Luxury or Necessity? Term Papers in U.S. High Schools
Will Fitzhugh, The Concord Review
For the majority of history teachers in the United States, student research papers of twelve pages or more are a luxury they cannot afford. A study done in 2002 for The Concord Review found that while 95 percent of high school teachers said term papers were important or very important, 62 percent never assign a 12-page paper and 81 percent never assign a 20-page paper like those written by many participants in the International Baccalaureate programs.
The College Board now presses teachers to work with their students on the five-paragraph essay to prepare them for the new 25-minute writing portion of the SAT, and in any case schools do not generally give teachers enough time to assign and monitor student term papers or to assess them and comment on them when they are completed.
While it is hard to draw a straight line of accountability, the Business Roundtable recently polled its member companies and found they estimated they were spending more than $3 billion each year on remedial writing for their employees, salaried as well as hourly.
In addition, from 30 to 50 percent of college freshman need remedial writing courses before they are ready to do the regular academic work required.
Laura Arandes, a Senior in the class of 2005 at Harvard, who graduated from a public high school in California where she was never asked to write more than the five-paragraph essay, recently wrote that she was very surprised when she was assigned, at the first meeting of her freshman expository writing class at Harvard, a four-to-five-page paper. This was quite a bit longer than anything her high school had prepared her to do. It was her impression that her peers from private schools could take such an assignment in stride, but for many public school graduates it was a challenge for which they were far from ready.
If term papers are regarded as a luxury high schools cannot afford, someone else obviously has to foot the bill. Colleges and employers across the board will have to pay for remedial writing to give students the sort of academic experience they could have had if they had been asked to write a research paper or two before they graduated from high school.
From my point of view, having students write serious term papers in high school is clearly a necessity, not a luxury, and not only because they should not have to face college and workplace writing challenges unprepared. The research paper is also a tool to encourage high school students to read more than the textbook. While every student may not read an entire nonfiction book in the process of preparing information for their research paper, many will, and some will find the topic so interesting once they get into it, that they actually read several nonfiction books as they become wellinformed enough to write a first-class paper. Of course this will help them get ready for college reading lists.
The sad fact is that, in addition to the pressure from the College Board for short pieces of writing, too many teachers have had little experience of their own in preparing for and producing a serious research paper. This makes them both more reluctant and less able to ask their students to meet this level of preparation for further education and for work.