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High School Sports: Who's the Real Loser?

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As part of a new partnership, is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

When our high school student newspaper earned top honors in the state, it excited the athletic director. As the Keeper of All Things Competitive, he also checked our ranking in a state awards program for schools with top academic honors. He found that we had beaten the neighboring schools and were ranked fifth in the state.

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“Maybe,” he told me, without a trace of irony, “we could become known as an academic school!”

Maybe, indeed, but not likely.

I consider myself an athlete—a runner for 30 years, tennis player, and competitive gymnast during high school. But it dismays me that, when it comes to decision-making at the school level, on every field of play, sports wins and academics loses. For all of our hand-wringing over NCLB reports, a school with a winning football or basketball team trumps negative headlines about test scores every time.

Though America loves its sports, the inclusion of extracurricular sports is in direct conflict with the academic pursuits of a high school. The proof? Here’s are a few instances where I’ve seen sports take the field and routinely triumph over sound instructional choices:

• In a discussion about aligning our start time with the later elementary school start to match the late-riser rhythm of adolescents: “We can’t. It would push the sports’ practice times back too late.”

• In considering year-round school, with its proven benefits in overcoming learning losses during long summer breaks: “It will interfere with the sports seasons.”

• In a choice between two teachers for an academic leadership role (and extra pay)—one highly qualified versus one with so-so credentials but a winning record as football coach—football wins.

• During the all-important reviews for state testing, kids are routinely excused when state sporting competition is on the line.

• While we give lip service to reducing classroom interruptions, instructional time is regularly disrupted by pep rallies, early travel to sporting events, and overnight sports travel.

• To survive intense sporting seasons, some coaches who teach cut back on assignments, shuffle grading off to student assistants, and excuse themselves from professional development opportunities.

These are the conflicts for schools that maintain high-cost, high-profile extracurricular sports programs. The pendulum nearly always swings to favor sports, even though they only impact about 20 percent of the student body. (At the next pep rally, note how many students sit glumly in the stands to cheer on the same 40-50 students they’ve celebrated season after season. This year at my school the score is pep rallies: 3; assemblies for music, art or drama: 0.)

The argument for sports goes like this: It’s the only thing keeping some kids in school. Though I’ve yet to see any statistic supporting this contention, I have seen capable students coast through classes as they place their emphasis on an athletic career. Some hang their future prospects on a sport, letting marketable skills like effective reading and writing stagnate.

At my school, most of the competitive athletes are also competitive students, a lucky elite who benefit from the rich genetic soup that is their makeup. A major sporting event held during the school day can cut attendance in an Advanced Placement class in half.

But it is the at-risk student whom the sports argument supposedly defends, and these students often bank on sports to carry them past other disadvantages like poverty or poor study habits. Because the system sometimes bends over backwards to keep high-performing athletes in school, the unrealistic message sent to impressionable youth is that athleticism can carry them through life. But even with outstanding athletic skills, a single injury can quickly end any hope of a career. In my 17-year career, reaching roughly 1,500 students, the number who have gone on to careers as professional athletes is exactly zero.

One at-risk student dutifully sat in my 9th grade English class for four years—but only through the fall football season. His high school career ended after he reached the limits of his eligibility, and he began his next career in prison.

I like sports. I also think that the best coaches generally make excellent teachers. I know I am at my best when my teaching resembles coaching rather than lecturing. But the emphasis on the athletic program does affect instruction.

What would happen if resources for sports were removed from schools and consolidated into single sporting complexes where we supported community teams? When education funds are no longer diverted to transportation, uniforms, and maintaining interest in sports, both the energy and resources could be used to improve instruction. Those who wanted to teach and coach could do so, taking on coaching as the second job it truly is. The community would have a clear picture of the true cost of sporting programs when the funding is separated.

As a result, kids might actually want to come to school, not to play ball, but because the increased attention to instruction will help every student succeed and find a skill to translate into a lifetime of learning and earning. And for many, I'm sure, a lifetime of enjoying and participating in sporting events.

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