Are Sports Harming High School Education?

I love sports. Probably too much. On top of that I loved playing high school football and learned incredibly valuable lessons from it. So don’t misunderstand this post to be anti-sports. Instead I’m just sharing with you something that I found interesting and thought provoking.

Amanda Ripley wrote a book called The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way in which she seeks to understand and explain why American students have fallen behind other countries in reading, science, and math. The genius of the book is that she follows three American students who spent a year overseas as students in South Korea, Finland, and Poland.

One of the differences that the students noticed between American education and their experience in the host countries concerned school sponsored sports. Ripley recently wrote an article in The Atlantic where she explored this topic. A response to Ripley’s work by Elizabeth Kolbert appeared on The New Yorker website.

While other countries promote participation in sports, they don’t anchor sports in their school system like we find in America. In 1961 the sociologist James Coleman observed that a visitor entering a high school…

“…would likely be confronted, first of all, with a trophy case. His examination of the trophies would reveal a curious fact: The gold and silver cups, with rare exception, symbolize victory in athletic contests, not scholastic ones…Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution.”

But it isn’t just the trophy case that raises doubt about the schools primary focus. So does the school budget.

When Marguerite Roza, the author of Educational Economics, analyzed the finances of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest, she and her colleagues found that the school was spending $328 a student for math instruction and more than four times that much for cheerleading—$1,348 a cheerleader. “And it is not even a school in a district that prioritizes cheerleading,” Roza wrote. “In fact, this district’s ‘strategic plan’ has for the past three years claimed that math was the primary focus.”

But there’s more. Not only do the trophy case and the budget give clues to what is most important, but so also does the school schedule. “…Despite research showing that later start times improve student performance, many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice.”

In her article Kolbert recalls that her kids were practicing soccer two hours a day in the weeks preceding the start of school.

I wondered what would have happened if their math teacher had tried to call them in two weeks before school started to hold two-hour drill sessions. My sons would have been livid, as would every other kid in their class. Perhaps even more significant, I suspect that parents would have complained. What was the math teacher doing, trying to ruin the kids’ summer? And why should they have to make a special trip to the high school so their kids could study trig identities?

And finally the parents’ values are in line with the students and the schools’ values.

According to Ripley, however, one of the problems with the American educational system is that parents seem to like the arrangement, too. She describes a tour she took of a private school in Washington, D.C., that costs thirty thousand dollars a year. The tour leader—a mother with three children in the school—was asked about the school’s flaws. When she said that the math program was weak, none of the parents taking the tour reacted. When she said that the football program was weak, the parents suddenly became concerned. “Really?” one of them asked worriedly. “What do you mean?”

“Even wealthy American parents didn’t care about math as much as football,” Ripley concluded. 

What if we took sports out of the schools and into sports clubs? Several sports are already primarily “club sports” such as swimming. Almost every other sport has competition and training outside of the school structure. Is there a compelling reason to keep sports in schools taking time, focus, money, effort away from more core educational needs?

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