In a recent Op-Ed Thomas Friedman asks are we falling behind* as a country in education because:
“…too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put in the work needed today to excel?”
Friedman asks this question in response to a recent speech in which Secretary Duncan stated ”…I wished our biggest challenge here in the U.S. was too many parents demanding excellent schools” after telling a story in which South Korean President Lee told President Obama his country’s biggest education problem was that parents were too demanding. Secretary Duncan went on to quote Amanda Ripley author of The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got There stating:
“too many parents and too many kids just don’t take education seriously enough and don’t want to put the work needed today to really excel.”
Quite the bold argument but are there any actual facts to back up these claims? To argue that U.S. parents and students are lazy or at the very least complacent there must be some compelling data to back up these claims. So what ‘evidence’ does Friedman provide to back up his hypothesis? Letters from two, count them, two veteran high school teachers who obviously had become disenfranchised because they believed their students were being asked to do less and in fact were doing less. As heartfelt and compelling as these letters are they are still just the experience of two teachers. Not exactly a representative sample of teachers nationwide.
So the question must be asked: Are students doing less now and if so, is it because less is expected of them? Of course, the answers to these questions are quite subjective. However, the teachers Friedman highlighted backed up their claims by noting that it is harder to get students to do homework now than every before—so in essence they were using homework completion as a proxy for student effort. And if you look at homework data that was collected along with the Long-term NAEP assessment for both 13 and 17 year-olds it does appear students are doing less homework on-average than they were a couple decades ago–although parents of high school children taking 4 Advanced Placement classes may find this hard to believe.
So it appears there is evidence to support the teachers’ contention that students are doing less homework now than in previous years but such evidence does not provide the complete story. As Secretary Duncan was claiming indirectly that students in other countries– like South Korea– are out working our students at least in part because their parents demand more. If we once again use homework as a proxy for student effort it is the South Korean parents who are less demanding. According to data from the 2011 Trends in Math and Science Study (TIMSS) 15 percent of U.S. 8th graders spent 3 or more hours per week doing homework compared to just 2 percent of 8th graders in South Korea. South Korea is not an outlier either. In Japan and Finland–both high performing countries– the percentage is about the same as South Korea. The other extreme is true as well where 78 percent of South Korean 8th graders spent less than 45 minutes per week doing homework compared to just 43 percent of U.S. 8th graders.
Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information on homework in high school but South Korea is known for how much time their high school students spend on homework. So even if we take that as a given does that mean that South Korean parents suddenly demand more once they children hit high school? Do U.S. parents push their children through elementary school then suddenly stop demanding such hard work when they enter high school? I don’t think so.
While there is evidence that students are spending less time on homework and it probably true U.S. high school students on-average spend less time on homework than high school students in other countries, it doesn’t necessarily mean students are not working as hard or less is expected of them. In fact, the assumption our students are expected to do less is wrong. When you actually look at the data you see today’s students are taking much more rigorous courses. For example, according to data from Long-Term NEAP in 1986 just 79 percent of 17 year-olds had taken Algebra compared to 96 percent of students in 2012. Furthermore, 76 percent of 17 year olds took Algebra II in 2012 compared to just 44 percent in 1986. The percent of student taking Calculus has also dramatically increased from just 7 percent in 1986 to 24 percent in 2012. Such increases in rigorous courses were not relegated to math courses either. Similar increases were also made in science as well with many more students taking chemistry and physics now than in the 1980s.
While students may be spending less time on homework, they are taking more challenging courses. So to claim our students aren’t working as hard or not expected to do as much is not supported by actual evidence. In fact, our students are expected to do more and are in fact doing more than ever before. Can we expect more? We sure can but just because parents make education the end-all be-all of human existence in a couple high performing countries doesn’t mean that’s how parents should act here. Parents should set high expectation from their children and their local schools that will educate them but they should also let their children be children as well. – Jim Hull
*I’ll take on the inaccurate assumption the U.S. is falling behind other countries next week.