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High school research papers: a dying breed

[My Local Living section column for Nov. 19, 2009]

Doris Burton taught U.S. history in Prince George’s County for 27 years. She had her students write 3,000-word term papers. She guided them step by step: first an outline, then note cards, a bibliography, a draft and then the final paper. They were graded at each stage.
A typical paper was often little more than what Burton describes as “a regurgitated version of the encyclopedia.” She stopped requiring them for her regular history students and assigned them just to seniors heading for college. The social studies and English departments tried to organize coordinated term paper assignments for all, but state and district course requirements left no room. “As time went by,” Burton said, “even the better seniors’ writing skills deteriorated, and the assignment was frustrating for them to write and torture for me to read.” Before her retirement in 1998, she said, “I dropped the long-paper assignment and went to shorter and shorter and, eventually, no paper at all.”

Rigorous research and writing instruction have never reached most high-schoolers. I thought I had terrific English and history teachers in the 1960s, but I just realized, counting up their writing assignments, that they, too, avoided anything very challenging. Only a few students, in public and private schools, ever get a chance to go deep and write long on a subject that intrigues them.

We are beginning to see, in the howls of exasperation from college introductory course professors and their students, how high a price we are paying for this. It isn’t just college students who are hurt. Studies show research skills are vital for high school graduates looking for good jobs or trade school slots.

Students who have been forced to do well-researched essays tell me those were the most satisfying academic experiences of their high school years. Christin Roach, a 2001 graduate of Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County, glowed when she described the work she put into her 4,000-word report, “The Unconstitutional Presidential Impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.” It taught her the skills that led to her earning a joint degree in journalism and political science at Boston University.

Her project was part of the International Baccalaureate program at Mount Vernon. More than 20 Washington area public high schools, and a few private ones, have IB programs. But only a few dozen students at most at each school write the 4,000-word papers to get the full IB diploma. Take away IB and a few selective private schools, and well-organized research projects largely disappear from the high school landscape.

The leading U.S. proponent of more research work for the nation’s teens is Will Fitzhugh, who has been publishing high school student papers in his Concord Review journal since 1987. In 2002, he persuaded the Albert Shanker Institute to fund a study of research paper writing by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. The results were as bleak as he expected. Sixty-two percent of the 400 high school history teachers surveyed never assigned a paper as long as 3,000 words, and 27.percent never assigned anything as long as 2,000 words.

They had no time to assign, monitor, correct and grade such papers, they said. If they assigned long projects, they could not insist on the many revisions needed to teach students the meaning of college-level work. So most new undergraduates check into their freshman courses unclear on the form and language required for academic research.

The colleges aren’t great at filling the gap. A new book by Seton Hall University scholar Rebecca D. Cox, “The College Fear Factor,” painfully exposes students wallowing in ignorance, and professors not understanding why. Only about half survive this torture and graduate.

Why not junk some of the high school history requirements in favor of one solid month devoted to one long paper, with students bringing in their work, step by step, every day? Doris Burton and her colleagues couldn’t get their students to focus, but they had little support above. If we want our students to be proud of what they did in high school, we have to insist that they do it, and no longer assume they will somehow learn it in college.

By Jay Mathews  | November 18, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  Christin Roach, Doris Burton, Prince George's County Schools, Rebecca D. Cox, Will Fitzhugh, high school term papers, student research, writing instruction  
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I wrote a paper in high school about T.S. Elliot's poem 'The Wasteland.' It was one of the best experiences from my hs days. To this day I still remember what I learned.

I liked it so much I signed up for a college freshman tutorial about James Joyce. HUGE MISTAKE.

Still it was an experience I"m glad I had.

Posted by: RedBird27 | November 19, 2009 7:44 AM | Report abuse

I wholeheartedly agree with Jay. As my User ID reveals, I do think the IB curriculum is superior to any other HS curriculum extant. And not by just a little. The long research paper being the largest single reason, but not the only one.
History is an important subject, but its emphasis is outsized to its importance. What our fixation on history represents is an attempt to venerate our ancestors. This is a wonderful concept, but can be and is over-done today. The future is tomorrow, history is yesterday. Sure, it's easier to avoid potholes (future problems) if you know where they are (by studying history). But there's a lot more to life than avoiding potholes, and if the occasional flat tire that neglecting history might cause frees up the time to gain a skill that you'll otherwise not have, that repair or a new tire is a price worth paying.
Let's drop at least one-half year of HS history (or, even better, a whole year) and use that time instead for directed and long(er) writing assignments, especially research papers.

