Rigor? Who Has Time for Rigor?

by Robert Pondiscio
August 25th, 2010

Most people would agree that it would be beneficial for high school students to write the kind of research paper that Will Fitzhugh publishes in The Concord Review, the only publication in the country that features scholarly papers penned by high school students.   The ability to research and write a thoughtful, cogent research paper fairly screams “College Ready” no?

Just back from a three-day workshop with a group of “diligent, pleasant and interesting teachers” in Florida, Fitzhugh describes at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog  teachers who “were genuinely interested in having their students do serious papers and be better prepared for college (and career).”   The problem is that the teachers each have at six classes of 30 or more students–180 to 210 students each.

Fitzhugh is a man of letters, but he does the math:

“After absorbing the fact of this shameful and irresponsible number of assigned students, I realized that if these teachers were to ask for the 20-page history research paper which is typical of the ones I publish in The Concord Review, they would have 3,600 pages to read, correct, and comment on when they were turned in, not to mention the extra hours guiding students through their research and writing efforts. The one teacher with 210 students would have 4,200 pages of papers presented to him at the end of term.

“It made me both sad and angry that these willing teachers, who want their students to be prepared for higher education,  have been given impossible working conditions which will most certainly prevent them from helping their students get ready for the academic reading and writing tasks which await them in college,” Fitzhugh concludes.

The man’s got a point.  Always does.   It’s easy to make grand pronouncements about college readiness, rigor, and high expectations.  It swells the chest with pride to be on the side of the angels.  Fitzhugh’s example shows the long distance between what it takes and mere homilies.


  1. Yep. I wish I could give long essay tests to my 200 history tests. I believe such tests encourage more paying attention in class and studying. They also provide useful writing practice and help me get a crystal clear picture of what kids do and do not understand. But even if I only devoted 5 minutes to each essay test, it would take me 17 hours to grade these. And who really manages to grade at school? This would consume many evenings and a whole weekend. Which would be fine if I didn’t have a myriad of other chores to perform.

    Comment by Ben F — August 25, 2010 @ 2:06 pm

  2. Er…that first line should read “200 history students”.

    Comment by Ben F — August 25, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

  3. This is a point lost not only on the public at large but also on far too many education “experts.” Would that we could redirect much of the funding wasted on various initiatives, gimmicks, and quack theories, and simply hire more teachers.

    Comment by James — August 25, 2010 @ 5:17 pm

  4. I don’t think the point is lost on the public at large — small classes are viewed pretty favorably by the public. But there always seems to be a steady stream of education experts ready to say it doesn’t make a difference.

    Maybe it doesn’t make a difference by itself, but it makes possible types of teaching that aren’t possible in classes of 35, or when teachers bring home 200 papers to grade.

    Comment by Rachel — August 25, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

  5. If all other things are equal, I’ll go with the smaller class sizes. But in my town, if I have to choose between that and introducing the foreign language classes we do not have in the K-5 sequence, I’ll go with the foreign language classes.

    Also, in my town if I had the alternative of being able to hire math specialist teachers in the K-5 grades, at the expense of slightly increasing class size, I’ll choose the math specialists.

    Comment by andrei radulescu-banu — August 25, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  6. I fully agree that long essays are essential. And Will Fitzhugh and the Concord Review should be considered a National Treasure!

    But I am not so sanguine about lamenting the need to read 4200+ pages over the entire school year. Certainly in a test format this would be excessive. But if these long writing assignments are essential (as I believe they are), then why are these not done slowly over the course of the year instead of being crammed into a “testing type” format.

    The reason I mention this is that one of the best teachers/mentors that I knew told me that the best teachers always observe their students while they are writing. She thought that teachers needed to monitor where their students were at and make immediate decisions about how to guide their writing choices. While it took substantial amount of classroom time, her thoughts were that that complex writing was essential for developing great writers and thus, great thinkers. And seeing the results that she had from her students were quite compelling.

    So Ben F, why don’t teachers spend that 17+ hours in the classroom instructing/guiding their students in how to write?

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 26, 2010 @ 1:51 am

  7. How much would it cost to outsource the reading & giving feedback to some college students home on Christmas break or retirees or stay-at-home moms? Have some standardized rubric that the teacher could then quickly review to determine the final grade on the paper.

    The sticking point would presumably be the teachers’ union. Even though outsourcing this kind of grunt work would free up resources to devote to classroom instruction.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 26, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  8. [...] Class sizes could matter for rigorous high school English courses, though.  Right, essay graders? (Core Knowledge Blog) [...]

    Pingback by QUICK Hits « The Quick and the Ed « Parents 4 democratic Schools — August 27, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  9. I can’t believe these comments. As an assistant professor of English at a biggish East Coast university, I usually had 200 students across my courses, all of which involved several 5-page papers, a 12-page term papers and all-essay finals.
    Plus I was expected to do research and publish – before I could receive tenure. And I had to continue to do research and publish afterwards if I was to be promoted, get merit raises and establish mobility of employment.
    Yet you guys refuse to spend one weekend a semester devoted to reading and commenting on papers? We spent every other weekend doing that.
    As for time away from your family – every white-collar employee with any professional ambition in the private sector does that. This reads very badly.
    You are simply lazy – physically and intellectually. If you were to give a weekend a semester to this exercise, it would not only benefit your students (obviously not a motive for you) but sharpen your sadly neglected wits.

    Comment by Fiat Spyder — August 28, 2010 @ 12:03 am

  10. Fiat Spyder- you didn’t delegate the grading of your students’ papers to your grad student TA’s? That was the norm at both the university I attended undergrad and the one where my DH attended for grad school (he was one of those poor TA’s who had to read all the papers).

