School & District Management

Student Debates Linked to Gains in Urban Achievement

By Sean Cavanagh — October 29, 2009 2 min read

African-American students who took part in one of the most time-honored school activities—debate leagues—had higher GPAs, were more likely to graduate from high school, and were more college-ready in English and reading than those who did not take part, a new study has found.

The study looked at 2,500 students in the Chicago public schools who took part in at least one Chicago Debate League tournament over a 10-year period, out of a total pool of about 12,000 teenagers.

Not only was debate participation linked with achievement, but the more involved students were in it, the greater their gains, the research showed. While the student-debaters studied in Chicago had, on average, stronger academic records than non-debaters, they were still relatively low-performing by state standards. So while better students were drawn to debating, many of those who benefited were struggling students.

The study was conducted by Briana Mezuk of Virginia Commonwealth University, who drew from data collected by the Consortium on Chicago School Research. It was published this month in the Journal of Negro Education, which is based at Howard University in Washington. While the journal article focuses on the gains among black males, the improvements were seen among female students, too, Mezuk told me.

One of the more intriguing pieces of Mezuk’s study is that she found that debate participation was linked with college-readiness gains in English and reading—but not with improvements in science and math. (This was measured by scores on the ACT test.) The result suggests that students benefited from the specific skills that debating builds, Mezuk says—English composition, understanding nonfiction texts, evaluating evidence, using arguments, and the development of vocabulary.

The Chicago Debate League is an affiliate of a larger organization known as the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, which seeks to improve big-city education through the promotion of critical thinking and an active citizenry. Urban Debate leagues operate in 18 of the nation’s largest cities; participating schools typically offer a course during the school day in argumentation and debate, the organization says.

One aspect of the Chicago debate model that should not be overlooked, Mezuk explains, is that it accepts many students from weak academic backgrounds—not just the talented and motivated ones. That should be encouraging for advocates looking for strategies to help the most disadvantaged students in urban schools, she says.

Photo: Richard Nixon and JFK hash it out in one of their televised presidential debates in 1960.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.