Posted by: LoveIB | November 19, 2009 8:06 AM | Report abuse

As a first-time teaching assistant in an early American history survey course at major university in this area, I know that your diagnosis is spot on, but your prescription is all wrong. Instead of "junk[ing] some of the high school history requirements," why not make history the focus of mastering writing skills in high school? Earning a graduate history degree - with its heavy emphasis on writing long research papers - has been more valuable to me than even my law degree in terms of learning how to research, analyze the results of that research, clearly state a position (or thesis), organize my thoughts and arguments in defense of that position, and write a succinct and focused paper aimed at a particular audience. Those are not merely writing skills, or history skills. As you well know, those are life skills, applicable to fighting a health insurance company's mistake, interviewing for a job, or arguing with your in-laws about politics over Thanksgiving turkey. American history is already a sad stepchild in US high school curricula - don't add to its misery. Use it to teach a life skill, with the most interesting and rewarding subject matter at its core.

Posted by: contango1 | November 19, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Full disclosure: I'm a 20+ year English teacher at a local college.
Part of the problem, it seems to me, is that the English teachers view research in terms of producing the paper. Thus, the bibliography cards, note cards, outline, and paper appear to students as discrete products. What's needed is a reconceptualization of the research project: Its goal is to construct new knowledge based on detailed examination of that which is to be studied, conceptualization of the body of existing knowledge on that subject, identification of weaknesses or gaps in that knowledge, and then additional research leading to a paper that fills in one of the gaps or reducing one of the weaknesses. It is not aimed at "proving" that those who disagree are wrong, but in offering thoughtful responses to their positions and incorporation of whatever worthwhile ideas they offer into one's own work.
I've been doing this in my freshman composition classes for several years now, and although the entering students are no better than their predecessors, their final papers get better every semester.
Could high school students do this? Of course they could. How likely is it? I'm afraid that as long as schools are concerned about AYP, it's extremely unlikely.

Posted by: jlhare1 | November 19, 2009 9:22 AM | Report abuse

All what Jay says here rings true with me. High school seniors would benefit hugely from having to write a long research paper (suggest 5,000+ words) that is fully referenced. The problem today is that most students are never assigned such a project.

I would however 1) not restrict such long research papers to historical subjects, and 2) allow for more than one month to complete them. There is nothing wrong in allowing such a writing project to extend over two semesters. It would be possible to assign a grade for progress made to date at the end of the first semester and then another grade for the final product.

High school students these days, and particularly those going on to college, are severely harmed by the absence of such large writing projects. There really are no opportunities later in college to make up for this omission.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 19, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for raising this essential topic. Very few kids can handle (or have access to) IB, because they haven't had grammar, vocabulary, spelling, or substantive writing instruction. Because none of that is required by NCLB or on the MSAs. When I testified to the MCPS Board of Ed this year on the writing crisis, Chris Barclay looked straight at me and said writing instruction would not improve until it's being assessed. This is the tragic situation we have gotten ourselves into with testing. How do you "test" research paper skills? The testing bureaucracy couldn't even handle assessing "ECRs" on the HSAs. Don't test it. Just assign it. And edit it. Require teachers to assign writing, and make sure they have time to fulfill the requirement. Teachers want to teach writing, but they don't feel they have permission to do so, because it's not on the MSAs, and the tragic consequences for kids writing essays on the SAT or in IB courses (or not in them) is too far downstream. Read my testimony to the Board this year: and last year at

Posted by: SusanKatzMiller | November 19, 2009 9:25 AM | Report abuse

OK, this is really funny:

"She guided them step by step: first an outline, then note cards, a bibliography, a draft and then the final paper. They were graded at each stage. A typical paper was often little more than what Burton describes as “a regurgitated version of the encyclopedia.”"

Umm, and you don't see the connection there? How can you treat research and writing as a series of information-gathering-and-compilation tasks, and then be surprised when that's exactly what you get?

The problem is that we teach form and process over substance. Ms. Burton could have been my high school English teacher. That sort of linear, step-by-step, connect-the-dots, convert all to the appropriate format -- ugh. I always did it backwards: I figured out my thesis while writing the paper, then did the outline from the rough draft, then did some research to plug holes/answer questions, then created the note cards from the research.

And now I see my daughter, in elementary school, already being taught the proper formats -- not just topic sentences and conclusions, but here's how many sentences you need to write, here's how many ideas you have to focus on, here's how many details you need to specify for each idea, here's the exact order I want to see everything in. Again: ugh.

No wonder people hate writing -- we are teaching them that "writing" = reproducing a formula, following the specified steps, checking the appropriate boxes. Note cards aren't just a tool to help keep track of research; they are an independently-graded end unto themselves. We value and reward the student who most effectively regurgitates other people's ideas.