    Comment by Crimson Wife — August 28, 2010 @ 2:52 am

  11. Never. We didn’t have TAs in my department. These were advanced courses with a registration limit of 60 – easy to get 200 kids in those, plus a smaller course.
    I was a TA when I was a grad student, and yes, I read the papers – but I also assigned them and taught the kids directly and knew them. The lectures were entertainment – the students (and I) did the real work in sections. So the idea of an earlier commenter that retired people could be given this job is a bad one – the point is to know the students whose work you assign.
    This is very despressing. I’ve always adored ED Hirsch, and was interested to find this blog, where other fans (self-selected and obviously superior types) gather. Yet I find that it nevertheless reflects the mediocrity and lack of ambition of the US teaching profession.

    Comment by Fiat Spyder — August 28, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

  12. Fiat,

    I assure you, many public school teachers are martyring themselves in the way you prescribe. I, with my contemptible desire to live a balanced life (e.g. take care of sick friends, cook good meals now and then, read a book on occasion, hold a secular sabbath once in a blue moon), am not representative. Alas that I should be fated to be an inferior type!

    Comment by Ben F — August 28, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  13. Erin,

    I appreciate your suggestiong and would probably heed it if I felt my highest priority was to teach writing. But I’m teaching world history now and I’ve taken Hirsch’s notion of a knowledge deficit to heart. My kids have a huge knowledge deficit (of my 200 seventh graders, only three knew the significance of 1776), so I apply most of my energies to figuring out ways to provide nutrient-rich direct instruction (with occasional forays into project fare) for my mentally malnourished students. Our textbooks suck, so I spend a lot of time developing my own juicy materials. I’m currently working on a lecture/food sampling on the Mayan roots of cacao cultivation, veering into modern chocolate production and the reason Swiss chocolate is pricier than Hershey’s. The hook is chocolate, but we glean something about Mayan gods and myths, about agriculture, food processing, the tendency for Europeans to value quality over quantity, new vocab like “ferment”, “theo-”, “broma (Gr.)”, “incense”, “deity”, “superior”, “stimulant”, “toxic”, “indigenous”, “native”, “originate”, “tolerate”. I don’t like to brag, but in light of Fiat Spyder’s slam, I will say that kids will get a mental feast that they’ll go home raving to their parents about. Most of my 200 kids will remember almost every detail of the lesson because it will be presented lucidly, with humor and with FOOD (seventh graders are perpetually hungry) –figuratively and literally). This is the power of well-crafted and imaginative lecturing that is pitched to a youthful audience.

    And while I’m defending my professional integrity: this past week my students really wowed me with some brilliant skits, raps and comics about Maya daily life. I’d made them “master the facts” first by reading and taking notes on two pages of text. That, I’ve learned from experience (take that Hanushek!), is the sine qua non for good creative projects. One skit in particular had the whole class, myself included, almost in tears with laughter. But it wasn’t just buffoonery: they had cleverly synthesized a large amount of the unit’s learning in a rapid-fire three minute drama. These projects deeply ingrained the knowledge in kids’ minds, AND proved that knowledge is really the fount of joyful creativity, not, as the ed schools would have you believe, its enemy.

    I wish the editors of The New Republic could visit my classroom –to my dismay, they have endorsed Obama’s approach to ed reform in their most recent issue (throwing a bunch of barbs at Diane Ravitch in the process). The promise of more money won’t make me teach any differently; nor will the threat of firing. What they don’t realize is that there’s a great knowledge deficit among teachers about the best ways to educate. Bribing and threatening will do nothing to eliminate this deficit.

    A NPR special on measuring teachers on KQED this afternoon spews more falsehoods. It features and endorses Hanushek saying the solution is to purge bad teachers. Teachers are born, not made, he says. What a lie! This man has no wisdom. I am a crappy teacher if I have a crappy curriculum and do not know the subject (and have unruly students and no administration support). I am a brilliant teacher if I have a great curriculum and have mastered my subject. Show me a born world history teacher. Next a headmaster, Mr. Pindar (?), inveighs that lecture is bad teaching that doesn’t work for low-achieving kids. Teachers need to buck up and learn modern dynamic approaches to teaching. Ha, as if lecturing hasn’t been vilified in ed schools for the past 40 years! To the extent that lecturing is done at all, it would be a miracle if it’s done well since I doubt one ed school in America teaches how to do it. And as if cooperative learning –especially among low-achieving kids –doesn’t spiral into complete non-learning eight times out of ten in the average teacher’s classroom. Cooperative and project learning is to teaching what deep water drilling is to oil extraction –it can work, but it is dang difficult and fraught with peril. The glib assertion that it’s superior to lecturing reflects deep ignorance and abject groupthink in this headmaster. Kudos to him for knowing how to advance his career and steer education into the gutter!

    Comment by Ben F — August 28, 2010 @ 8:20 pm

  14. Ben F, One of the biggest travesties with our elementary schools is their lack of foundational knowledge. While I loved your description of the lesson plans and greatly appreciate that you are working with horrific curricula (if you use any of the CA adopted texts/programs), it would have been immensely better if your kids had learned this material in elementary school, so that you could be working on more complex historical ideas with writing.

    And I completely agree with your perspective vis-a-vis the role that curricula can have in a “good teacher” vs. a “bad teacher”. Keep posting. Your perspective is greatly needed.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — August 29, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

  15. I’m with Crimsonwife. I’d LOVE it if a high school history teacher would offer the opportunity for me to read student’s papers and grade based on a rubric. I’m finishing my degree right now and as a future teacher, it’s an idea I would definitely pursue. It not only allows the teacher to assign more difficult projects/tests, but says to the volunteer: “I trust and value you as a caring member of this community.”

    Comment by Cindy — September 1, 2010 @ 3:38 am

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