Are extracurriculars crowding out study?

April 9

After nearly 40 years as an elementary school teacher and an additional seven years as a high school math tutor, Betsy Sanford of Kensington has heard many complaints about too much homework. She doesn’t think that’s right.

The homework load seems fine to her. The difficulty is the available time to do it. Homework is being squeezed by a problem I have paid little attention to: the Washington area teenager’s heavy schedule of outside activities. I have gotten many e-mails from parents making the same point in great detail.

In the past, I sort of ignored this issue. My point has always been that, nationally, the homework load is light, no more than an hour a day for high-schoolers. Kids in the Washington area do more than that, I have said, because we have the heaviest concentration of affluent, college-conscious families in the country. These are competitive students and parents who, like me, don’t think they are doing enough unless they are overdoing it.

I might have to revise that thesis after hearing from parents such as Drew Bendon of Arlington County. He gave me a daunting quantitative analysis of what his son, 16, and many other students in this area deal with. “I played a couple of sports in high school and was even in a musical, but I don’t remember them consuming my life in the way that my son’s involvement with school sports does,” he said. Swimming practices for his son, who is a sophomore at Washington-Lee, are two hours, four days a week, and the meets on Fridays last three to four hours, Bendon said. There is a required team dinner each Thursday night (when they might otherwise be studying for Friday tests) and various team breakfasts throughout the season.

“And this is just for the average swimmer,” he said. “The best swimmers all swim on club teams that practice many more hours in the day and all year long. Although I love team building and the camaraderie that the swim team creates, this time commitment is out of balance with education.”

Baseball, he said, “is far worse.” Practices are three hours, six days a week, often with two midweek games in addition to the regular Friday game. “If midweek games are away games, they could not get back to school until 11 p.m., or later.” Add to that the fact that baseball season coincides with the crunch of midterms, state tests and Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams that comes every spring.

“What I do see almost without exception are students who are very, very, very busy with a heavy schedule of outside activities,” Sanford said. “They are involved in theater or sports, for example, to a far greater degree than students even 15 years ago.”

High school parent Beth Felsen said: “Two of our children are involved in chorus, which often requires after-school rehearsals. This means that several days a week when the teachers might be available to help after school (with questions about the lesson), our students are not able to meet with them.”

School activities appear to be much more intense and time-consuming than they were when I was in high school. Choosing what we think of as a seasonal sport often turns out to be a full-year commitment.

I suspect I have gone too far in placing all the blame for the activity overload on the ambitions of families and staff members. That has something to do with it, but I should also mention the admissions staffs of our most selective colleges. When discussing extracurricular activities, they tell potential applicants to embrace strongly one or two passions. That means lots more time away from studying.

Tell me at jay.mathews@
washpost.com
what you think we can do about it.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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