What you suggest, Jay, is precisely the opposite of what we need to do. You cannot teach writing by severing it from any real substance, as if "research" or "writing" were some strange species that must be dissected and studied in a lab. To be a good writer, you must first have something you want to say. I like contango1's idea of incorporating writing into an existing course (ok, for me, history would have been death, but there are so many other courses out there that could trigger a student's interest). Give students a chance to really delve deeply into the subject matter. Charge their curiosity; fire them up with something that they WANT to become an expert on. Once you have that, THEN you can teach them the nuts and bolts -- how to research to deepen their knowledge, how to pull together disparate ideas to come up with an overarching theme or thesis, how to wrestle your way though the agonies of rough drafts and revisions, until ultimately they have a final, polished paper that reveals their really cool idea to the world.

Posted by: laura33 | November 19, 2009 1:19 PM | Report abuse

As the parent of two area high school graduates, I could not believe that they never had to write a long reseach paper as I had done in high school in the early '70's. Each of their colleges require them to take a course with a "substantial writing component" in order to graduate. My college senior has put off this course until next semester and my college freshman will likewise take his writing course in the Spring. I will be interested to see how they do.
As much as I agree with Jay's assertion that high school students should have one month devoted to a long research paper, I disagree that history requirements be "junked" to provide time for this writing project. Why do so many people, including Jay, assume that history is expendable? As the sister of a university history professor, the mother of a current history major (and future military historian) and an avid reader of history myself, I would just as soon that science or foreign language or P.E. be "junked" for a month for a research project. Actually, it would make the most sense to carve time for the project from the English curriculum since English teachers seem the best equipped to teach not only research skills but also proper grammar (including spelling and punctuation) and good writing skills.

Posted by: Crescent1 | November 19, 2009 2:06 PM | Report abuse

I am posting this comment from rbrooklyn, who had trouble getting in. If that happens to you, email me at and I will rattle some cages. Email me your comment and I will post it for you.

Sometimes I think ESP is alive and well. In my job as director of education, teachers often send the museum student writing to show the extent the students understand the topics we cover. We recently received a bunch of term papers from a 12 grade English teacher who had assigned various topics to her students that were meant to broaden their field tip experiences.

The term papers were two sided, hand written with little or no information, no bibliography, but lots of sentiment and opinion, opinion with no supports. I was horrified and extremely sad after reading these papers; the teacher, whose heart was in the right place, had misplaced her understanding of her final product – students who are able to research, write, support opinions, show where they got their information from so that those of us who are interested in the topic can go back to their source.

The teacher who sent us student work did not understand that instead of showing off her students in a positive way she demonstrated that, as a teacher, she needed some help.  This issue actually reflects the products we are getting from teachers who take our classes and think that “borrowing” ideas they find on line is fine, or handing in a poorly written, poorly researched project is acceptable.

I know that teachers are discouraged.  They are told to concentrate on test scores, on Annual Yearly Progress, on data, but in every teacher’s heart lies the knowledge that there is so much more in teaching than scores.  As a retired teacher I know the skill and desire to educate lies in each and every teacher’s hear – we just need to remember that the world is looking at the people we are educating and we are need to teach what we know we need to teach.


Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 19, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

"Why not junk some of the high school history requirements in favor of one solid month devoted to one long paper, with students bringing in their work, step by step, every day?"

My candidate for deletion from the Maryland High School graduation requirements: Technology Education.

Who on God's green earth got that passed? A *year*? For *every* kid?

Posted by: SwitchedOnMom | November 19, 2009 10:29 PM | Report abuse

Just a little clarification here. Only IB Diploma candidates are required to write a long research paper. The many students who merely take some IB courses are not subject to that requirement. And AP courses, at least in History and English, require a number of analytical papers that do a great job of preparing students to compare and contrast without taking a full semester away from other courses.

Posted by: mct210 | November 20, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Why do we have to junk anything? High school students have to take plenty of electives, so why not reduce that number by one, and create a whole new research class? Put it in senior year, and create small classes of researched-based writing. One class can have an emphasis on science, one on history, art, whatever - so that students can learn how to access and read resources in their field of interest, as well as how to write using the particular terminology, etc of that field.

My high school required a research paper every year, and we learned how to do footnotes, endnotes, parenthetical notes, etc. But it was always in English, and I HATED writing about literature. I actually credit a social studies teacher with teaching me how to write, though. My English teachers just stuck a grade on my papers, with maybe a comment or two; my Soc St teacher (for world history and US gov't) covered the page in substantive comments and made us revise until it worked. College writing was a breeze after his AP class.

Posted by: LadybugLa | November 20, 2009 11:58 AM | Report abuse

A long research paper running over both semesters of the senior year should come under the aegis of the English department. But the subject of the paper need not be about literature.

