Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, put it very well in August this year: "The single biggest complaint from college teachers and employers is that high school graduates cannot write as well as they need to." As a result, the member companies of the Business Roundtable have been saddled with a $3 billion bill for remedial writing courses every year, not only their hourly hires but for their salaried employees.
There are a few exceptions, of course. For decades, the International Baccalaureate has required a 4,000-word (16-page) Extended Essay for the Diploma, and thousands of American students have done that. Even the College Board has begun to think of a small pilot program on term papers as well.
The New Common Core standards, a set of reforms that will soon be adopted by most states, talk about nonfiction reading, but that category seems to include more memos, short speeches, brochures, and technical articles than anything like a complete history book. The standards also mention something about nonfiction writing, but all of the examples in the appendix seem to be only more two-page efforts that will far from challenge the capability of our students in academic writing.
By publishing Peg Tyre's story "The Writing Revolution," The Atlantic is doing a great service for our students who need to learn to do some serious academic expository writing while they are still in high school. However, I would add that students also benefit from seeing exemplary expository essays written by their peers.
At The Concord Review, I've seen many examples of first-rate academic writing on historical topics. Students are startled, challenged, and inspired when they see this kind of work by people their own age. "When I first came across The Concord Review, I was extremely impressed by the quality of writing and the breadth of historical topics covered by the essays in it," one New Jersey public school girl wrote to me. "The chance to delve further into a historical topic was an incredible experience for me, and the honor of being published is by far the greatest I have ever received. This coming autumn, I will be starting at Oxford University, where I will be concentrating in Modern History."
It may be objected that this is a letter from a good student. Where are the letters from struggling students? I would respond that in sports, we are quite happy to present other students with the very best public performances of their most athletic peers. But when it comes to academics, we tend to be afraid to show students the exemplary work of their peers, for fear of scaring them away. This dichotomy has always seemed strange to me.
Of course we must pay attention to our least able students, just as we must pay attention to the those who have the most difficulty in our gym classes. But it wouldn't hurt, in my view, to dare to recognize and distribute our students' best work, in the hopes that it may challenge many of them to put in a little more effort. Surely that is worth a try.