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Why Students Don't Write Research Papers in High School

Those of you who lament the state of high school students' research and writing skills will be interested in a discussion that's been unfolding at the National Association of Scholars. It began a couple weeks ago with the publication of a previously undisclosed report on why students are not learning—let alone mastering— the skills of crafting substantial research papers.

The report is here, and the explanation of its origins and disclosure is described in the press release here. A response from a frustrated high school English teacher is here.

The report found that most social studies/history teachers never assign moderately long research papers. Most of the teachers—whose student loads often surpass 150—said they can't afford the time necessary to grade such papers.

This is hardly a new conversation. Consider the work done by Achieve and ACT on this issue, and the look Cincinnati took at it last year. And Will Fitzhugh, who was the driving force behind the recently disclosed paper, has been tirelessly advocating for rigorous high school research papers for years. A retired history teacher, he runs the Concord Review, the only journal that publishes high school students' history research papers, and blogs as well. (He sums up his views on the importance of research papers in this EdWeek commentary, from a few years ago, and more recently on The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog.)

On a related note, another recent paper pinpointed a fragmented high school English curriculum and a neglect of close-reading skills as key explanations for teenagers' poor reading skills. That paper was written by one of the architects of Massachusetts' academic standards, former state board member Sandra Stotsky, and published by the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW).

While the reflections on students' mastery of reading, writing and research skills are hardly new, they take on an interesting dimension (and more urgency, perhaps?) with the widespread adoption of common standards that envision a significant shift in how literacy skills are taught.

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