I agree with this author, Amanda Ripley, writing for The Atlantic. I have no idea why ed reformers and others seem to look the other way as the dollars and resources and energy and time flow to sports. It's a great article.
But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends
to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?
In countries with more-holistic, less hard-driving education systems than
Korea’s, like Finland and Germany, many kids play club sports in their
local towns—outside of school. Most schools do not staff, manage,
transport, insure, or glorify sports teams, because, well, why would
Let's ask some international students who come to the U.S. for high school exchanges:
One element of our education system consistently surprises them: “Sports
are a big deal here,” says Jenny, who moved to America from South Korea
with her family in 2011. Shawnee High, her public school in southern
New Jersey, fields teams in 18 sports over the course of the school
year, including golf and bowling. Its campus has lush grass fields, six
tennis courts, and an athletic Hall of Fame. “They have days when teams
dress up in Hawaiian clothes or pajamas just because—‘We’re the soccer
By contrast, in South Korea, whose 15-year-olds rank fourth in the world
(behind Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong) on a test of critical
thinking in math, Jenny’s classmates played pickup soccer on a dirt
field at lunchtime. They brought badminton rackets from home and
pretended there was a net. If they made it into the newspaper, it was
usually for their academic accomplishments.
No kidding. So how did we get here?
Sports, the thinking went, would both protect boys’ masculinity and
distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution. “Muscular
Christianity,” fashionable during the Victorian era, prescribed sports
as a sort of moral vaccine against the tumult of rapid economic growth.
“In life, as in a foot-ball game,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in an essay
on “The American Boy” in 1900, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line
hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”
Athletics succeeded in distracting not just students but entire
communities. As athletic fields became the cultural centers of towns
across America, educators became coaches and parents became boosters.
Indeed, if you grew up in a small isolated town as I did, you see this sports complex as central to town pride and entertainment.
But what did one small town in Texas (gasp!) do?
In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down
Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and
academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including
To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and
closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school
building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music
teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs,
which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out
football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and
baseball teams each year.
Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast,
cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the
district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher
for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team
had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the
playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.
That first semester, 80 percent of the students passed their classes,
compared with 50 percent the previous fall. About 160 people attended
parent-teacher night, compared with six the year before. Principal Ruiz
was so excited that he went out and took pictures of the parking lot,
jammed with cars. Through some combination of new leadership, the threat
of closure, and a renewed emphasis on academics, Premont’s culture
changed. “There’s been a definite decline in misbehavior,” says Desiree
Valdez, who teaches speech, theater, and creative writing at Premont.
“I’m struggling to recall a fight. Before, it was one every couple of
But don't sports bring money into schools?
And contrary to what most people think, ticket and concession sales do
not begin to cover the cost of sports in the vast majority of high
schools (or colleges).
Football is, far and away, the most expensive high-school sport.
Many of the costs are insidious, Roza has found, “buried in
unidentifiable places.” For example, when teacher-coaches travel for
game days, schools need to hire substitute teachers. They also need to
pay for buses for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders, not to
mention meals and hotels on the road. For home games, schools generally
cover the cost of hiring officials, providing security, painting the
lines on the field, and cleaning up afterward.
And, of course, football, with the tackling and neck and head injuries, is very dangerous. New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott won't let his children play. Nor will former Pro Bowl quarterback, Kurt Warner. Nor Minnesota Vikings star, Adrian Peterson. These guys should know.
Athletics even dictate the time that school starts each day: despite
research showing that later start times improve student performance,
many high schools begin before 8 a.m., partly to reserve afternoon
daylight hours for sports practice.
What of the good of sports?
But here’s the thing: most American principals I spoke with expressed no
outrage over the primacy of sports in school. In fact, they fiercely
“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d have more athletic
opportunities for students, not less,” Bigham, the former Tennessee
principal, told me. His argument is a familiar one: sports can be bait
for students who otherwise might not care about school. “I’ve seen
truancy issues completely turned around once students begin playing
sports,” he says. “When students have a sense of belonging, when they
feel tied to the school, they feel more part of the process.”
Andreas Schleicher, a German education scientist at the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development, has visited schools all over the
world and is an authority on different regional approaches to education.
(I profiled Schleicher for this magazine in 2011.) He is wary of the
theory that sports can encourage sustained classroom engagement. “Our
analysis suggests that the most engaging environment you can offer
students is one of cognitive challenge combined with individualised
pedagogical support,” he told me in an e-mail. “If you offer boring and
poor math instruction and try to compensate that with interesting sport
activities, you may get students interested in sports but I doubt it
will do much good to their engagement with school.”
What's the big picture that ed reformers constantly tell us - what's our place in the world.
But at this moment in history, now that more than 20 countries are
pulling off better high-school-graduation rates than we are, with mostly
nominal athletic offerings, using sports to tempt kids into getting an
education feels dangerously old-fashioned. America has not found a way
to dramatically improve its children’s academic performance over the
past 50 years, but other countries have—and they are starting to reap
the economic benefits.
I found this section fascinating (it's about college sports):
At Spelman College, a historically black, all-women’s college in
Atlanta, about half of last year’s incoming class of some 530 students
were obese or had high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, or some other
chronic health condition that could be improved with exercise. Each
year, Spelman was spending nearly $1 million on athletics—not for those
students, but for the 4 percent of the student body that played sports.
Spelman’s president, Beverly Daniel Tatum, found the imbalance difficult to justify. That April, after getting approval from her board and faculty, she
gathered Spelman’s athletes and coaches in an auditorium and announced
that she was going to cancel intercollegiate sports after the spring of
2013, and begin spending that $1 million on a campus-wide
But Tatum’s signal was clear: lifelong health habits matter more than
expensive, elite sporting competitions with rival schools.
What if we did switch things up?
Imagine, for a moment, if Americans
transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the
rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school
academics. We would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or
any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive,
pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American
approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids
up for stress and disappointment.
The difference is that 93 percent of
South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just
77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive
athletic scholarships to college.