In his Nov. 19 Washington Post column, Jay Mathews spotlights the decline of research (term) papers as routine high school assignments and relates the experiences of a diligent history teacher, now retired, whose 3000 word term papers shrank over the years so that she finally ceased assigning them at all, begrudgingly bowing to the endemic decline in the ability and readiness of students to do the grunt work of note cards, paraphrasing direct quotations and linking them with transitions, footnotes, bibliographies, outlines and drafts.
The teacher, Doris Burton, described the term papers as “a regurgitated version of an encyclopedia.”
That might be putting it too kindly. Text vomiting implies that there has at least been partial processing of information.
Burton’s decision not to assign major research projects did not constitute dereliction of duty or abrogation of her profession’s commitment to feasible idealism as means to curry kids’ intellectual potential. It was not a case of “burnout.”
It was submission to an overwhelming reality: that we have kept kids ignorant of basic skills and found all kinds of excuses to justify it.
When a student downloads and prints out a complete and intact Internet document, (perhaps a biography of Shakespeare), and then numbers the pages and hands it in, that’s not an admissible work product. It hardly suggests the absorption of any ideas whatsoever, even if there is prefatory page with “have a nice day” written and a smiley face drawn on it.
Many students will quite vehemently protest a failing grade given on a six-week project to which they dedicated five-minutes’-worth of cutting, pasting and clicking. If that protest were simply the normal healthy gall of youth trying to “get over” on authority it would be almost cute.
But what’s unnerving is that most of these kids will have no clue why their “research paper” is not considered legitimate. The blame for their being so blissfully unaware belongs to education’s “standard setters.” They are culpable for the collapsed integrity and depressed expectations.
And too many people in high places haven’t noticed or do not care that these toyers with benchmarks are not even educators for the most part. They are bankers and lawyers and other tangential creatures.
Students and teachers alike are their pawns.
Mathews asks “Why not junk some of the high school history requirements in favor of one solid month devoted to one long paper, with students bringing in their work, step by step, every day?”
By virtue of their merit, such impeccable ideas carry the seeds of their own destruction. The ascendancy of standards would paralyze the whole standards movement!