Sunday, September 22, 2013

In Defense of the American Way Regarding High School Sports

It is fall in New England. The foliage is beginning to turn and the soccer fields are thronged. I've got three kids and all of them play soccer. It entails a certain amount of sacrifice, time when we could be doing things other than ferrying children from practices and games. But I wouldn't have it any other way. In an era when budget constraints and education reform are conspiring together to force changes to sports offerings, many critics of the American emphasis on school sports look at Asian and European youths climbing ahead of Americans in academic performance and see sports as a culprit. By cutting back on the amount of time and money spent on sports, they reason, children would be able to focus on what really matters,. And there's no question we need to improve the academic outcomes for American youth.  But here's why why i think cutting sports would be a bad move.

*Sports provide focus and cohesion and a communal pride that is distinctly American. Those Asian and European countries that reformers look to as models have social structures in place that are much more homogenous and cohesive than ours. Sports is a unifying force in our cities and small towns, a rallying point for morale and unity.

* There's no evidence that an absence of sports opportunities leads to improved academic performance. In fact there are plenty of studies that show the opposite, that higher rates of sports participation at the high school level lead to greater graduation and college attendance rates, for example. In fact the best way to improve academic performance is to improve teacher practice in the classroom, not to cut funding for after school activities. Greater emphasis on individualized instruction, smaller classrooms, and better prepared teachers are the best way to improve our children's academics.

* Sports provide opportunities for real-life learning that by and large do not take place in a classroom. Learning how to operate as a functional unit, to subsume your own ego in the name of a greater good, to sacrifice immediate pleasures for the sake of long-term benefits, these are all lessons in character development that are difficult to replicate with the same level of passion in a classroom setting. The holy grail of recent pedagogical insights is the opportunity for so-called "authentic" classroom experiences. The playing fields, the practice sessions, and the competitive environment of game situations are as authentic as you will find and they do not happen for Asian and European youth unless they are the elite of the elite in their respective sports. But our kids all have an opportunity for that sort of experience and training through their high school teams. We should strive to widen access to this and see it as a laboratory for how to model authentic learning in our classroom settings, not look to kill it for the sake of budget savings. Cutting sports is like cutting band or theater or foreign languages. These are not frill programs, they are the essence of what makes public schools worth fighting to save.

Sure there is a misplaced emphasis on sports and athletic performance, symbolized most vividly by spoiled and misbehaving athletes at all levels in our country whose sense of entitlement and lack of responsibility is enabled by the celebrity cult of athletes. There is a societal neurosis at work there that needs to be healed, but killing off sports at the youth levels in our schools is not the way to do it.

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