Driven to Distraction

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

7 February 2013

“We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.”—George Orwell 
While we spend billions on standards for skill-building and the assessment of skills, we don’t seem to notice that our students, in general, are not doing any academic work. This assumes that there is a connection between the academic work of students and their academic achievement, but for most of those who study and comment on education that link seems not to be apparent.
The Kaiser Foundation reported in  January 2010, that:
“Over the past five years, there has been a huge increase in media use among young people. Five years ago, we reported that young people spent an average of nearly 61/2 hours (6:21) a day with media—and managed to pack more than 81/2 hours (8:33) worth of media content into that time by multitasking. At that point it seemed that young people’s lives were filled to the bursting point with media. Today, however, those levels of use have been shattered. Over the past five years, young people have increased the amount of time they spend consuming media by an hour and seventeen minutes daily, from 6:21 to 7:38—almost the amount of time most adults spend at work each day, except that young people use media seven days a week instead of five. [53 hours a week]”
If our students spend that much time, in addition to sports, being with friends, and other activities, like sleep, when do they do their academic work?
Indiana University’s High School Survey of Student Engagement found most recently that:
“Among (U.S.) Public High School students: 
82.7% spend 5 or fewer hours a week on homework.
42.5% spend an hour or less each week on their homework.”
This may help to explain how they manage to free up 53 hours a week to play with electronic entertainment media, but is there any effect of such low academic expectations on our students’ engagement with the educational enterprise we provide for them?
Meanwhile, our high school students are reading books written at the fifth-grade level—The 2013 Renaissance Learning Report on student reading levels: “The Book-Reading Habits of Students in American Schools 2011-2012″ found that: “The average ATOS book level of the top 40 books readby ninth–twelfth graders (high school students) was 5.6 overall (fifth-grade level), 5.7 for boys, and 5.4 for girls.”  
Brandon Busteed, Executive Director of Gallup Education reported on January 7th of this year that: 

“Gallup research strongly suggests that the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become. The Gallup Student Poll surveyed nearly 500,000 students in grades five through 12 from more than 1,700 public schools in 37 states in 2012. We found that nearly eight in 10 elementary students who participated in the poll are engaged with school. By middle school that falls to about six in 10 students. And by high school, only four in 10 students qualify as engaged. Our educational system sends students and our country’s future over the school cliff every year.”

The statement of the obvious which applies here would seem to be that we have driven our high school students to distraction, by asking them to do little or no homework and by spending billions of dollars to lead them to prefer electronic entertainment media to the academic work on which their futures depend.
On June 3, 1990, Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote in his regular New York Times column that:
“As we’ve known for a long time, factory workers who never saw the completed product and worked on only a small part of it soon became bored and demoralized. But when they were allowed to see the whole process—or better yet become involved with it—productivity and morale improved. Students are no different. When we chop up the work they do into little bits—history facts and vocabulary and grammar rules to be learned—it’s no wonder they are bored and disengaged. The achievement of The Concord Review‘s authors offers a different model of learning. Maybe it’s time to take it seriously.”
Despite my own bias for having students read history books and write history research papers, I think it may be argued that if we give students nothing to do academically, we clearly contribute to the academic disengagement which we now find.
If we don’t take their academic work seriously, neither will they. What they take seriously they have a chance of doing well, and when they don’t take something seriously, they have little chance of achievement there. Verbum Sap.
“Teach by Example”
Will Fitzhugh [founder]
The Concord Review [1987]
Ralph Waldo Emerson Prizes [1995]
National Writing Board [1998]
TCR Institute [2002]
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