"It Messes Up My Fishing Time": Why American High School Teachers Don't Assign Research Papers

Peter Wood

The National Association of Scholars is pleased to present a long-suppressed research report on how American high school teachers avoid assigning research papers.

College faculty members are more and more confronted with the hard problem of trying to teach a higher education curriculum to students who don’t know the basics. Large numbers of students are admitted to colleges—even very good colleges—unable to write at even a mediocre level. Fewer still have any sense of how to write a research paper, a skill that could once be taken for granted among students admitted to college.  As a result, colleges and universities across the country have quietly swapped out their old freshmen English classes, which focused on reading some important literature, and substituted what amount to basic training in writing expository essays and research papers. Even that doesn’t solve the problem.  By the time they have reached the college classroom, a great many students seem to have developed invincible habits of lazy writing.  They prefer “self-expression” and diaries to factual, evidence-based analyses.  And they plagiarize.  Relentlessly.

How did we reach this pass?  Why aren’t our high schools doing a better job of preparing college-bound students to write?  And in particular, to master the research paper?

The question was raised a decade ago by Will Fitzhugh, one of the great unsung champions of school reform in the United States. If ever there were a person who deserved a MacArthur “genius grant” and was doomed never to get it, Fitzhugh would be the man.  A retired history teacher living in Concord, Massachusetts, he has dedicated the last twenty-three years to publishing The Concord Review, a quarterly journal dedicated to showcasing the best history papers written by high school students.  He dreams of making academic excellence as important to American schools as varsity athletics.  And he has been tireless in making his case.

In 2001, at the height of the movement to reform schools by turning everything into a testable outcome, Fitzhugh recognized that “measure everything” mania could be further bad news for the kind of synthetic, discursive thinking that underlies the research paper.  Fitzhugh also recognized, however, that mere intuition about the problem wouldn’t make much difference.  He turned to the Albert Shanker Institute (named after the late president of the American Federation of Teachers) which funded a survey of whether and how history and social studies teachers assign research papers.

The research proceeded and in 2002, a report sponsored by The Concord Review was written, but a dispute between the author and the funder left the report in limbo. Despite some preliminary media alerts that resulted in a story in Education Week based on "advance details," the report never was published. And no one had to explain away why 62 percent of history and social studies teachers never assign full-length research papers (papers in the range of 10 to 17 pages). Fitzhugh, however, retained the copyright and he has now granted us permission to make it public.

That study is almost a decade old but we think it has more than historical interest. The problems it brings to light are still today’s problems. We suspect things have gotten worse, but like Will Fitzhugh, we don’t want to rely on intuition.  We’d like to build on his 2002 study and find out what is really happening in the nation’s high schools when it comes to teaching children how to engage in disciplined historical inquiry and synthesis—and how to present the results in a meaningful, compelling way. To do so, of course, we will need to find another source of funding—and ideally one that won’t flinch when the results come in.  Our interest in this is part of our broader goal of rebuilding the basis for genuine liberal arts education in the United States.

In 2002, 82 percent of teachers found it difficult to grade research papers, and 58 percent explained that they didn’t assign long research papers because they took up too much time.  In some cases, teachers expressed willingness to assign research papers but genuinely couldn’t carve out the time because of the larger number of students they teach.  Fitzhugh, commenting on this aspect of the report, tells of a meeting he had this August with teachers in Florida who were eager to assign research papers, “but all but one had 180 students in six classes. The one had 210 kids in seven classes. They didn't have time to breathe, never mind to guide and assess serious term papers, but they wanted to try to help kids do them anyway.”

Teachers are daunted from assigning research papers because grading them consumes so much of their personal time.  One explained, “it just takes up my free time after school…it messes up my fishing time.”

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