Rate Busters

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review
1 September 2021

Back in the day, when Union contracts specified the number of widgets each worker was expected to produce during a shift, that number was called “the rate.” Anyone who produced more than that number was called a “rate-buster,” and was subjected to pressure, sanctions, and the like, from fellow union members, until their production was once more within the agreed rate for that job.

There are “rates” in education as well, for students. In general, if they are assigned nonfiction papers, many high school students are asked to write only 3-5 pages. The International Baccalaureate asks for Extended Essays of 4,000 words (16 pages) at the end of a candidate’s time in the program, but that is quite out of the ordinary.

In 2014 a Junior at one of the most prestigious (and most expensive) New England preparatory schools expressed an interest in preparing a paper to be considered by The Concord Review, where the published history research papers now average 9,000 words (30 pages), but she was concerned because her teachers limited history papers at that school to 1,000 words or less (4 pages).

When The Concord Review started calling for history research papers by secondary students in 1987, the suggestion was that papers should be 4,000-6,000 words (or more), (16-24 pages) but students have been sending in longer papers. One 20,000-word paper on the Augustan Reforms in the Roman military (c. 65 pages) was submitted by a student in Singapore whose English curriculum would limit him to 2,000 words. He wanted to read more and write more about the topic. (He will be going to Oxford.)

He is a rate-buster, eager to go beyond the common expectations for what high school students are capable of in writing serious history research papers. In his introduction to the first issue of The Concord Review, (1988) Theodore Sizer, former Dean of the School of Education at Harvard, and former Headmaster at Andover, wrote:

Americans shamefully underestimate their adolescents. With often misdirected generosity, we offer them all sorts of opportunities and, at least for middle-class and affluent youths, the time and resources to take advantage of them.

We ask little in return. We expect little, and the young people sense this, and relax. The genially superficial is tolerated, save in areas where the high school students themselves have some control, in inter-scholastic athletics, sometimes in their part-time work, almost always in their socializing.

Not much has changed since Dr. Sizer wrote that in 1988. Our schools continue to find ways to limit the amount of nonfiction writing our students do, with the result that they do not get very good at it. But no matter how much college professors and employers complain that their students and employees can’t write, our “union rules” at the k-12 level ensure that students do very little nonfiction writing.

This is not the result of a union contract on rates, but it does come in part from the fact that, for instance in some public high schools, history teachers can have 150 students. This provides a big disincentive for them in assigning term papers or even book reports. They must consider how much time they have to advise students on papers and to evaluate them when they are submitted. But the administration and the school committees do not want nonfiction writing to get, for example, the extra time routinely given to after-school sports, or band and cheerleading.

In addition, some significant number of teachers have never written a thesis, or done much serious academic writing of their own, which makes it more comfortable for them to limit their students to the minimum of nonfiction writing in school (or none).

The Concord Review has published 130 issues with 1,427 history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 43 other countries, so there are some “rate-buster” students out there, even in our public high schools. It is even clearer, from the number of excellent “independent study” papers we now receive, that many more students, when they see the exemplary work of their peers, follow the rule that says “Where there’s a Way there’s a Will,” and they take advantage of a journal that does not tell them what to write about, nor does it limit the length of the papers they want to write. When we see the number of these fine history papers, it should make us regret all the more everything we do to press our potential student “rate-busters” to do less than they could. We don’t do that in sports. Why in the world do we do it in academics?


“Teach with Examples”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987] tcr.org
TCR History Camp [2014]
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