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Why high schools shun senior projects

[This is my Local Living section column for April 29.]

If my campaign to require senior projects in Washington area public high schools was itself a senior project, I would be getting a C-minus. My inspiration, the long-standing senior project program at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, is still in good shape. But few other schools show any interest in trying it out, despite what seem to me obvious benefits.

Private schools adopted this idea decades ago. They realized students yearned to put their personal stamps on their final year, something more substantial than senior cut day. These schools have provided the staff members and time necessary for each student to plan and execute some valuable individual enterprise: a long research paper, an internship, a musical composition, a one-act play. Many public magnet schools and academies have gone in the same direction.

The International Baccalaureate program in about two dozen Washington area public schools is a good example. To earn an IB diploma, in addition to a high school diploma, students must not only do well in six final IB exams and perform community service, but they must also write a 4,000-word paper. Students often choose topics of personal interest, such as why the United States went into Iraq or the likelihood of a comet hitting the earth. I have yet to meet an IB student who didn’t say the extended essay was his or her most rewarding high school experience.

When I asked local school districts why they aren’t requiring senior projects, they said their seniors are already burdened by college applications, SAT and Advanced Placement tests and extracurricular demands. Their teachers have reached the limit of their energies with large class sizes and accountability rules.

That’s probably true. But I found it interesting that the few schools adopting senior projects are often those where students have more personal challenges, and fewer resources, than those in suburban schools that don’t have time for this.

Wakefield High, for more than a decade the only public school in the region with senior projects, has the highest poverty rate, nearly 50 percent, in Arlington. The School Without Walls, the first D.C. regular school to require senior projects, went forward despite some parental resistance. Most of the D.C. charter schools that require senior projects, such as Maya Angelou, SEED, Thurgood Marshall and Washington Mathematics Science Technology, have largely low-income student bodies.

The senior projects my children completed (two of them at private schools, one at an innovative public school in New York) were not academic triumphs, but that is part of the point: to get deep into something that appeals to them, not their teachers or parents. One son organized with two friends a summer auto tour of Major League Baseball parks and did a paper analyzing their differences. One son interned for several weeks at a golf pro shop. My daughter built a large, wooden student newspaper rack for the main school office.

Thankfully, some schools are experimenting with elective senior projects. Each of the other three Arlington high schools encourages internships after AP and IB exams are over in May. Washington-Lee High had 76 percent participation this year. The leaders of Manassas city schools see required senior projects as a way to stimulate teaching of stronger research and presentation skills in lower grades and hope to begin them by 2011.

More teachers are nudging their schools in that direction. To them, helping seniors take a personal interest to a new level makes as much sense for public schools as it does for private ones.

Read Jay's blog every day at

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By Jay Mathews  | April 28, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Wakefield High School, schools say faculty are too busy and students too stressed, students yearn for meaningful work, why high schools shun senior projects  
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Is there any particular reason that you make no mention of the required senior research project at TJ? Wakefield High wasn't the only public school here.

Posted by: ewarner2 | April 29, 2010 1:00 AM | Report abuse

"But I found it interesting that the few schools adopting senior projects are often those where students have more personal challenges, and fewer resources, than those in suburban schools that don’t have time for this."

The wealthier suburban kids are playing on sports teams, going to dance competitions, working on their Girl Scout Gold or Boy Scout Eagle projects, doing huge church sponsored outreach, and performing in music competitions. Just because they are not doing senior projects in school, doesn't mean they are not doing very worthwhile projects.

Posted by: kvaak | April 29, 2010 6:52 AM | Report abuse

In our school system, students have the option of taking either a mentor-ship program or an independent research program their senior year. Both involve rigorous in-depth research, reporting & presentation and exposure to the "real-world". They are fabulous programs. Unfortunately enrollment is declining because the students are being encouraged to take ONE MORE AP class thanks to Mr. Matthews column. Our school recommends that most (A/B) students graduate with 7 AP classes. This has brought us up Mr. Matthews list, looks good in the paper, but has also had negative side effects.

Posted by: sopranovcm | April 29, 2010 7:52 AM | Report abuse

...because right now a major part of a schools percieved qualtity is it's graduation rate.

Why would a school insitute any policy that will ineveitably lead to a lower graduation rate?

Posted by: someguy100 | April 29, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse


Mr. Mathews discriminates against TJ because of the high SAT scores of its students and the fact that it is NOT an IB school. Please note that he excludes TJ from his Newsweek "Best High Schools List" for extremely lame reasons.

