The stakes could not be higher for American high schools. For the past decade, policymakers have run public education like a laboratory, trying to figure out how to improve our mediocre educational performance relative to other developed countries. While learning is important for its own sake, a more skilled workforce would be a tremendous boon to the economy. Statistics suggest that achieving a rate of proficiency in math among high school students on par with Canada could boost GDP by $1 trillion in the long run, dwarfing projected gains from other kinds of policy proposals.
Strategies for raising test scores tend to focus on standards for teachers and curricula, but a big part of the solution may lie in getting students to spend less time catching passes and shooting hoops, and more time learning long division. Because of our society’s inordinate promotion of athletics, however, students too often put recreation ahead of learning the skills vital to their own success, and the nation’s.
High school athletic participation is at an all-time high. In the 2010-2011 school year, 7.7 million students—over half of those enrolled in high school—played sports, an increase of almost 40,000 over the previous year. Football and basketball, both notorious for the intense time requirements they impose on student-athletes, together captured over 1.5 million participants.
Sports need not deter academic achievement. Apart from their obvious health benefits and the opportunity they provide to socialize, accumulated research demonstrates a strong positive correlation between athletic participation and good grades. The “dumb-jock” stereotype notwithstanding, students who play sports tend to outperform academically their non-athletic peers. The relationship may not always be causal, but many students—such as my brother, who plays high school football—report that the discipline required by moderate athletic practice helps order their lives in a way that facilitates schoolwork.
Trouble arises when students neglect their grades in favor of athletic training. Several studies have acknowledged the obvious fact that sports tend to divert students’ time from academics, and a 2002 study suggested that the most demanding sports, particularly basketball and football, can be negatively associated with academic achievement.
Since only a miniscule proportion of high school athletes can hope to play at the professional level, why do so many of them place recreation ahead of scholarship? One answer, which was proposed by Harvard’s James S. Coleman in his seminal work analyzing a cross-section of American high schools in 1961, has to do with group dynamics among adolescents. Since grading is relative, Coleman concluded, a student who elevates his own performance by studying hard is ostracized because doing this inevitably lowers the position of his schoolmates. Those who excel in interscholastic sports bring prestige to the school through their success, earning the admiration of their peers. Group dynamics thus work to encourage athletic performance, and discourage achievement in the classroom.
Coleman’s analysis no doubt contains truth, but in 2011 it seems fair to say that the culture at large plays at least as great a role as adolescent group dynamics in promoting sports over studies. Even the private high school I attended in Tennessee, academically one of the best in the state, regularly permits students to miss class for athletic events, both as participants and as spectators, and devotes school hours to parading star athletes in front of the other students. While my school can probably afford its several state-of-the-art athletic facilities, including eight tennis courts for a high school enrollment of less than 500, there are plentiful examples of public schools building football stadiums with price tags in the millions of dollars, even as test scores stagnate and teachers complain about a lack of resources. Local media endlessly hype interscholastic contests, and colleges, which should be the vanguard of academic learning, reinforce devotion to athletics by promoting intercollegiate sports and offering athletic scholarships. Even schools like Harvard lower the admissions bar for talented athletes.
While it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about a culture as diverse as the United States, anecdotal evidence strongly implies that our country has an unhealthy obsession with sports that detracts from the education of a substantial number of high school students. Policymakers might partially correct this by imposing limits on athletic participation, but a cultural defect cannot be eliminated by passing a law. What we need is a sustained nationwide campaign to convince parents, schools, and society at large that although athletics has its place, what goes on in the classroom is of paramount importance to students as well as America’s economy and international competitiveness. Changing a public attitude as entrenched as this one will inevitably be difficult, but we should be encouraged that this issue, for once, is in no way partisan. Democrat or Republican, we should all agree that school comes first.
Peyton R. Miller’12 is a government concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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