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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Guest blog -- Sports support students: another case for school sports

Written by Sean Lords

“How Sports are Ruining High School.” This sensational Atlantic headline caught me off guard at the grocery store. I remembered reading somewhere that participation in sports correlated positively with educational achievement, or at least classroom engagement. Before I read Amanda Ripley’s article, ”The Case Against High School Sports,” I started to wonder whether demonizing athletics was going to become education reformers’ new mission.

Instead, I found an article that only used statistics where they would support the core argument, and ignored the quantitative research that shows how participation in sports might benefit students. Sports are not only beneficial in that they “can be bait for students who otherwise might not care about school,” or that they provide “exercise, lessons in sportsmanship and just plain fun.” A variety of research shows that higher test scores and school retention rates are tied to athletic engagement. (Even Ripley admits that this is the trend, concluding that while “the research on student athletes is mixed, it generally suggests that sports do more good than harm for the players themselves.”)

So why does the newest wave of educational reform — and the press that surrounds it — tend to ignore the benefits of extracurricular activities, including sports?

Though Ripley’s arguments tend to focus on how U.S. test scores compare to those of other countries, she uses the language when examining the history of school sports. “Sports, the thinking went, would both protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution.” It turns out that according to a 2007 study by the Afterschool Alliance, this is kind of true, even though it would be uncouth to state it in these terms. Students who do not participate in after-school activities like sports are actually 50 percent more likely to consume alcohol or drugs. They are also five times more likely to receive mostly Ds on their report cards. This shows that in communities with families that can’t provide after-school supervision -- such as those DC SCORES serves -- athletic programs can be a stepping stone to student success.

Of course, many school reform proponents would argue that a longer school day would have a similar effect while placing the focus on academic achievement alone. This is a strategy similar to the ones implemented by the schools Ripley profiles in her article — the Premont Independent School District in Texas, which canceled all athletics in order to save money and subsequently save the school, and Basis Public Charter schools, which offer “cheaper sports” but don’t allow tryouts. The enthusiasm normally reserved for athletic competitions is directed to academic successes. She draws the conclusion that athletic achievement and academic achievement must be mutually exclusive, juxtaposing statistics for the number of high school students taking an AP test with the number of students playing school sports without looking into how many students taking the AP test also played sports.

Ripley goes on to frame the downsizing of sports as “necessary adaptations to a new reality,” and the reality she is referring to is perpetually inadequate school budgets coupled with students with increasing needs. She states that “[m}any schools have shifted more of the cost of athletics to parents rather than downsize programs,” a fact that affects the disadvantaged, at-risk student populations who many possibly benefit from sports the most. In their rebuttal to Ripley’s article, “High School Sports Aren’t Killing Academics,” Daniel H. Bowen and Collin Hitt cite evidence that the trust and social capital built through participation in sports — specifically Chicago’s Becoming a Man—Sports Edition program — can both encourage young boys to stay away from crime and improve “study habits and grade point averages.”

Bowen and Hitt are also quick to point out the old chestnut, that “correlation doesn’t imply causation,” but as previously mentioned, Ripley also ignores the wisdom of this adage. Perhaps students in other countries are able to achieve greater academic success without after-school sports because their parents have the resources and opportunities available to them that allow them to play a more active role in their children’s lives? This, too, could be considered valid speculation.

No matter how much The Atlantic wants to sell magazines with a sensational idea, a growing body of evidence has surfaced in support of after-school sports. Until all parents can have the resources to help influence students to make the best decisions for their futures, it is in our best interest to support programs that have been shown to make a positive difference in students’ lives like the SCORES affiliates.

Sean Lords spent three amazing years teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. He now advises others who are looking for the right tesol course in Washington, DC, as he raises a family and works toward his Master of Education.

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