How high school sports save our schools

Jay Mathews
Columnist September 18, 2011

Education writers rarely examine high school sports, but something is happening there that might help pull our schools out of the doldrums.

In the last school year, a new national survey found that 7.7 million boys and girls took part in high school sports. This is 55.5 percent of all students, according to the report from the National Federation of State High School Associations, and the 22nd straight year that participation had increased.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Despite two major recessions and numerous threats to cut athletic budgets to save academics, high schools have found ways to not only keep sports alive but increase the number of students playing. We have data indicating sports and other extracurricular activities do better than academic classes in teaching leadership, teamwork, time management and other skills crucial for success in the workplace.

Coaches might be the only faculty members still allowed by our culture and educational practice to get tough with students not making the proper effort. They have the advantage of teaching what are essentially elective non-credit courses. They can insist on standards of behavior that classroom teachers often cannot enforce because the stakes of dismissing or letting students drop their courses are too high.

I thought about this as I watched for the first time in many years my high school’s football team, the Knights of Hillsdale High, in San Mateo, Calif. It was an exciting, high-scoring game, even though we lost, 49-35, to a team of behemoths from Mountain View. I understood why that sport is still No. 1 for boys. Last year, it had 1.1 million participants, almost twice as many as No. 2 track and field, which draws 579,000 students.

The other top 10 boys’ sports, in descending order, were basketball, baseball, soccer, wrestling, cross country, tennis, golf and swimming/diving. (I was a nerdish and poor athlete, but participation helped me. I got a letter jacket I wore everywhere I went.)

The influence of sports on girls is growing even faster. Their participation is up 63 percent in the last 20 years, compared with 31 percent for boys. Their top sport is track and field, with 475,265 participants, followed by basketball, volleyball, fast-pitch softball, soccer, cross country, tennis, swimming/diving, competitive spirit squads and lacrosse, in that order. The survey missed some small schools with about 4 percent of U.S. enrollment.

We Californians can grumble about pigskin worship making Texas No. 1, beating us in participation 786,626 to 774,767, even though the Golden State’s population is 42 percent larger. (Virginia ranks 15th with 175,435 participants. Maryland is 22nd with 114,223.) But all states would benefit from more participation.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills has published a list of what it calls life and career skills, including flexibility and adaptability, productivity and accountability, leadership and responsibility. Many teens find the most congenial way to acquire such competencies is after-school activities.

A 2008 paper by Christy Lleras in the journal Social Science Research said students who participated in sports and other activities in high school earned more 10 years later, even when compared to those with similar test scores. A 2005 paper by Peter Kuhn and Catherine Weinberger in the Journal of Labor Economics found similar results for men who occupied leadership positions in high school. They cited evidence that leadership is not just a natural talent but can be learned by participating in extracurricular activities.

Students do better in activities they choose. If we provide more of them, led by committed adults, maybe even part-timers or volunteers, that can make a difference.

We know the bad news about education. Dropout rates are high. Achievement scores are stagnant. But sports participation is going up, despite pressure to cut it back. Let’s cheer about that, and look for a way to draw more students in. With more depth on defense, for instance, Hillsdale might win next time.

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