Monday, January 25, 2010

College-bound and research-free.

I am glad the national debate on higher education has finally found its way to college completion. College readiness is, of course, a cousin of completion, so let’s talk—again—about the massive disconnect between state standards for high schoolers and what college professors expect. Speaking of cousins, I have a very smart and hard-working one who graduated from one of the top high schools in one of the top school systems in the country (by any quantifiable measure), with Advanced Placement courses to boot. She never was asked to write a research paper of more than six to eight pages.

Well, they were sort of research papers. “It wasn’t till I took my first history class in college when I realized what a research paper was,” she told me. She felt ill-prepared for the writing she faced.

Not to get all “Kids today!” on you (and it isn’t their fault), but I still remember, junior year in high school, hunting down books on the Bay of Pigs and abolition, writing out notes, sorting my notecards this way and that until I had come up with real-live, 15-page arguments. I felt like such a grown-up. And when I got to college, the papers may have been a bit longer and more intense, but at least I had worked those muscles before.

The editor of the Concord Review of high school history blogged last week on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet on the value of term papers. It is one small piece of a bigger conversation we really need to have. The first step, for reporters, might be showing your high school exit exams and standards to some local college professors, to see what they think.


  1. Thank you for your insightful article. I agree that high school writing standards are not aligned with college expectations. But both sides are to blame. Why, I wonder, do colleges accept these students when they do not have the writing skills they desperately need?

  2. Interesting! I am glad you brought this up. I didn't have to do any serious research writing until my last year of college, and found it really enjoyable--I wish I'd had more of it earlier. I am finding that whatever the standards are for high school today, the way they are interpreted in the classroom can mean a lot of variation, from high expectations and corresponding work assignments, to very low. My daughter's a double-grade-skipped high school freshman after five years of unstructured homeschooling. She is very self-directed, motivated and interested; the contrast with the general apathy she encounters in school is startling. We keep having to tweak her schedule to adjust for the fact that most incoming freshman are not working up to grade level; those like her, working at or above grade level, need advocacy just in order to get appropriate placement and assignments. The school is working hard to align its offerings with requirements in science tech and arts fields, with students required to choose an emphasis in one or the other right from the beginning. I have mixed feelings about this, believing that high school should be a time of exploration, not narrowing of options, but the reason for doing it is that our drop-out rate is very high and the administration is trying to hook kids on staying in school with the carrot of particular kinds of jobs that will be available to them at the other end, with or without a college degree. It's a big challenge.