Undebatably, A Useful Tool for D.C. Schools
The Senate is often referred to as the world's greatest deliberative body, and it is home to some of the most important debates in the world.
Yet in its shadow has been a school system that is deficient in academic debate -- the training ground that has taught many senators their craft and has prepared countless Americans for their professions. As recently as five years ago, there was no organized debate in the District's public schools. Since then, the District of Columbia Urban Debate League has had success, but it faces enormous barriers.
Like athletics, debate teaches the value of teamwork and healthy competition. Unlike athletics, debate channels the competitive spirit of students into rigorous academic work.
Preparation for debate requires extensive research, including critical thinking to formulate arguments and anticipate responses, as well reading comprehension and writing skills. Debate also teaches presentation skills and builds confidence. It teaches listening and note-taking skills. Competition drives these benefits in a virtuous cycle. Students continually improve their skills not because they are told to but because they want to win.
National studies have found that participation in debate can substantially and quickly increase reading scores, reduce disciplinary referrals and increase critical-thinking ability.
The debate league has been in District public high schools for about five years and in middle schools for two years. The league initially was funded by a pilot grant from George Soros's Open Society Institute, but, while similar leagues in New York and Baltimore have received strong school board support after their pilot funding ended, the District league has not.
Nonetheless, more than 2,000 District public school students have participated in more than 60 league tournaments and five summer debate institutes held at the University of the District of Columbia. The league has funded scholarships for 95 students to attend summer programs at major universities. It has helped students receive debate scholarships to college.
These achievements have come with just two paid staff members -- thanks to volunteer debate teachers and coaches. The league has received wonderful support from UDC and more than 1,000 hours of volunteer time this year alone, but the difficulty of recruiting and retaining teachers has limited the ability of the league to offer debate in many of the city's schools.
According to the Census Bureau, the District spends $12,979 per student. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who took control of the city's schools this month, has promised to implement a series of reforms to get greater educational bang for all those bucks. Supporting academic debate is one of the least expensive and most effective reforms he could implement.
President John F. Kennedy said: "I think debating in high school and college is most valuable training, whether for politics, the law, business, or for service on community committees such as the PTA and the League of Women Voters. . . . The give and take of debating, the testing of ideas, is essential to democracy. I wish we had a good deal more debating in our institutions than we do now."
So do I. And so should Mayor Fenty, incoming chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and everyone who cares about the District public schools.
-- Phil Kerpen
The writer volunteers for the District of Columbia Urban Debate League. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.