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December 17, 2014

Work smarter, not harder

Scrooge McDuck was fond of telling his nephews to work smarter, not harder. I immediately reflected back to this quote from my DuckTales watching days when I saw the latest data on how much time U.S. teenagers spend on homework compared to their peers in other countries. Some might expect the U.S. to be among the world leaders in homework while others might expect our teenagers to lag behind their peers in most other countries. Which group you fall into likely depends on your family’s income level since as The Atlantic points out students from higher-income families spend 1.6 more hours per week on homework than students from the other end of the family income scale.

On-average, however, U.S. teenagers spend a little more time on homework than their peers around the world — 6.1 hours per week on home compared to about 5 hours a week for the typical teenager around the globe. Yet, these averages hide the fact that the amount of homework varies significantly from country to country. What may surprise some is that the time spent on homework has almost no correlation to where countries rank on international assessments. For example, while teenagers in high performing Shanghai-China and Singapore were also at the top of the list for most homework per week (13.1), teenagers in the high performing countries of Finland and South Korea had the least amount of homework (2.8 and 2.9 hours per week respectively). Even in Japan students only spend 3.8 hours per week on homework, nearly two and half hours per week less than students in the U.S., yet Japan outperforms the U.S.

In isolation the homework data isn’t very useful at identifying any problems in our schools. But, when taken together with the fact that U.S. teachers teach more hours than teachers in other countries along with knowing that our students spend more time in school than students in most other countries the problem clearly is not a lack of hard work. As our Making Time videos points out, it is not about how much time students spend learning, it is how effectively that time is used and the data strongly indicates that time can be used more efficiently. How to do that is not exactly clear at this point, but the first step would be to examine how those countries that spend less time on learning and still outperform the U.S. to gain insights into some best practices as to how to use time more efficiently here in the U.S. The data is clear, for the U.S. to be among the world leaders in student achievement our schools need to work smarter, not harder.  – Jim Hull

March 28, 2014

The reality behind homework hysteria

The popular press has been abuzz recently with horror stories about the unreasonable homework burden children are experiencing.  While the idea of a third-grader having to spend 4+ hours on homework each night or an eighth-grader staying up until 1:00 am to finish all of her work certainly grabs the public’s attention, the reality of homework for the average student in the United States is quite different from the angst-ridden, overworked children we see in the press.

Last week The Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution released the 2014 Brown Center Report on American Education, which included a study of homework. The study addresses how much homework American students truly have; a question that The Brown Center first investigated 11 years ago during another period of heightened homework hysteria.  The original 2003 study found that most of the dramatic claims about homework were unfounded and that the amount of homework students were expected to complete each day had not changed in any significant way.

The results of the 2014 study support this conclusion as well. While these overworked kids and outraged parents we keep hearing about in the press certainly exist, they are much rarer than we are led to believe and are not representative of the typical American family’s experience with homework. According to 2012 NAEP data, only 5% of nine-year-olds, 7% of 13-year-olds, and 13% of 17-year-olds had more than two hours of homework the day before filling out the NAEP student questionnaire.  Compare this to the numbers from the 1984 NAEP, when 6% of nine-year-olds, 9% of 13-year-olds, and 13% of 17-year-olds said they had more than two hours of homework the day before. The NAEP data shows that between 1984 and 2012, homework load has remained quite stagnant. The largest movement has been for nine-year-olds, and that is primarily because students who previously had no homework at all are now receiving some, not because the homework burden has grown substantially during this time period.

The Brown Center’s report also analyzes parent surveys from 1987 and 2007 to determine if parental attitudes toward homework have changed dramatically in that time period. Parents rated both the amount and quality of homework their children received very similarly in 1987 and 2007;  60% of parents polled in 2007 thought schools were giving their children the right amount of homework. This is not exactly the enormous movement of unhappy parents fed up with too much homework that we’ve been reading about in the press.

Figure 23

We know that some students are assigned an overwhelming amount of homework and despite the inconclusive research on homework, some schools continue to assign large amounts of homework to students at all grade levels. However, the reality for most students is that they have a completely manageable amount of homework to complete each day – if any at all.

For more on homework, check out CPE’s Homework Q&A.

-Patricia Campbell

Filed under: Homework,NAEP,Parents — Patricia Campbell @ 7:47 am

January 31, 2014

Are elementary school parents more demanding than high school parents?

demanding parentIn 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. 