Rather the subject of the paper should be something that student is interesting in researching. English teachers can handle diverse content and the flexibility to choose the subject will only enhance student interest and pride in prodcuing a superior product.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 20, 2009 12:08 PM | Report abuse

fairfaxvaguy, I absolutely agree. But to create a separate writing class would mean that the English dept wouldn't have to cut anything out of their current curriculum, and would make the grading much more feasible. I'm an ESL teacher, and having small groups meant that I could read multiple drafts and provide detailed, individualized feedback to each of my students throughout the writing process - something that would be impossible if I'd had six classes of 25-30 students.

Posted by: LadybugLa | November 20, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Reading these great comments, I think I was wrong. Let's carve a month out of the lesson plan of the senior English course, not the history course, for a major paper.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 20, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

It might also help if students were asked to write critical papers -- meaning thinking about ideas of other people -- instead of the endless number of opinion pieces they churn out today. It's one thing to be able to give your opinion on Thomas Jefferson's ideas of democracy, but another altogether to compare and contrast those ideas to those of, say, John Adams. That second step is sorely lacking in writing classes (or classes that use writing) today.

(But I hated the index cards and outlines in HS, and I hate them now. For some students, they are simply busy work.)

Posted by: gretchenlaskas | November 20, 2009 7:24 PM | Report abuse

As a parent of teens, I agree completely that students benefit enormously from doing full-fledged research papers.

However, can it possibly be true that Mr. Mathews doesn't understand the role he himself has played in the demise of the research paper?

Mr. Mathews is the area's (perhaps the country's) leading advocate of Advanced Placement classes. His Challenge Index, of which some local school administrators are all too aware, puts a premium on the number of students in AP classes. Yet AP classes allow no time to do a meaningful research paper. AP U.S. history teachers, for instance, will tell you that getting students from pre-Columbian societies through the Reagan administration and preparing for the May exam requires a relentless pace. There is simply no time to do a research paper.

National History Day, which encourages in-depth research projects, has also seen a decline in the number of area high school students competing, in part because the kinds of students likely to participate are too busy with their AP-heavy schedules to take on a lengthy extracurricular project.

Mr. Mathews's comment about "junk[ing] some of the high school history requirements" shows incredible naivete about the state of education he has helped produce.

Posted by: 4post_readers | November 20, 2009 11:08 PM | Report abuse

Some AP teachers make room for research papers. My kids did them as part of AP classes. Even some non-AP classes had researach papers, and the kids chose the topics. Keep in mind that the "summarizing" kind of research paper can be useful too; not every research paper has to pose a question or construct an argument. My son did a paper on Red Grange in a history class; it was a very valuable experience.

Posted by: jane100000 | November 21, 2009 9:35 AM | Report abuse

I appreciate these comments on the qualitative differences between AP and IB as preparation tools for university-level writing. It seems (and correct me if I am wrong) that AP courses do more to prepare students for the lower-level college experience, the 100-level classes. Where IB appears to do a better job of preparing students for the research and writing at the upper level courses, or the core classes within a student’s major.

In recent years I have cracked down on poor writing in my upper-level classes where research papers are assigned. Basically I tell the college juniors and seniors, along with the grad students, that if work is unedited or poorly constructed, then it is ungraded. Conversely, I require students to submit project proposals and first two-pages or five-page drafts (depending on the scale of the paper) well before the final papers are due.

No cooking something up the night before as was allowed when I was a student at GW in the early 90s. Granted I turned in some miracles, but I also turned in some junk; and thank goodness I had an English major as a girlfriend.

Posted by: professor70 | November 22, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

4post-readers: there is no connection between the rise of AP and the fall of research papers. At least AP demands SOME analytical writing, at regular intervals, because the exams, unlike most high school exams, demand analytical writing. And the IB, which I promote with the same fervor, is the only national program requiring 4,000 word research papers.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 22, 2009 6:52 PM | Report abuse

I think a better differentiation of schools that offer AP courses would be gained by asking the question as to whether a long research paper is required for graduation. A school that offered lots of AP courses AND requires a long research paper would undoubtedly be doing a better job of preparing students for college than a school that does not.

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | November 23, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse


"No connection between the rise of AP and the fall of research papers" according to whom? I've talked with teachers and National History Day folks who definitely believe otherwise.

As for the analytical writing required on an AP exam, it is interesting to note that students who take AP U.S. History, for example, are told to disregard whatever essay-writing guidelines they learned in AP World History or AP U.S. Government and Politics or any other AP course (and vice versa) because each exam has its own idiosyncratic expectations when it comes to writing the essay portion of the exam. To me, this suggests the goal of the essay is less about quality writing than it is about following a recipe.

Posted by: 4post_readers | November 25, 2009 7:08 PM | Report abuse

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