Are American students studying enough?

My turn

Posted: Monday, July 09, 2001

Americans spend more on schooling students than nearly all other affluent countries. Yet our students make the fewest gains in reading, mathematics and science.

Although they score about average on tests in the early grades, they come in last in high school. How can the most productive country on the planet have the least productive schools?

In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education reported what it considered the chief reason. This distinguished group of citizens pointed out the negative effects of the short U.S. school year of 180 days compared to 190 to 210 days in Europe and 240 in Japan. Because of the commission's report, "A Nation at Risk," legislators increased spending on schools, and educators carried out many reforms.

Achievement, however, remained stagnant during subsequent years. Recent international surveys show that U.S. students continue to make the least progress and that the United States still has the shortest school year.

The number of days in the school year, however, tells only part of the story. I analyzed 33 psychological studies that compared U.S. students' use of time with that of students in South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan -- countries that top the achievement charts. Those students went to school more days per year (including partial days on Saturdays), had a longer school day, typically attended private tutoring schools, and did more homework for both their regular and their tutoring schools. Within and outside school, Chinese students averaged twice the total study time of U.S. students; South Korean students put in 83 percent more study time.

After immigrating to the United States, many Asian students continue private after-school lessons and prodigious study time -- a reason for their breathtaking achievements in school mathematics and science and later in university engineering, science, medicine and other challenging fields despite severe economic and language handicaps.

The comparative studies offered other time-related comparisons. During their short summer vacations, for example, many South Korean students study English, computers and martial arts. What do U.S. students do with their substantial non-study time? Comparisons with Chinese students suggest they spend twice as much time playing and much more time watching television.

Yet a national survey of American high school students showed that three-fourths thought that tougher examinations and graduation requirements would lead students to study harder, longer, and more effectively.

Our national difficulty is following the obvious implications of consistent research findings, common sense, and what students know. Educators have yet to increase the length of the school year. Nor have they established high standards that would induce our students to study harder.

Herbert J. Walberg is University Scholar, University of Illinois at Chicago; distinguished visiting fellow, Hoover Institution; and member, Hoover's Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. (c) 2001, Hoover Institution Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.

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