Jay takes any and every opportunity he can to abuse his position with WAPO to promote IB. And once again, we fail to see a disclosure at the start of this article regarding IBO's financial backing of his book, Supertest. Tsk, tsk, Jay!

Posted by: lisamc31 | April 29, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

I think it's important to consider that for some high school students, going to work after school to supplement their family's income might be more important. I suppose you could adapt the senior project idea for these students, but many of these jobs are simple clerical or blue collar positions.

Posted by: clevin | April 29, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse


Don't be an idiot. Wakefield is an AP school as well.

Posted by: ewarner2 | April 29, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Jay, when are you going to give up on the IB program? It's nothing but a political indoctrination program and anything resembling rigor is Constructivism. Constructivism as we know puts students behind their peers in direct instruction classrooms.
You need to quit pushing this UN agenda program on parents in this country and get back to supporting education that leaves OUT political operatives.
The JOBS of the future are in the STEM fields and all IB does is PUSH a PEACE agenda along with every other faddish political theme like : mother earth day, global warming and population control.
IF we wanted our kids to be political pawns, we'd look to ACORN for assistance. We'd like them EDUCATED!

Posted by: MOMwithAbrain | April 29, 2010 10:25 AM | Report abuse

With college graduates these days demonstrating such poor writing skills, it is slam-dunk obvious that high school seniors should be tasked with a long form research paper of 4,000 to 5,000 words and fully referenced. Any other type of senior project pales in comparion to what is really needed: BETTER WRITING SKILLS!!!

How do you get better in writing if you aren't made to practice it and be graded on it?

Posted by: fairfaxvaguy | April 29, 2010 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Why no mention of the senior tech labs at TJHSST? Not only is every student required to do a research project in a specific scientific field, the projects are far more advanced than differences in Major League Baseball parks. In addition students not only write a research paper, but also must present their project at the TJStar research symposium. It's a shame you don't bother recognizing this unique and challenging program.

Posted by: 2010johara | April 29, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

My apologies for failing to mention TJ's fine program. It is, however, the most selective high school, public or private, in the country, so it does not have the same difficulties that the vast majority of other high schools do in making programs like senior projects work. I keep it and about 15 other super selective public schools off the Challenge Index because that list is designed to show which schools are doing the most to get average students involved in college-level courses and tests, and it doesn't make sense to apply that standard to schools like TJ that have no academically average students. We do however celebrate TJ and the others in the category with a separate Public Elites list.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | April 29, 2010 12:04 PM | Report abuse

Washington State requires all students complete a culminating project in order to graduate. Some students do amazing things like write and perform songs or poetry, one student built a tesla coil that went around the room with tubes filled with oil. His lab book was filled with equations. I agree with Jay on this one, students should be challenged to create or do something from their heart once during their school years.

Posted by: suenoir | April 29, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

No need to wait until Senior year for students to do a project. Most research into gifted education encourages having students do Independent Study Projects. Our middle school program for gifted/accelerated students leads students through a year-long ISP in both 7th and 8th grades. At the end of the project, we have a fair where students present their findings. I think all students should have the opportunity to pick a topic and carry a project through to completion. They are very proud of what they accomplish. While it is more work for the teachers, when you have teacher, parent, and school buy-in, there is always a way to make it work. And as regards one of the earlier comments; while doing boy scouts, sports, or dance are admirable pursuits, they do not compare to completing a research project. Not even close to the same skill sets at work. I think it is dangerous when extracurriculars become equal to, or more important than, academics.

Posted by: jennypalmer1 | April 30, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Writing this carefully, as I know I will envoke the ire of several posters, IB has an answer for NOT waiting to Senior year. And as far as projects, they could be over the summer too.
MYP (Middle Years Programme) in IB WOrld schools has a project that they complete for preparation for the IB program. It can be on anything and is done in 10th grade. So, there you have it Jennypalmer1 and you don't have to be IB to do it, just theirs is one example.
As Sue Noir commented, WA state has a program that has been in place for two years now. And from reading their data, Idaho, North Carolina and Pennsylvania also have senior projects. Great ideas all. I push for the EE (Extended Essay) as it does prepare them for that big paper in college.
My several hundred cents worth...

Posted by: liveyourmyth | May 4, 2010 9:38 AM | Report abuse

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