Americans are known throughout the world for being competitive people. We like to win Olympic medals, build the biggest houses, and maintain a superior military force. We have the most human and natural resources any nation has ever known. But do we have the best schools?
Perhaps we have the very best at the top, but we also have too many schools that fail to provide and foster academic opportunities.
Many people, including Amanda Ripley writing in The Atlantic magazine, are out to figure out why our schools and students–on average–lag behind other nations less prosperous than ours. Ripley’s latest argument piqued my interest–could sports be the primary reason many of our schools are mediocre compared to schools in less prosperous nations?
Sports are a bigger deal here than anywhere else, yet few people seem willing to critique our collective obsession with Friday night lights, homecoming basketball games, and training year round for various activities. Ruth, one of my foreign students who hails from Rwanda, said she couldn’t believe how important sports were to Americans upon arriving in the country.
Could our focus on sports detract us from better academic options and outcomes? Or are sports so integral to our school communities that we couldn’t function with them?
Ripley cites a school district in Premont, Texas–perhaps the most crazed football state in the nation–that cancelled its sports programs in 2012 in order to save the school. The cost of funding the teams was simply too high. Some students were outraged, and others transferred to neighboring school districts. So what happened?
The first fall without a football program, 80% of the students passed their classes, compared to 50% the year before. 160 parents showed up at parent-teacher conferences, compared to 6 the previous fall. The money saved went to raises for teachers. As the district’s budget became balanced, sports are gradually being reintroduced, but the former football coach says the culture shift has been striking–in a good way. “Learning is going on in 99 percent of the classrooms now,” he said, “compared to 2 percent before.”
Talking with students in my English III class last week, even some athletes admitted that sports may be overemphasized. Yet Cory, a junior on the baseball team, made the astute point that for him and many others, sports motivate many students to do better in school and keep grades up. And then there’s the way sports can bring people together.
Think about how community traditions, support, and participation merge during a typical football game. Take our homecoming football game, for instance. The band, cheerleading squad, dance team, and alumni all participated in the event. The softball and baseball teams, I believe, manned the concession stand and ticket booth. Our football team played and won the game, of course. So many people are able to come together, helping create school spirit and culture.
As for me, I had a wonderful experience playing high school football and baseball, and some of my best friends today were members of the 1998 Crimson Tide gridiron team in Concord, New Hampshire. I had tough coaches who instilled life lessons. I’m also fortunate to have had well-educated parents who knew that doing well in school–not being a football or baseball star–would be the best ticket to college.
During the past ten years as a teacher, I’ve interacted with far too many students who struggle in the classroom, but spend hours upon hours at practice, instead of going to tutoring, reading, or otherwise being involved in something more academically-oriented. Many students talk about the importance of doing well in school, but their actions speak louder than their words.
In many cases, it’s not the students’ fault they value their athletic experiences so highly–they are reflecting our societal values. Yet I can’t help but wonder how much stronger our schools might be if all the money, time, and energy poured into sports–on all levels– was funneled in other directions.
Are sports overemphasized in your communities? Can you imagine school without sports?