Tuesday, July 17, 2012

What We Don't Talk about When We Talk about Ed Reform in the U.S.A.

At the risk of opening the proverbial can of worms and being labeled anti-sports, I want to talk about something I've never heard mentioned in the education reform rhetoric the past 29 years: high school sports, the sacred territory of public education, especially high schools.

Why don't we talk about school sports programs as a component of education reform? Simply, our society/culture typically values the ideal of student/athletes so much that politicians won't touch the topic for fear of political death. Similarly, business interests and sports go hand in hand, so the pseudo-ed reformers such as Bill Gates and the Broad Foundation take a hands-off approach to the issue as well.

In light of the latest sports scandals we should take the opportunity to open an honest dialogue about the costs vs. the benefits of high school sports programs. Here are some reasons why:

1. Concussions and traumatic brain injury: 

H.R.469: Protecting Student Athletes from Concussions Act of 2011would require each state to pass legislation to address sports-related head injuries in order to receive federal funding under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. My state addressed the issue during the last legislative session. Whether or not it will sufficiently deal with the problem remains to be seen.

Still,  sports related head trauma will continue to happen, and those students' injuries will continue to impact their academic performance.

Should teachers' evaluations (and pay) be affected by lackluster performance on state tests among some student athletes whose head trauma has diminished their cognitive ability?

2. Hiring Practices that privilege coaching over classroom teaching:

Speaking from personal experience, I was hired for my current job based on my ability to coach debate and produce a winning debate team. During my interview, my principal made it abundantly clear to me that my job depended on the team's performance. Although not part of my initial assignment, I was asked to teach one section of English. I was told to prioritize the debate program, even at the expense of my English class.

I have repeatedly witnessed colleagues doing what I did: Prioritizing the extra-curricular activity over the academic subject. Often student interns are assigned to teachers who coach to better facilitate the coach's activity schedule.

Indeed, as my story illustrates, a school's athletic tradition determines who gets the job. Of course this isn't always the case, but it is often enough that it's an issue that needs discussion if the ed reformers are, indeed, really serious about improving public education.

Unfortunately, there is a code of silence at work among education leaders who for obvious reasons don't want to admit that hiring a winning football coach matters more than hiring the most qualified math teacher.

3. Attendance issues:

Certainly, a sports program can improve attendance, as the BAM program in Chicago demonstrates. Yet BAM isn't like many high school athletic programs that emphasize producing a winning team. BAM serves to develop academics through Olympic sports.


For students who participate in multiple sports, missing twenty to thirty days of class isn't uncommon. Too often the academics assume the role of extra-curricular while the sports gets treated like the mission of the school program.

Often students who miss class for extra-curricular activities fail to see the cause-effect relationship between attendance and academic performance. Many prioritize athletic practice over academics, so it's the classroom teacher who is expected to accommodate rather than the coach.

A recent Oregon study found that 23% of students miss at least ten percent of school. Since school sanctioned absences don't count against student attendance, the problem is probably worse than the statistics show.  When the sports calendar is particularly full, especially on Fridays, those students not involved in an activity often see no reason to attend class, reasoning that "no one will be there anyway."

From truancy to suspension to vacations to activities, the reasons for student absenteeism run the gamut, and impact student learning, as this Baltimore Sun article notes. A student not in class misses important concepts, regardless of the reason for the absence.

Even more troubling is the practice of seeking less challenging classes and teachers so that the student has more time and energy to commit to the extra-curricular activity.

4. Culture of intimidation: 

Those who laud high school athletics generally cite team building and cooperation as benefits of the sports program. Indeed, these are important character traits for students to develop. However, I wander how many students feel excluded when the football team gets treated as more privileged than the skaters in the school.

For many years my school district gave students a ten minute break between second and third period. During the break, a bottle-neck formed close to my room where halls converged. Each year a group of "senior jocks" filled the hall's space during break, often intimidating other students and precluding them from passing through safely. On more than one occasion, I pushed through the crowd that refused to budge. Some years this bully culture flourished more than during others, but I have often wandered just what negative impact on other students this clique exerted.

Tackling Bullying in Athletics (2010) acknowledges the problem and opens a dialogue for best practices for preventing bullying among players, coaches, fans, and parents. As the authors state, "when [on field bullying] behaviors are allowed or accepted they extend into other aspects of an athlete's life. There is a connection between these behaviors and bullying." On-field aggression spills into the school hallways and sometimes into the classroom.

Final Thoughts:

If we are serious about making our students perform on standardized tests on par with Finnish and Asian students, if the reform movement insists on evaluating teachers on student performance on those tests and using value-added measurements to do so, then classroom teachers need to insist that all parts of the education program be included in the conversation. To do so doesn't mean a teacher dislikes sports or athletes. On the contrary; our desire to see all students achieve their highest academic potential compels us to insist on this conversation.

To do otherwise is to commit a series of intentional fouls against the students we serve, and that deserves blowing the whistle and assessing the maximum penalty.