What happens in schools?

Class, race and school enjoyment Becoming Adult: How Teenagers Prepare for the World of Work  provides a snapshot of what American teenagers want to be when they grow up and looks in detail at how their workplace skills and attitudes are developed.

Published in 2000, the book is based on a national longitudinal study of American adolescents from 1991 through 1997. Our 2011 economic and technological landscape is quite different from that 20 years ago; however, some of the data the researchers discovered may be worth looking at now in spite of or because of those changes.

In this post, I’ll focus on some of the findings about students’ experiences in and attitudes toward school. I’ll save findings about career aspirations for another day.

The authors

Mihaly Csikszentmihaly is best known for his studies on flow, the mental state in which people are totally engrossed in an activity that is highly challenging but not beyond their capabilities.

Barbara Schneider is currently at Michigan State University. Her research interests focus on how the social contexts of schools and families influence the academic and social well-being of adolescents as they move into adulthood.

The study design

Led by a multidisciplinary team, the study looked at adolescents in grades, 6, 8, 10 and 12. They followed more than 1,000 students in 13 school districts representing a cross section of American communities and schools.

Researchers used a variety of methods to get data, including:

  • A survey to collect data about what students know about the world of work and factors that may contribute to that knowledge,
  • Daily sampling to determine how students spent their time and how they felt about what they were experiencing
  • Interviews with teens, their parents, and school guidance counselors;
  • Analysis of publications of the schools the teens attended, such as mission statements, budgets, and curriculum descriptions.


1. How students’ school day is spent

Researchers found that only two-thirds of the students’ school day—four hours of a six-hour day—was spent in classes.

  • Students were in core academic classes (math, science, English, foreign language, history, social studies) just over half (55%) of the school day.
  • Students spent about 12% of their school day in classes outside the core subjects, such as art, physical education, and vocational training.
  • Students spent a third of their school day in unstructured time on school grounds outside of class—the halls, lunchroom, gym, library—or outside the building.

The authors point out that the amount of unstructured time is very high compared to many other countries. In Japan, for example, spent almost the entire school day in class, even eating at their desks.

2. How students’ class time is spent

Researchers also examined what students did during the four hours they spent in classes. Their findings are summarized on this pie chart, patterned after Figure 7.1 in Becoming Adult:

Here’s the actual breakdown of class activities by percentages:

23% of class time listening to the teacher lecture
23% of class time during individual work
14% of class time taking tests or quizzes
11% doing homework or studying
9% watching TV or video
6% listening or taking notes
5% in discussion
4% talking to friends or the teacher
3% in group work or lab
2% in other activity

3. How students feel about school activities

What is more interesting than the numbers is the way students felt about various activities. It should be no surprise that students said lectures are neither enjoyable or challenging. However, it may be surprising to learn they regarded classroom lectures and video content as unimportant to their career goals.

School activities that students said were engrossing, challenging, and important to their future goals were:

  • Taking tests and quizzes.
  • Doing individual  work.
  • Doing group work.

Group work came in well behind the other two activities, however.

The only parts of the school academic program that matched tests and quizzes in their ability to engage students were the non-core classes like art, music, and computer classes. Although kids said they really enjoyed those activities, they also said they were not important to their future goals.

Musings: If things haven’t changed much

If student attitudes haven’t changed since this study was done—and that’s a big if—we might need to rethink:

  • whether tests are really worthless,
  • whether homework is bad for kids,
  • whether the flipped classroom with video content at home is a cure for education’s ills,
  • whether group work increases learning that students perceive as valuable to their careers,
  • whether we can make students’ perception of the career value of non-core classes more positive.

Resourcefulness in the Web 2.0 world

A group of teachers were discussing options available to students who didn’t have internet access at home.  One teacher said teachers should treat access issues as a means of promoting resourcefulness. Kids could just go to the public library or to someplace with wireless access.

I decided to test how well that theory would work in the rural school district in which I live.

Bainbridge-Guilford CSD is primarily in Chenango County, NY. BG takes in small bits of two other counties: Delaware County, across the Susquehanna River, and Otsego County a few miles to the northeast.

For the sake of making things easy to follow, let’s say BG 11th grade social studies student Terry Nonet is assigned a team project on Monday that’s due the following Monday. It requires students to divvy up online research and put their findings in a Google doc.

Terry is in luck. He has a week to work on his project. He’d have been in trouble if he had one or more online assignments to do overnight. With a week to arrange to get Internet access, he may be able to complete the assignment.

The Bainbridge Free Library has four public access computers, available for one hour on a first-come, first-served basis. The library is open several times when Terry could go there outside of school hours:

  • Monday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm
  • Tuesday: 1 pm-6 pm
  • Thursday: 1 pm-5 pm; 6 pm-9 pm

Terry ought to be able to get to the library even if it’s 20 miles from his home and his family has only one car which his mom needs to go to her minimum-wage job in Norwich. Terry might have to miss work or leave his younger siblings unsupervised after school in order to do his social studies project, but meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry has another possibility.