October 31, 2013

Valid concerns, invalid cause

I certainly understand Katie Hurly’s concern that her daughter is getting stressed out in school in only the 1st grade. No parent wants to see their child overwhelmed by school, especially at such a young age. However, I can’t validate her argument that the new Common Core of State Standards (Common Core) are the root cause to the five reasons this psychotherapist and parenting expert insists is ruining childhood. While she may have some valid concerns about the practices conducted within her daughter’s school, attributing those practices to the Common Core is a reach— at best. Let’s take a look at each of her five arguments:

Increased Stress

Katie is right— when teachers feel stressed, students internalize it and get stressed themselves. But the reasons she believes teachers are more stressed now than ever before—increased stakes on testing and teacher evaluations—have an indirect connection to the Common Core. The stakes on testing are connected to federal and state accountability systems that measure how well students are meeting standards; how much stakes these accountability systems put on the tests is independent from the standards they are testing. Furthermore, new policies to evaluate teachers based on their students’ achievement are also independent of the Common Core. As CPE’s recent report on state evaluation policies shows, teachers are being evaluated on how much growth their students make from year to year and not the percentage of students who met the standards.

Creativity is Dead

I hear this criticism often and it is the most surprising to me. Reason being, the Common Core was developed to enhance creativity and problem solving skills, not kill them. A major criticism of previous state standards were that they relied too heavily on rote memorization skills and did almost nothing to enhance creativity and problem solving skills. It is debatable whether the Common Core does enough to enhance these skills but there is no evidence that it is killing them.

Inadequate Time to Socialize

First of all, as CPE’s report Time Out: Is recess in danger? shows there is little evidence beyond anecdotal that recess is disappearing from our nation’s schools. There is evidence that a small proportion of districts are reducing recess time but as our report shows just about every elementary school still provides time for recess. Furthermore, with few states having implemented the Common Core last school year it is nearly impossible to determine if the Common Core had any impact on recess. While parents should definitely ensure their child has time to exercise and socialize at school, there is no evidence they are not.

Poor Eating Habits and Insufficient Exercise

I find this particular concern to be quite a stretch. First, I don’t know of any data that shows most students get 15 to 20 minutes for lunch and Katie provides no evidence this is the case beyond hearsay. Even so, I remember my mom complaining I didn’t have enough time for lunch when I was in elementary school back in the 1980’s. So this criticism is nothing new and has nothing to do with the Common Core. Again, not that it isn’t a valid concern or isn’t happening in some schools but to claim the Common Core is the culprit is a real stretch.  With the increasing pressure placed on schools to improve student achievement some principals may look to add more instructional time by trimming lunch or eliminating physical education but there is no evidence this is happening on any measurable scale.

No Time to Decompress

Every example of overworked kids Katie provides has been heard well before the Common Core was even considered. Parents have had these concerns for awhile and they are certainly true for some students. But it should also be pointed out this is far from a problem for a great number of students, especially our most disadvantaged students. A look at actual data shows too much homework is not a problem for most students in the United States. Certainly there are a number of students spending an inordinate amount of time on homework and other activities but it is far from a national epidemic and no evidence the Common Core has any impact on students being overworked.

This isn’t to single out Katie’s concerns. I have heard similar concerns from many other people as well. Just as Katie does, many people associate their concerns about what is going on in their public schools to the Common Core. That is why CPE has just released a FAQ about the Common Core every parent should check out. Armed with accurate information, parents can better advocate for improving their child’s education. –Jim Hull

Filed under: Common Core,CPE,Homework,Parents,Public education,standards,Testing — Jim Hull @ 2:07 pm

July 16, 2012

Many Students Do Not Feel Challenged

Student feedback from surveys can be a very useful tool for school administration and policy makers.  Recent reports from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation discovered that student feedback was a better predictor of a teachers’ performance than some traditional indicators.  Now that we have evidence on the practical uses of student surveys, we can gain quite a bit of insight about what they are learning in school, and their attitudes.

A recent report from the Center for American Progress using national survey data shows that many students don’t feel that they are being challenged in school.  Consider these results:

  • 37 percent of fourth-graders say their math is too easy
  • 72 percent of eighth grade science students say they aren’t being taught engineering and technology
  • Among 12thgrade high school students
    • 21 percent said their math was often or always too easy
    • 56 percent and 55 percent respectively thought their civics and history classes were too easy

This data might only show that many students perceive their classes as being too easy.  It certainly doesn’t prove anything about our classrooms.  I do think though it is a useful counter to those who think we are making school too hard for students and consequently losing their interest in subjects like math or science. – Kasey Klepfer

Filed under: Course taking,Homework,instruction,Middle school,Public education — KKlepfer @ 12:17 pm

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