Student Well-Being Commentary

Pay to Play?

By Carol Camerino — February 19, 2003 7 min read
Holding extracurricular activities hostage to the gradebook takes something away from education.

The Super Kid phenomenon, the growing expectation that one’s child can and must do it all and succeed brilliantly, has gotten a lot of attention lately. The media, by and large, hold parents responsible for the incredible pressure to excel that’s being put on today’s children. But schools, too, need to evaluate their policies to determine whether they might be inadvertently contributing to the pressure-cooker environment.

One policy area schools need to review is extracurricular involvement. Too many schools, in an effort to increase grades and test scores, are using the carrot of participation in extracurricular activities as an academic motivator. Unfortunately, research does not support such a policy. In fact, it contradicts the underlying assumptions that districts use in setting the policy in the first place.

Let’s look at an actual policy statement from a middle school serving grades 6-8: “Participation in co-curricular activities is considered a privilege and can be restricted if a student’s grades decline. Students who participate in these activities must maintain good academic standing. ... [S]tudents who receive an F or at least two D grades ... will not be eligible to participate.” The policy refers not only to end-of-term grades, but to interim grade reports as well, effectively robbing students of an opportunity to improve their grades before receiving the negative consequence of removal from extracurricular activities.

Interestingly enough, this district’s mission statement reads as follows: “We believe that to meet children’s needs we must structure a positive, nurturing, academically challenging educational environment that fosters self-esteem and provides opportunities for all children to learn at their appropriate developmental level.”

Let's stop looking at grades and scores as a measure of anything other than how a particular student did on a particular test.

The two statements would seem to reflect a deep philosophical divide. Yet, the dichotomy inherent in the district’s mission and its practice illustrates an all-too-common gap that exists between what districts know intellectually about how students develop and what they put into their policies. In this case, students are certainly not being provided opportunities “to learn at their appropriate developmental level.” They are in fact being subjected to a punitive, one-size-fits-all policy that’s based on neither educational nor developmental theory.

Schools adopt such wrongheaded extracurricular policies for a variety of reasons. Let’s examine a few of the rationales used to support punitive policies, along with reasons why their logic simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

  • The policy serves as a useful scare tactic to make children work harder. This presupposes that children receive failing grades based solely on their lack of effort, not on lack of ability, lack of understanding, difficulty with a particular teacher’s style, or problems at home with which a student may be dealing. Scare tactics only decrease the student’s feeling of school as a warm, safe, and caring place.

And what happens, under this policy, to the special-needs student who may be struggling in one class? Is she in jeopardy of losing the opportunity to sing in the school choir (one of the few times she can distinguish herself among her peers), simply because she has difficulty in math?

Most students want to do well in school. If grades falter, the school’s focus should be on working together—student, parent, and teacher—to address whatever factors are responsible. This “punishment model” on extracurriculars implies that receiving the bad grade is not negative consequence enough. A failing grade, however, is devastating to most students. To add to it the loss of potentially self-defining and life-enhancing activities is not only counterproductive, but also may be damaging.

Moreover, fear is a tactic that can backfire. Students who might otherwise want to push themselves by taking a difficult class may be hesitant to do so if they are afraid of losing eligibility for extracurricular activities. They may very well forsake challenge for a safety zone that protects their school lives. This practice is thus a slippery slope academically.

  • Extracurricular activities are a privilege—not a right. Writing in 1989 on the many benefits of participation in student activities, Nebraska Superintendent Douglas Christensen noted that “many schools reward or punish student achievement and conduct by setting eligibility standards for participation in student activities.” In such a system, he warned, “educators view activities primarily as rewards for good behavior and acceptable grades, not as learning experiences” in and of themselves.

This flies in the face of what we know of life and have learned from research. Schools should recast their policies to reflect reality. If a program or activity contributes to a student’s development as a thinking, responsible, and compassionate member of the school community, shouldn’t that student have the right to participate? Schools are in the business of preparing young people for life. Not everyone will become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or some other kind of professional. But they all will become adults. Extracurricular activities help prepare them for that role.

  • Involvement in extracurricular programs is causing the decline in grades. There is simply no research to support this claim. In fact, research tends to support the opposite notion. A representative study by S. Alan Silliker and Jeffrey T. Quirk in the March 1997 issue of The School Counselor maintains, for example, that participation in high school athletics “does not endanger, and may enhance academic performance.” But, the researchers continue, “it has been our experience that parents and school personnel tend to blame and restrict extracurricular-activity participation in athletics when students’ grades fall. Peer tutoring and study-skills training may be more fitting responses to academic difficulties.”
  • Our main focus is academics. Education has a responsibility to provide society with informed, capable, responsible young people who have developed a desire to learn about the world around them. This may or may not be reflected in grades. There are blindingly successful adults (inventors, politicians, artists, musicians) who were not A students. Some, in fact, may have had dismal academic records. Would we wish to discourage a modern-day Mozart or Einstein by insisting that only one, perhaps unsuited, academic pursuit—and the arbitrary grades that confirmed its mastery—were the key to his future? Let’s stop looking at grades and scores as a measure of anything other than how a particular student did on a particular test.

Education does not take place only in the classrooms of a school. Students learn leadership skills through the student council, compassion from their work in service clubs, performance skills and creativity through taking part in the orchestra or chorus, and poise through the drama club. Who judges whether it is more important for a student to memorize the chart of basic elements or to be a persuasive advocate for a point of view in the debate club?

It's time that we let go of the punishment model and embrace a problem-solving model.

  • Teachers support this policy. We don’t want to upset them. Not all teachers support making grades a prerequisite for extracurricular involvement. Many see the error of such a harsh and faultily reasoned policy. But even so, it is the moral obligation of administrators and superintendents to ensure that district and school policies are in the best interest of the students and, when they are not, to make changes. Part of this responsibility involves educating teachers about the rationale behind the policy or its change. Keeping a policy because you don’t want to rock the boat is unconscionable.

If we truly want to ensure our students’ academic success, it’s time that we let go of the punishment model and embrace a problem-solving model. We should join with parents and struggling students to devise personal-improvement plans. Not only would this model set the stage for greater learning, but it would also give students an example of positive adult approaches to solving problems.

If schools would take a long, hard look at their ultimate educational mission, they might see that punitive grade barriers to extracurricular opportunities do little to advance student achievement, but much to push at-risk students further into the abyss of alienation from the school community.

Carol Camerino is a parent-educator, a writer specializing in child and family issues, and a preschool teacher. She lives in Flemington, N.J.


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