Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sports: Defining Priorities in American High Schools

On Friday evenings my Facebook newsfeed fills up with reports of high school football games. As a high school teacher, the W-L record of my school's athletic teams interests me, and I try to follow their progress and ask about their games. Occasionally, I attend games but mostly as a ticket-seller. Frequently, patrons thank those of us at the gate for volunteering our time. What they often don't know is I get paid, although not much, to take tickets. This is only one of the many expenses associated with high school sports.

Cross-state Rivals: Highland Rams vs. Coeur d'Alene Vikings
I have never really understood the sports obsession, although I am an avid baseball fan, nor do I understand adults obsessed with following their high school teams. I missed my last high school reunion because it was scheduled during the fall so we could attend one of the school's football games as part of the festivities.

Now the October, 2013 issue of The Atlantic poses a question missing from the education reform debate: "The Case Against High School Sports." This is the burning question we in education and those in the education reform movement should be asking and the issue that begs serious attention. It's an issue I addressed in this post.

Certainly, the goal of providing adolescents a productive way to occupy their free time is a worthy goal, as Amanda Ripley explains in her brief chronicling of high school sports history. Arguably, as American schools supposedly lag behind so many other developed countries, especially in STEM subjects, we must ask: At what cost to the education of our young people do we prioritize our high school sports program?

Much of what happens in schools centers around sports. Every year schools devote a week to homecoming festivities, time to pep rallies and homecoming assemblies, etc. In my school, the primary function of student leadership class is planning these and other activities, including prom. We are to believe that the cost-benefit analysis of devoting an entire class to time for planning events outweighs the student enrolling in another academic course. Many students take student leadership all four years of high school, and in my school, many of these students also enroll in a noncredit release time so they can attend religious-studies class during the school day.

During the economic hard times schools have recently experienced, few schools have cut sports programs. Already cash-strapped parents have had to divvy up pay-to-play money and there may have been some reduction in stipends, but schools still employee athletic directors, trainers, coaches, activities secretaries, and others, including bus drivers who transport teams great distances. Here teams frequently travel nine or ten hours one way to compete. Indeed, our Friday game was with a school (in-state) nine hours away.

"Football cannot be defended in the high school unless it is subordinated, controlled, and made to contribute something definite in the cause of education," (Roy Henderson, athletic director of the University Interscholastic League, 1927). It's time to ask the question: What does football contribute to academics? And we need an honest assessment.

I'm interested in honest answers about the amount of time students spend preparing for and playing a sport, as well as how their attendance and school class choices are impacted by their participation. I know students who have dropped my Communication 1101 class because its academic demands would interfere with their sports participation. A student only has so many hours in a day. They and their parents make choices about how to use that time. What gets omitted when the priority is sports?

Those happy with the status quo argue that homework has little to no positive impact on student performance and that kids spend six and a half hours in school already. As I alluded above, this is often an untrue comparison, first because many students fill their schedules with classes related to or in support of their activities, including seeking out teachers who coach and who adjust their expectations based on their coaching responsibilities; second, students typically spend at least 10-15 hours practicing a sport compared to 5-6 hours a week in math, history, or English class.

Additionally, when coaching interferes with teaching duties, especially during spring sports, students in core classes often find themselves attending with a substitute. Over the years, I've heard many frustrated students attempting to teach themselves difficult math concepts because the teacher was absent for a game.

Indeed, students benefit from participating in sports. The research supports this as Ripley acknowledges, but what about the cost to those students who don't participate? They often feel marginalized when the sports program takes precedence. In one study of 30,000 students at the University of Oregon, Ripley describes, when the football team succeeds, academic performance among college male students decreases.

Ripley also chronicles the cultural change in one Texas school when sports were abolished and academics became the priority. Premont, Texas had an either/or choice: Either drop sports or risk closure by the state.

At this juncture, either the American public--including parents, educators, reformers--must acknowledge its priority is maintaing the competitive sports program status quo, or the pseudo education reformers will continue eviscerating public education. In these competing choices, there will be a winner and a loser. That's the nature of competition.

*Corrected link: 1:34 p.m. MST, Sunday, September 22, 2013