wanted to attend. The students organized it, wrote and asked the questions, and managed one of the best debates that we’ve had since the campaign season began. Kudos to East and the class. Here is the Channel 3000 report ( Neil Heinen’s Sunday morning show will be taped dialogue with all 4 candidates)
School Board Candidates Face Off In Debate
Two Seats Are Open On Board

UPDATED: 9:25 am CST March 31, 2006
MADISON, Wis. — School board candidates up for election next Tuesday brought their debate to a Madison high school classroom on Thursday.
Incumbent board member Juan Jose Lopez and challenger Lucy Mathiak debated in a Madison East High School civics class.
During the debate, the students asked questions about some of their concerns, including curriculum questions about math and advanced placement classes.
Candidates responded by expressing their hopes and intentions for the district, WISC-TV reported.
Lopez said that he supports where the district is headed and that focusing on certain expectations have translated into the schools’ success.
“I’ve focused on student achievement. Student achievement is one of the most important things for young people in this community,” he said. “We value public education. We value excellence. We value what’s important to our young people in this community. Our public schools are No. 1 because that’s what we value.”
Mathiak said that she supports changes in district policy on things like the budget. She said that it’s important to plan for the future to keep the city’s schools ahead of the curve, WISC-TV reported.
“In Madison, we take a lot of pride in having strong schools,” she said. “We have excellent teachers, we have very strong programs, but I don’t think we can afford to be complacent. And by that, I mean we cannot afford to sit back and think that we have always had great schools so we always will”
Retiring school board member Bill Keys said that what’s at stake in this election is really an attitude toward public education.
“It’s going to have a decades-long impact to make the right kind of vote,” Keys said. “They should make an informed vote. They should read the literature.”
The two open seats for the school board have four candidates. Mathiak and Lopez are competing for one seat and Maya Cole and Arlene Silveira for the seat that Keys is vacating.
Lopez and Silveira have endorsements from Madison Teacher’s Inc., the teachers’ union. Mathiak and Silveira have been endorsed by the Capitol Times in their respective races.
The current board is split on who it will endorse, WISC-TV reported.