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Overemphasis on Sports? Three Educators' Views

To the Editor:

In an age when the inability to report to work on time may be declared "chronic tardy syndrome" and documented cases of "motivational-deficit disorder" are diagnosed as the cause for students not wanting to perform any educational tasks except playing Nintendo, Henry F. Cotton submits "athletic-proliferation anxiety" (let's call it APA) as the obvious, though heretofore neglected, root of education decline ("Neglecting the Obvious," Commentary, Dec. 13, 1995).

The malignancy now identified will doubtless spawn a flood of social psychologists and educational consultants to the scenes of in-service meetings. Armed with color markers and newsprint attached to official easels once used to promote mastery learning, they will set goals, form committees, and demonstrate beyond a shadow of disbelief that APA is, as Mr. Cotton purports, the single largest impediment to educational improvement in the American school system. Theodore Sizer will recognize his oversight and recommend discussions of the anomaly. A revision of A Nation at Risk will reflect the new point of view, giving credit where credit is due. No one will listen to William J. Bennett again.

Full-time, or near full-time jobs, along with cars and the requirements to keep both operating, having lost out to athletics for lack of controversy, will gain favor. It will be seen as a cost-effective program, since we don't have to hire supervisors no matter how high the numbers of students involved. The $2-an-hour job, once called assistant coach, can be diverted to the line of people waiting to work as assistant teachers in science classes with more than 30 students.

In a future Commentary, Mr. Cotton will focus his scrutinous eye on drama, declaring it the single largest impediment to improvement in the American school system since athletics, to say nothing of its effect on the fast-food and auto-repair industries. With reported cases of thespians infiltrating the English department, "grease-paint syndrome" (GPS) will be added to the list of trump cards to be used by the poor souls who are more involved with the blame game than in being educational leaders.

As a wave of training seminars descends to cope with GPS, the Disney Channel will add a sexually explicit soap opera to its format to cater to the new wave of afternoon-idle teens, as naive public school teachers struggle to develop accompanying curricular guides. CBS will go all-music from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., featuring Dan Rather and the group REM. Not to miss out, PBS will hire Howard Stern and free Big Bird and LaVar Burton to improve ratings in the light of government support. City street gangs, however, will abandon violent behavior to compete in a College Bowl-style forum, having spent "more time on task" in school. Old athletic letters, dusted off, will be awarded at special schoolwide assemblies.

Eventually, most extracurricular activities will vanish from public school life to again become the sole domain of the private preparatory school, where every student is on a team and most teachers coach. Title IX, then without an arena, will be relegated to an asterisk in educational history, right after open classrooms. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton will return to the athletic prominence of the 1930's. And Henry F. Cotton, a man who credits his undergraduate degree to an ice-hockey scholarship, having nothing left to prove, has nothing left to write about.

James McLaughlin
Director of Athletics
Head Football Coach
Woodstock Union High School
Woodstock, Vt.

To the Editor:

Henry F. Cotton's Commentary certainly hit the nail on the head. Having recently retired from teaching at the high school level for 33 years, I found it refreshing to see someone who knows education from the inside put on the table for discussion something which outside critics and reformers have overlooked: academic learning time within existing school schedules and practices.

About halfway through my teaching career, during the Carter administration, I was honored to serve on the (now defunct) National Council on Educational Research, the policy board for the (also defunct) National Institute of Education. During that time, the NIE issued the book Time To Learn, which brought "academic learning time," or, in other words, "time on task," to the attention of educators--at least to educators who do not limit their reading to the sports page. I was very impressed by the body of research which led to that product, and the main message--time to learn in schools is precious and should not be wasted, but often is--stuck with me for the rest of my teaching career. Unfortunately, as Mr. Cotton pointed out so well, what really goes on in schools suggests that academic learning time is not very highly valued, except perhaps by the waning fraction of teachers of academic subjects who were not hired primarily as coaches.

Mr. Cotton did an ample job of calling attention to the negative effects of athletic programs on the educational mission of schools. I offer more examples of neglect of the obvious in the form of questions which I formulated during my career as a physics teacher and K-12 science coordinator. Why must "performing groups" rehearse during the school day, excused from academic classes? (Or, more fundamentally, why must all students of music perform?) How do increasing numbers of parents justify removing their children from school for one or more weeks each year for family vacations? Why do orthodontists need to tighten the rubber band on children's braces during the school day, causing each child to miss school every few weeks, sometimes for years? How much academic learning time could be gained and how much could expenditures for art supplies be reduced if an entire elementary school were to completely ignore celebrations for holidays for an entire school year?

I agree with Mr. Cotton. Extending the school day or the school year without first scrutinizing and changing how the time now allotted for school is used would result in more of the same. Schools mirror society, especially with respect to what is valued.

Jon L. Harkness
Wausau, Wis.

To the Editor:

I agree completely with the Commentary by Henry F. Cotton. As long as sports are a priority, we will have mediocre schools where students can't read, write, count, think, listen, or follow instructions.

If parents want sports, that is fine. But they should pay for them. There should be no government money going to sports, unless, of course, parents want a system like that of the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930s.

All the money, time, and energy that go into sports should be put into basic literacy for all Americans. Until Americans reorient their priorities, I believe that they have the schools they want.

David Lemire
Kansas City, Kan.

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