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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

by Mary Tedrow

Though it rankles my coaching friends, I have a modest proposal: It's time to take competitive sports out of public schools. Big, publicized sporting events send a confusing message to the public, our students and administrators who must balance a sporting season with academic goals.

While America loves competition, the inclusion of extracurricular sports often is in direct conflict with academic pursuits. The proof? Here's where sports has taken the field and routinely triumphed over sound instructional choices:

. In a discussion about flipping the high school start time with the later elementary start to match adolescents' late rising rhythm: "We can't. It would push the sports' practice times back too late."

. In considering year-round school with proven benefits to overcoming learning losses over long summer breaks: "It will interfere with the sports seasons."

. Kids are routinely excused from instructional time when travel to sporting competitions takes priority.

. Instruction is regularly interrupted for pep rallies, coaching meetings and sports physicals.

. To survive intense sporting seasons, some teaching coaches cut back on assignments, shuffle grading off to student assistants, and excuse themselves from professional development opportunities.

. Hiring decisions have a built-in conflict of interest if who is best qualified to fill a coaching position trumps the demands of an instructional position.

These are the conflicts in the high-cost, high-maintenance world of extracurricular sports programs where the pendulum nearly always swings to favor sports, even though they only impact about 20 percent of the student body. At the next pep rally, note how many students sit glumly in the stands to cheer on the same 40-50 students they've celebrated season after season. This year's score for school-wide assemblies in my building is pep rallies--3, music, art or drama--0.

The argument for a strong sporting program goes like this: It's the only thing keeping some kids in school. Though I've yet to see any statistic support this, I have seen capable students coast through classes as they place emphasis on an athletic career. Some hang their future prospects on a sport, letting marketable skills like effective reading and writing stagnate.

At my school, most of the competitive athletes are also competitive students, the lucky elite who continually benefit from the rich serving of the genetic soup that is their makeup. A major sporting event cutting into the school day can reduce attendance in an Advanced Placement class by half.

But it is the at-risk student who the sports argument defends, and these students are banking on sports to carry them past other disadvantages, such as poverty or poor study habits. Because the system sometimes bends over backwards to keep high-performing athletes in school, the unrealistic message sent to impressionable youth is that athleticism can carry them through life. But even with outstanding athletic skills, a single injury can quickly end any hope of a career and can leave an under-prepared student with nothing to fall back on. In my 17-year career, reaching roughly 1,500 students, the number who have gone on to careers as professional athletes is exactly zero.

I enjoy sports, having been a competitor most of my life in one sport or another. I also think that the best coaches generally make excellent teachers. I know my teaching is at its best when it more closely resembles coaching rather than lecturing. And like the Greeks, I understand that good physical fitness affects our ability to perform at our best both in and out of the classroom. But physical fitness does not equate to an emphasis on the competitive aspect of an athletic program, and those programs do affect instruction. Even in physical education classes, I suspect some students under-perform because they feel they cannot compete with the heralded athletes.

What would happen if resources for sports were removed from schools and consolidated into single sporting complexes to support community teams? When education funds are no longer diverted to transporting, clothing and maintaining interest in sports, both the energy and funds could be used to improve instruction. A school day could actually be intensified if interruptions and distractions were minimized. Those who want to teach and coach could do so, taking on coaching as the second job it truly is (and probably be compensated at a more realistic rate) and the community would have a clear picture of the true cost of sporting programs with funding separated.

Without the distraction of sporting scores, the community building of a high school could celebrate academic pursuits like science fairs, dramatic productions, literary journals and community service projects.

And kids may actually want to come to school, not to play ball, but because the increased attention to instruction will help every student succeed and find a skill to translate into a lifetime of learning and earning.

Tedrow, a member of the Frederick County Education Association and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches AP English 12, English 12 and Journalism at Millbrook High School.



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