Sunday, 6/4/00

School too easy, top seniors say

How they spend their time
By Monique Fields / Staff Writer

Students are cracking their books a lot less than you may think.

A myriad of course offerings have left students to choose from traditional, honors and Advanced Placement courses, which help high school students gain college credit. To that end, students can also choose just how hard they want to work while in high school.

RELATED STORIES So it may come as no surprise to learn that Middle Tennessee's brightest students, on average, don't spend much time with their noses stuck in books. In fact, among 247 valedictorians and salutatorians surveyed by The Tennessean this spring, 7% reported that they don't study at all, while 53% said they study between one to five hours a week, or about one hour a day. Study time included time spent doing homework and writing papers at home.

"That really surprises me," said Clay Myers, principal at Hillwood High School. "My impression is that they study more. I know the demands of some of those courses, and they have to study."

What is interesting is that while students are racking up -- in some cases -- easy A's, nearly 75% of them rated their education as "excellent" or "better than average."

"Most students believe the smarter you are, the less you have to study, and the dumber you are, the more you have to work," said Ulric Neisser, a professor of psychology at Cornell University, who edited The Rising Curve, which examines the rise in IQ scores.

Those who do well in school tend to think they received a good education. Those who don't are more inclined to criticize it, he said.

These figures aren't new. Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles survey college freshmen every year. Last year, they found that 40.2% of 261,217 students surveyed said they studied fewer than three hours a week while in high school, and 17.1% studied less than an hour a week.

They are students like James Storie, valedictorian at Mt. Juliet Christian Academy. The track, basketball, baseball and soccer star said he just didn't have time to study.

"I didn't take my books home" he said. "They stayed in my locker."

If he did have homework, he did it before or after school. Lunch also was a good time to catch up.

"These are very bright kids," said Ellen Goldring, a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College and the author of Principals of Dynamic Schools. "They are very efficient, very organized."

Students may be more adept at traversing the inner workings of high school, but it's only fair to say that some of them may not be receiving a challenging education.

"Students can only rise to what's being expected of them," Goldring said.

Even Storie admitted he could have used a challenge at his school, which doesn't offer any Advanced Placement courses.

"Sometimes I felt it was a little bit slow, and they should push me a little," he said.

Derek Drake, valedictorian at White House High School, took a couple of Advanced Placement courses, but he still managed to use some of the same strategies as Storie.

To hear him tell it, he didn't need to study for classes.

"I just remember things really well," he said. "I really do. When I hear something once or twice, it sticks for a while -- at least until the test is over."

Most students apply themselves to their work, said Joe Nunley Jr., an honors biology and ecology teacher at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro. He has seen his share of students who try to bluff their way through tests.

They are easy to spot. They give general answers to questions that ask for specific information. Nunley can only wonder why this happens year after year.

"Maybe they don't see the payoff," he said.

He believes teachers bear some of the blame. Emerging technology has forced educators to rethink how they teach. Today's students didn't grow up tying their shoes; they likely used Velcro, he said. Children who grew up in a digital age frown on terms like counterclockwise. Most teachers, he said, keep pace and challenge their students. Others need to be prodded.

Sometimes, the class determines how much studying is taking place. In some classes, it simply isn't "cool" for students to admit they were studying instead of, say, watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire or MTV.

"When it came to my AP classes, it was necessary to study. The teachers knew that, and we knew that," said Laura Norfleet, salutatorian at McGavock High School and an aspiring math teacher. "In the rest of my classes, studying was not cool. You didn't study for tests. If you did, you didn't tell anybody."

Young people are smarter today. When compared to their parents and their grandparents, they definitely come out ahead. IQ scores have been rising about three points per decade, Neisser said. Today, young people are better at problem-solving, but they aren't making any gains in reading ability or vocabulary.

"I think the schools are better, and the schools are focused on reasoning and thinking, not memorization like they used to be," Neisser said.

At the same time, students are reading less and watching more television, he said.

Still, some students said they have to study. About 25% reported in The Tennessean survey that they study six to 10 hours a week, while another 16% spent more than 11 hours studying for upcoming tests.

"Homework has consumed me these past couple of years," said Jo Ellen Bennett, the salutatorian at Hillwood High School.

It's no wonder. Bennett took seven Advanced Placement classes, doing well enough in six of them to earn college credit. As a junior, she felt like she was writing a paper each night. She spent her senior year reading and studying for big exams.

Myers, her principal, said he is finding more students like Bennett. About 25% of the students at his school are enrolled in Advanced Placement courses or participating in a dual enrollment program with Nashville State Technical College. Both programs allow students to earn college credit while attending high school. Myers said students like Bennett are bright and learn very quickly. But they are still expected to study.

"We tell kids you need to plan on studying two hours a night if you're taking AP classes," he said.

That said, Bennett's concentration on studying is something she has to do. Since she entered high school, she has always needed to study three times as hard as her peers to make the same grade.

"It was harder for me to comprehend all of the material as fast as they did," she said.

Bennett, who rated her education as "better than average," also credits her teachers.

"All of my teachers visibly cared about their students inside the classroom and outside," she said. "I always felt comfortable about talking about anything on my mind with anyone at Hillwood."


Copyright 1998, 199, 2000, 2001  by David N. Shearon