Schools Expect Students to Act Like Low-Motivation Union Workers

Schools Expect Students to Act Like Low-Motivation Union Workers
May 12, 2014

Will Fitzhugh

Will Fitzhugh is founder and editor of The Concord Review.  (read full bio)
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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, when they are assigned nonfiction papers, even many high school students are asked to write just 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. 

Recently 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 average 6,000 words (24 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), or 16-24 pages, and students have been sending in longer papers ever since. One 21,000-word paper on the Mountain Meadows Massacre (approximately 80 pages) was submitted by a nationally-ranked equestrienne, who later went to Stanford University. When she asked her teacher if it was OK that her paper would be quite long, he said, “Yes.”

Underestimating Adolescents
But she (and he) are rate-busters, who are willing 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, Theodore Sizer, former Dean of the School of Education at Harvard, and former headmaster at Andover Academy, 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 Sizer wrote that in 1988. Teachers and others continue to find ways to limit the amount of nonfiction writing our students do, with the result, of course, 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 serious writing. 

Academics vs. Sports
This is not the result of a union contract on rates, but it does come in part from the fact that, for instance in many public high schools, teachers can have 150 or more students. This provides a gigantic disincentive for them in assigning papers. The administration and the school committees also do not want nonfiction writing to get, for example, the extra time routinely given to after-school sports.

In addition, some significant number of teachers have never written a thesis, or done much serious nonfiction writing of their own, which makes it easier for them to be comfortable in limiting their students to the minimum of nonfiction writing in school.

The Concord Review has published 101 issues with 1,110 history research papers by secondary students from 46 states and 39 other countries, so there are some “rate-buster” teachers out there, even in our public high schools. It is even clearer, from the number of excellent “independent study” papers we 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 the fact that the journal not only does not tell them what to write about, and it does not limit the length of the papers they want to write.

When we see the number of these fine nonfiction 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?

Will Fitzhugh

Will Fitzhugh is founder and editor of The Concord Review.  (read full bio)