Student Well-Being

Are U.S. Students—and Schools—Spending Too Much Time on Sports?

By Laura Heinauer Mellett — September 27, 2013 2 min read
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A recent story in The Atlantic has sparked a lot of discussion about how students can best use their time outside the regular school day.

The article, written by Amanda Ripley, author of the book, The Smartest Kids in the World, questions whether U.S. students should be spending so much of their free time on athletics—and whether schools should spend so much money on it.

She writes:

As states and districts continue to slash education budgets, as more kids play on traveling teams outside of school, and as the globalized economy demands that children learn higher-order skills so they can compete down the line, it's worth reevaluating the American sporting tradition. If sports were not central to the mission of American high schools, then what would be?

In her research, Ripley says she found studies that show American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids do playing sports. She also found that in some European countries, kids are much more likely to participate in club sports outside of school—in other words, they are not typically school-sanctioned activities. She focused on a Texas school district that actually suspended all of its sports because of financial mismanagement districtwide and poor academic performance. Football there cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. By suspending sports the district was able to save $150,000 a year she said.

The result was an eerie quiet that administrators described to Ripley as “peaceful.” That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes, compared with 50 percent the previous fall. Kids remarked about how they spend their after-school hours, and about 160 people attended parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before, Ripley wrote.

Detractors, meanwhile, have said Ripley is too quick to dismiss the potential for so many students to have a career in athletics, not necessarily just as professional athletes, but in sports-related fields such as coaching, fitness, and medicine. Also, they said, it’s impossible to quantify the impact athletic activities have on keeping students in school and engaging parents. I found an interesting discussion on the story on NPR where one guest said that often coaches are able to use sports to impart valuable lessons in the importance of teamwork, discipline, and good character. Another notion put forward is the idea of using sports to teach academic concepts to kids.

That idea got me thinking. While most districts probably won’t be cutting their entire athletics programs anytime soon, I figured there had to be some people who have tried blending the sports and learning and it turns out there are a lot of folks interested in the subject. Here is a blog post from Curriculum Matters and a recent story out of Florida that touch on the idea.

One way after-school sports programs could be more academic is by having athletes learn math concepts in a way they might find interesting and relevant, such as figuring out the batting averages for their baseball team or having them practice identifying muscles and even bones in the weight room. A website from the Washington state education department has several examples for how to teach math with baseball, football and basketball.

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the topic! Please leave them in the comments section below.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.