School Success Begins at Home: Help Your Child Be Successful

An excerpt from a USA Weekend feature by Tom Loveless, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where he serves as director of the Brown Center on Education Policy.

Learning takes time. People are more likely to learn the things they spend time on than those they don't. This common-sense rule is known by anyone who has tried to master a difficult skill, from playing the piano to swinging a golf club. It's true for school subjects, too, as has been confirmed by a massive body of research. Still, children in the United States don't devote much time to learning outside the classroom. The average American high schooler spends five hours on homework per week.

Families need to reexamine how their children spend their time - and reevaluate their priorities. Here are five activities parents can focus on to ensure their children's success at school:

The issue: Homework.

The problem: The popular misconception that kids have too much.

The fix: Accept homework. It is essential.

Research shows homework boosts achievement in grades 6 to 12. Harris Cooper, an expert on homework, recommends a sensible target for the average student: Ten minutes per day per grade level (e.g., 30 minutes for third-graders, 60 for sixth-graders, 90 for ninth-graders).

The issue: Socializing with friends.

The problem: School performance falls as time spent with friends increases.

The fix: Influence of adults must outweigh that of friends when it comes to school.

Nearly one-fifth of students say they don't try as hard as they could because they worry about what their friends might think. Only one in three say their friends believe good grades are important.

The answer is not to lock kids in their bedrooms. Rather, schools and parents need to convey consistently high expectations. Peer values are strong, but adult values are stronger. Even teens realize that; a 1997 survey showed they feel adults don't demand enough of them. "The students seem to be crying out for the adults in their lives to take a stand and inspire them to do more," says Deborah Wadsworth, the president of Public Agenda, a nonpartisan polling group that focuses on educational issues.

The issue: Extracurricular activities.

The problem: Sports are all-important.

The fix: Cut back on sports if they interfere with schoolwork.

The average high school student spends 10 to 15 hours per week on extracurricular activities.

Do sports affect student learning? In moderation, participation is healthy. For academically weak students, sports can make school more attractive and reinforce the importance of being a good student. Achievement falls off sharply, however, for students who devote more than 20 hours weekly to extracurricular activities. Varsity squads easily can spend that much time on practice, conditioning, travel and competition.

Kids who spend more than 20 hours per week on sports probably borrow time from other activities. Sacrificing study time means sacrificing the future.

The issue: Television.

The problem: Television usually is not the problem; people just think it is.

The fix: Limit, don't turn off, the TV.

Television often is blamed for depressing student achievement. Some of that is a bum rap. Students who are casual viewers - no more than an hour a day - tend to do better academically than do students who watch no television at all.

Why are occasional viewers better students? They probably are discriminating with their time, using TV to stay informed of current events or to enjoy cultural shows. But heavy viewing definitely takes a toll. Half of eighth-graders report watching three or more hours of TV daily. In both reading and math, those students perform at significantly lower levels than occasional viewers.

The issue: Part-time jobs.

The problem: Students work too much.

The fix: Curtail weekday jobs during the school year.

Who is better prepared for the real world: someone skilled in math and science or in flipping hamburgers and making change at a register?

As with sports, 20 hours of work per week seems to be the limit; studies indicate that working more impedes learning. Some kids work late at night, and although there are laws against it, enforcement is spotty. High school teachers will tell you students fall asleep in class. Unless absolutely necessary, high schoolers' jobs should be limited to weekends and summer.