In the last post, I described a visit to a Southern California urban high school’s four social studies classes where the dominant culture expressed values of doing the least amount of work to pass the academic course. For most of the students, classroom habits revealed far more tedium than enthusiasm for, or even interest in, learning. Most of the disengaged students treated the classes like buzzing mosquitoes that had to be endured for 43 minutes before freedom came when bells ended the period.
Then after the class observations, I walked down the hallway and watched an assembly of a few hundred juniors and seniors sitting quietly and respectfully honoring three school athletes who, through hard work, self-discipline, and display of skills had become national all-stars. They also had football scholarships to universities in hand. These players were on a team that had consistently beat rivals and was on the cusp of becoming state champions.
The disconnect between what values and habits I saw in these classrooms and the values and habits displayed by members of the football team who practice daily, play in interscholastic competition, and have to pass academic classes got me thinking about whether a school’s athletic achievements and the spirit that flows from such hard work and grit spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically.
Of course, I only saw these four social studies classes. How many of those 9th and 10th graders were on athletic teams, I do not know. Nor did I visit honor classes in math, science or Advanced Placement (the school had AP chemistry and calculus) that prized academic achievement, hard work, and self-discipline. Let’s grant that such courses and classroom cultures existed in the school.
Keep in mind, however, the high school’s high dropout rate–less than 60 percent of students graduated high school–and persistent low performance on annual state tests. My hunch is that while such classes and academically engaged students were present, in the face of such statistics, these classes hardly put a dent in the overall academic culture pervading most classrooms.
So I return to this disconnect, this apparent contradiction, between a school’s success in sports seemingly stopping at the classroom door by asking a few questions.
What does the research say about the connection between academic achievement and participation in high school sports?
No surprise here: The findings are mixed. One study of Ohio high schools concluded “that high schools that devote more energy to sports also produce higher test scores and higher graduation rates.” One writer summed up research on links between student athletes and academic achievement;
“One 2010 study by Betsey Stevenson, then at the University of Pennsylvania, found that, in a given state, increases in the number of girls playing high-school sports have historically generated higher college-attendance and employment rates among women. Another study, conducted by Columbia’s Margo Gardner, found that teenagers who participated in extracurriculars had higher college-graduation and voting rates, even after controlling for ethnicity, parental education, and other factors.”
But most students do not participate in interscholastic sports–40 percent is cited as the national average but if one were to look closely at some low-income, largely minority schools participation in competitive sports would be no more than 20 percent. For the 60 to 80 percent who do not compete, there is no research that I can find that shows a spillover affect from winning seasons in high school sports to academic culture in classrooms. What researchers and critics of high school sports programs have pointed out, however, is that so often academic programs are starved while dollars flow for hiring coaches (many of whom are not teachers), new locker rooms, and better turf for the playing field. Some critics urge high schools to abandon interscholastic sports and spend more money on academics. See here and here.
But research findings are seldom invoked in providing resources for such value-laden policies as financing sports programs and cultivating academic success. Beliefs trump research time and again.
What beliefs dominate current thinking about competitive athletics in high school?
For the high school I visited in Southern California and similar high schools elsewhere in the country (e.g., Dallas’s Carter High School, Cleveland’s Glenville High School), many adults believe that competitive sports are pipelines to university scholarships and an education that leads directly to middle and upper-middle class status. They also believe that winning teams build pride-in-school and community, promoting a spirit of achievement that flows across the entire school. See here and here.
So I return to the contradiction that I noticed when visiting social studies classes and then stepped into a sports assembly. Does a school’s athletic achievements spill over to the rest of the school influencing how non-student athletes behave in classrooms and achieve academically?
From only watching four social studies classes in the California high school, I did not see it. But the sample is too small and may be unrepresentative of the larger school. From what I have heard from athletic boosters clubs at every school I have taught at and observed, I want to say “yes.” When I turn to the research on high school sports and academics, one has to scratch to find such studies. Moreover, I have yet to see the spillover effect in a high school. So without seeing it or have studies that confirm such a connection, I can only say: I do not know.