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Published in Print: February 24, 1999, as Truth, Statistics, and Entertainment

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Truth, Statistics, and Entertainment

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What are those time studies on children telling us?

Last November, a series of national reports emerged on the state of children and American education. As usual, their conclusions were rapidly sensationalized, dumbed-down, and manipulated for political purposes, leaving parents and teachers and principals like me to ponder whether the real purpose of research is truth or entertainment.

As dutiful as any anxious parent or professional, I digested the op-ed articles and the magazine cover stories. Ultimately, I found myself feeling a little like the "Ol' Perfesser," Casey Stengel, who capped his distinguished career in professional baseball by coaching the hapless New York Mets in their expansion days and found himself reduced to wondering aloud, "Hey, can't anybody here play this game?"

Take the study that made the biggest splash in the waning moments of 1998: The Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan released "Healthy Environments, Healthy Children," a longitudinal analysis of how 3,500 children, ages 3 to 11, spent their time. The researchers compared data from 1981 and 1997 and concluded, among other things, that America's kids are busier than they used to be. The study offered superficially bad news and good news. Our nation's children spend less time playing and less time being outdoors. But they're spending more time in school--a lot more. They've increased their time in organized sports. And--isn't this reassuring?--they're watching less television and doing more studying; they're even doing a little more reading than they used to.

The researchers highlighted a few obvious consequences of these shifts: More reading leads to higher test scores in reading and math; more television-watching means lower scores. Children are "busier because their parents are busier." Well, duh, as those with a taste for rampant colloquialisms (and today's impoverished vocabulary) might say.

Lost in the frenzy of public analysis were the subtleties of the data. The increase in time spent in school was most pronounced among children at the prekindergarten level: Their hours doubled from 11 to 20 each week. This increase counterbalanced a dramatic decline in playtime for this age group: from 27 hours a week in 1981 to 17 in 1997. For those of us in education who know that childhood's "free play" is as critically effective in building SAT scores as time spent on "academics," these data explain, in part, why today's children arrive at our privileged school doors with social skills and vocabularies far less developed than those of prior generations.

If, at the other end of the study's spectrum, one reviews the data for the 9- to 11-year-old group, one discovers that these youngsters have suffered no loss of playtime. Like their counterparts 16 years ago, they are spending about 8½ a week playing. They also haven't experienced much of an increase in their study time: They average 3½ hours a week. (You read that right: 3½ hours of studying aweek ... in case you were wondering why America is losing the brain race.) The good news is that these older children are watching a lot less television: Hours spent in front of the boob tube have declined from 18.5 to 13.5 hours a week. There's no way of knowing, but one wishes one could find out where that extra five hours a week has gone. Does anyone want to take a bet on how much of the time is now devoted to cruising the Internet and playing soporific computer games?

Meanwhile, here is one of last November's studies that got buried, the one I personally wish had captured more of the media's attention. The Josephson Institute of Ethics surveyed 20,000 American middle and high school students to see how many would admit to cheating on a test or lying to a teacher in the preceding 12 months. ("'Running in the Halls' and Moral Trivia," Nov. 4, 1998.) Seventy-six percent confessed to lying to their teachers; 63 percent said they'd cheated on at least one test. The percentage of cheating high school students has increased from 64 percent to 70 percent in the past two years. Draw your own conclusions.

These statistics aren't my school's numbers, of course. I'd like to think our students do more playing, more reading (with and without their parents), more studying; I hope they watch a lot less television and have internalized the importance of being consistently truthful. But the studies offer lessons everyone needs to ponder. So here is my wish for 1999: I hope we'll all think about how these studies (whether or not they attracted popular attention) are interrelated, how work and play and being "busy" have consequences--for children and for adults--that are moral and societal as well as immediately practical. These consequences often lie far down the road, where, as Robert Frost reminded us, the way bends into the undergrowth.


Nicholas S. Thacher is the headmaster of the New Canaan Country School in New Canaan, Conn.

Vol. 18, Issue 24, Page 51

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