Contradiction of School and Classroom Cultures (Part 2)

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.


Filed under school reform policies

10 responses to “Contradiction of School and Classroom Cultures (Part 2)

  1. Hi Larry
    My mother (retired deputy head – UK secondary school) always said ‘… get the music right and the academic achievement follows …’, so perhaps there is a connection between the arts and sport that encourages achievement in STEM subjects? But then again, she was a music teacher!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting, David. It is a dicey connection between sports and achievement that excludes socioeconomic factors inside and outside the school.

  2. Cal

    I see them as wholly unrelated (which I think is your point). Your first post describes behavior that all of us have seen in classrooms at one time or another, and that can carry through to an entire school. I’ve worked for two Title I schools. One is predominantly Hispanic and a local sports powerhouse. The other is genuinely diverse (equal mix of whites, Asians, Hispanics, smaller percentage of blacks) and interested in sports simply as a way to forge school identity. Both schools did not hesitate to remove kids from sports when their grades were low (too much so, in my opinion).

    The culture at both schools is much stronger than anything you describe. Both schools are suburban, which makes a big difference, and it may or may not matter that both schools have a level of economic diversity that the described school does not.

    Your first post describes, accurately, what results when an administration team won’t support teachers in removing problem students from class. I don’t think sports has anything to do with it.

  3. This one really interests me not least because I spent most of my teaching career in the UK private sector which excels in creating positive, broad ranging, whole school identity. What I would readily describe as a strong school “culture.” The best of these schools are quite brilliant at nurturing every child’s academic, sporting and cultural abilities, just one reason wealthy parents from all over the world chose them. I’ve had ample opportunity to contrast that with narrower school cultures I’ve seen in some otherwise excellent schools abroad (Eastern Europe, Russia, Finland, Singapore) and in the UK state sector.

    I agree with Cal that looking for a causal connection between something like sporting performance and academic performance isn’t likely to be valuable. The top sporting school in the UK by far, a school which has regularly educated Olympic competitors (9 in 2012 alone) is academically mediocre by any standard.

    I would argue a school’s “culture” is a vital but difficult concept for people interested in school improvement to grasp. It is far more complex than positive learning habits and good sport. The best schools of this type leave their mark on any child lucky enough to have attended them for life. However, few if any of the people who end up working on school improvement have any experience of this kind of school culture, never mind a good grasp of what it consists of, or how to build it.

    I would risk saying there are three conditions which are vital in achieving it: stability, consistency and longevity. Unfortunately, most school improvers are far more interested in novelty, innovation and change.

  4. ShilohC

    I’ve been teaching high school mathematics for eleven years, eight of which have been in inner-city districts within the Detroit Metropolitan area. At one particular school I was in, there was a healthy academic culture instilled by the principal who had recently left the business world to pursue a career in education. He had a strong desire to see young people (especially young African-American and Hispanic men) succeed in life in and outside the classroom. His experience in the business world along with his passion and zeal for academic professionalism began to structure the culture of the school.

    He was also an avid basketball and sports fan so naturally he instilled that same mentality in those who were coaching or managing sports for the school. When I worked there, the charter high school was only a year or two old. I taught there for two years before I could find work much closer to home. Its been eight years since I worked there and I decided to look up the school on the web. To my surprise, the same principal was there along with several of the teachers that I worked with! I was so proud of them! Larry I’m sure you’ve seen firsthand the teacher and principal turnover rate in inner-city districts, so seeing the stability in staff was very encouraging. They also have competed in the state finals in basketball as well as organized a football team. When I was there I ran the chess team which the principal promoted as well because of its “prestigious image” on the school.

    As Joe has mentioned: stability, consistency and longevity (and I would add passion), were definitely key in the growth of this particular school in a low-income area of the city. I do not know the graduation rate nor the college attendance rate of the graduates, but I would bet that they are at or above the state average. As far as the connection between athletics and academics, the findings that I read here are consistent with what I have observed in inner-city districts. I do not believe there is a connection, but one could safely assume that athletics does not have a negative effect on academics. This principal was able to create a culture that was balanced and he harnessed anything that he could to enhance the life of these young people whether it was athletics, fine arts or academics.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you, Shiloh, for describing your experiences in a Detroit-area charter school and the impact of the principal who is there eight years later in creating a culture that prized both academics and athletics–including chess. I also appreciated your reflections on that school and the nexus between athletics and academics.

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