TERM PAPERS….The LA Times has a long article today about the disappearance of the term paper from high school English classes:

A report by the National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, a panel of academics gathered by the College Board, found that 75% of high school seniors never receive writing assignments in history or social studies

….Dawn Damron, co-chairwoman of the English department at Chino High, said that students in almost all grades have to do some research, but that it is up to each teacher to decide the length and frequency of writing assignments. Most teachers concentrate on making sure students can “coherently write a five-paragraph essay,” because that is the type of writing that students must complete on timed standardized tests, she said.

….As a new teacher three years ago at Granger High School in West Valley City, Utah, Michelle Harper didn’t foresee the stress of classes of 30 to 35 students. In her first year on the job, she assigned her English students a 10-page research paper.

“Wow, it took me a long time to correct. Every waking moment I had a paper in my hand, so that if I got a second I could read it,” she said. “The next time around I decided that I shouldn’t have to give up everything … for research papers. We tried it a little smaller: five pages.”

Now, they have been whittled down even more: “I don’t assign more than a typewritten page anymore.”

I don’t really have much to say about this except to wonder about this business of the average teacher having to grade 150 papers (five classes, 30 kids per class). Aren’t term papers of the 10-page variety limited to college prep classes? Surely it’s possible to limit any single teacher to no more than one or two honors classes, and if they assign two term papers a year that’s a pretty reasonable grading load. I had a very good (and traditional) English teacher in high school, but even she didn’t assign more than two papers in a year.

This is really a shame too, and not just because high school kids don’t learn to write. Speaking from a business perspective, my problem was never really with people who couldn’t write, it was with people who couldn’t figure out what they wanted to say. After all, if the content is there, fixing the grammar and sentence structure is fairly easy, but if someone is just flailing with the content, there’s not much you can do.

The value of term papers, I suspect, is less the writing practice than it is the research and outlining practice. If you can do the research, and make sense out of it, you’re 90% there. A fine prose style is icing on the cake.

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