The Chenango County Public Transit system stop in Bainbridge is just three blocks from BG High School. For a buck, Terry could hop a bus after school (there’s one that leaves Bainbridge at 4:30 pm) and go to Sidney where the Sidney Memorial Public Library has six public access computers available one hour per day to anyone with a fine-free library card.

The Sidney library is open until 8:30 pm so even if Terry has to wait for a computer, he ought be able to get access for an hour. If he needs more time, he could hike out to Kmart and use the public access computers there. It’s about a two-mile walk from the library to Kmart, but Terry could have free use of the computers adjacent to the customer service desk for 15 minutes.

The only difficulty Terry might encounter if he goes to Sidney to use the Internet is getting home. The next bus back to Bainbridge won’t leave until 5:50 the following morning. Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Terry hasn’t exhausted all his possibilities yet. He could go to a public library on Saturday.

There is no public transportation on Saturday in Chenango County so he’d have to hitch a ride to Bainbridge or to one of the member libraries of the Four County Library System that are open on Saturdays and provide public access computers. He’d have to present a fine-free library card, wait his turn, and do all his work within an hour, and get back home again. With a little luck, he’ll be able to do that and go to his part-time job and take care of his younger siblings while his mother goes to her minimum-wage job in Norwich.

Of course, with all the waiting around for public access computers, Terry probably won’t have time to do his part of the project and interact with his team, too. Terry’s teacher will probably mark him down for that. And since he won’t have the opportunities for online interaction that his more affluent peers with their laptops and broadband have, he’ll be at a disadvantage if he goes to college.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

The really sensible thing for Terry to do is get himself a laptop computer with wireless access so he wouldn’t have to depend on public libraries for a computer. If he’s really careful with the money he has left after he buys groceries for the household and doesn’t take any time off from his part-time job to go to the library to do his homework, he ought to be able to save enough money eventually to buy a laptop so he can do his homework in a place that has free wireless access.

Apparently, the only unsecured wireless access point in Bainbridge is the public library. The service is available 24/7, but unfortunately there is no public place where Terry can use a laptop after school when the library is closed unless he goes to Bob’s Diner, which is probably not the best place to do a social studies assignment.

The other public libraries in the Four County Library System offer wireless. There are also two Delaware County businesses that offer free wireless access within eight miles of the center of Bainbridge. But even if Terry had his own laptop, there’s the problem of transportation to and from the wireless access site. Chenango County public transport stops running before 7 pm weekdays and there is no weekend service. Delaware County has no public transportation at all.

Meeting such challenges will promote resourcefulness and help Terry appreciate the value of a good education.

Homework: folly or missed focus?

In a blog post today, David Brooks,  op-ed columnist at The  New York Times, gives a brief overview of a forthcoming study in the Economics of Education Review that seems to suggest more homework has no value for students in any subject but math.

The study entitled “Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?” is certain to be taken out of context, with the result that babies will be washed out with the bathwater like farms below the Morganza Spillway.

Economists Ozkan Eren and Daniel J. Henderson took a representative sample of US eight graders and correlated the amount of homework they were assigned in math, science, English, and social studies with their test scores in those subjects.  (Note that homework assigned does not mean homework done.)

The full study is worth reading. It is only 31 pages and a third is bibliography and appendices. If statistics make your eyes glaze over, you can skip the paragraphs with the Greek terms.

The researchers took great care to rule out all sorts of factors that might impact their results, including such things as:

  • Student characteristics, such as race, gender, and family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Teacher characteristics, such as race and gender as well as graduate degree and state certification status.
  • Class characteristics, including class size, number of limited English proficiency students, number of hours the class met weekly, the amount of time the teacher spent administering tests and quizzes.
  • Teacher evaluation of the overall class level, how much of the text the teacher covered, number of hours the teacher spent each week maintaining discipline.

The researchers apparently did not attempt to determine whether the homework activities and the test items covered the same ground.  I suspect that the reason the math homework had a postive correlation with test scores was that the math homework questions and the math test questions were very similar.

I doubt very much that homework in science, English, and social studies would correlate well with questions on the test used in the study. American education has standardized tests that are taken nationwide, but no standard curriculum that guides study nationwide. The lack of standard curriculum is less obvious in math than in science, history, and English. Without agreement on, for example, social studies topics that all eight graders should study, the likelihood of social studies homework boosting test scores strikes me as pretty remote.

Moreover, science, history, and English focus (or should focus) at least as much on the thinking processes used in those disciplines as on specific facts.  Those processes do not produce right answers in the same way that solving an algebraic equation produces right answers.

Homework in science, history, or English may be directed toward having students discover multiple options rather than toward one right answer. We tend to regard solving the math problem as mathematical thinking, but real mathematical thinking is as likely to result in several possible solutions as to find one “right” one.

Giving homework in which students develop a hypothesis to test empirically or having students write an essay about American history may be more important in the long run than giving homework on material that is more easily tested by blacken-the-bubble methods.
[11-27-2012 updated Eren-Henderson link]