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It's Academic: School Success Starts at Home : Cutting kids' TV time and making them do homework may not be popular, but it's up to parents to improve their children's education.

October 16, 1994|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | Richard Kahlenberg of North Hollywood writes regularly for The Times

The U.S. education secretary, Richard W. Riley, was out on the stump recently, trying to get parents involved in their children's education. He has been citing data gathered from various studies concluding that what happens at home is critical to how well young people learn.

I have a couple of reactions to that. I'm angry at the idea that national education policy now tells parents, "Hey, it's your problem" if kids don't learn anything at schools which we are required to support. At the same time, I suspect there is a lot of truth in what Riley is saying.

I thought of Riley's crusade recently when I heard that a house guest of a fellow resident of North Hollywood had been leading four red-blooded American kids in an unusual course of study.

The man is Jonathan Gift, a filmmaker who was born in the United States and educated here, in England and in France. He is staying at the home of a friend named Michael Hoggan, a film editor and single parent with four children in public schools. Starting last spring, Gift became something like a prefect, or upperclassman-taskmaster, for the Hoggan children.

Before Gift arrived, the kids were frittering away time they should have been using to do homework. Gift remembered that at the British prep school he attended, older students were made responsible for seeing that younger ones did their work.

He and Hoggan started a regime of "structured time" after school. For 90 minutes the children now do something that would make Education Secretary Riley very happy--their homework.

"The kids weren't learning to work in school," Hoggan says. "We could never get child care that could make them work. They didn't set up time for homework."

When summer came and there wasn't any homework, Gift made his own assignments to Jaron, 6, Clinton, 9, Matthew, 12 and Joanna, 13. All summer, Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., books got read, essays written, pianos played and artwork created. Afterward came playtime and friends.

The lesson is simple. Adults who are able and willing to take the time and exercise some authority can bring drastic changes to kids' mental lives.

And how much did the Hoggan kids love it?

"I hate structured time," teen-ager Joanna Hoggan says of her summer. But she adds, "it's good for Clinton."

Clinton, a fourth-grader at Toluca Lake Elementary School, actually agrees--kind of. "I kind of like structured time," he says. "It helps me." Then he launches into a detailed account of the books he read. Asked if he feels the household's regime in any way got him ahead of the other fourth-graders, he reflects, "It didn't push me way ahead, but it pushed me ahead."

Jaron denounces structured time as boring, but this is an independent thinker. He also hates Barney and "Sesame Street." In an energetic display of a 6-year-old's logic, he confesses to liking reading and discloses that on his first day in first grade, "The kids read slow, but I read fast."

Matthew, who started at Walter Reed Junior High this fall, has an interesting spin on things. "I think quiet time helps, but it would've probably been better two years ago," when he was closer to Clinton's age. "I loved jumping around and still don't like reading. Structured time forces us to do something we don't want to do. But we need to do it, so we should do it."

By now Secretary Riley would be doing high fives with the kid.

The dictum he has been delivering in speeches is that "controllable home factors account for almost all the differences in average student achievement across states." Also that "reading is more dependent on learning activities in the home than is math or science." He says this finding helps explain why the verbal scores in Scholastic Aptitude Tests have stubbornly resisted efforts to reverse decades of decline, while schools have improved in math. Nobody today reads to their kids. There's no time in a two-career day, or no books in the house, or too much TV.

In addition to having become a stressed-out, overworked country, we have become indifferent to reading and writing. They are not seen as fashionable or profitable. The Hoggan children are careful when telling their peers about how they spent their summer. They emphasize the killjoy aspect, seeking sympathy. Clinton, an exception, says, "I tell my friends about reading and studying. I think it's interesting." But other kids don't seem impressed.

Clinton lives in the real world of the Valley today, not the one Jonathan Gift brought into the Hoggan household with his international luggage. Maybe few parents are really ready to limit their kids' TV time, make them do their homework and hone their kids' wits for international competitiveness. But I hope a lot of them are. I think that until the schools undergo a true revolution, it is the parents' problem, whether they like it or not.

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