In Cutting Sports Funding, Everyone Loses

By Jay Mathews
Monday, February 2, 2009

Times are tough, particularly in our schools. We don't have the money, beleaguered education officials say, for every student who wants to play games after class. Some school sports have to go. Loudoun County is talking about cutting junior varsity lacrosse and all freshman sports. Fairfax County's proposed budget would end girls' gymnastics. Other teams are in jeopardy. The public high schools can't afford them anymore.

And yet many people who reflect for a moment will remember their own school days and see this kind of financial austerity as shortsighted, like cutting back on English classes because most kids already speak that language. Many of us remember some competitive activity, usually in high school, that became a vital force in our adolescence. It gave us a self-awareness and self-confidence that changed us forever.

None of us read all of the 481,563 articles published last year on the early life and struggles of the soon-to-be president of the United States, but most of us know that if Barack Obama had not discovered basketball he would not have become the leader he is today. On the opposite end of that scale of significance, I compiled the worst record ever at my high school, 0-14, in league play as the tennis team's No. 1 singles player. I didn't care much about winning. I got some exercise, and something even better. I was a total nerd, but I could strut around with my very own varsity letter, just like the football players. I still carry that morale boost.

At this point, professional researchers are grumbling. I am offering mere anecdotal evidence. In an era of economic uncertainty, we need solid data, and for once I have it. Education policy analyst Craig Jerald is about to publish a paper on the 21st-century skills movement that cites much recent research on the importance of after-school activities, particularly sports, in young people's future lives.

Jerald accumulated this data for the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria. In previous columns, I dismissed 21st-century skills as a fancy new label for good academic traits and discipline, but it might be more than that. Near the end of Jerald's report, he moves from the math and literacy skills that everyone talks about to something called "interpersonal competencies," more commonly known as life and career skills. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills says these include flexibility and adaptability, initiative and self-direction, social and cross-cultural skills, productivity and accountability, and leadership and responsibility.

In that last category, Jerald scores big for young athletes who are looking for a way to stop the bean counters from canceling the best part of their school day. He quotes a 2005 paper by economists Peter Kuhn and Catherine Weinberger for the Journal of Labor Economics: "Controlling for cognitive skills," they said, "men who occupied leadership positions in high school earn more as adults. The pure leadership-wage effect varies, depending on definitions and time period, from 4 percent to 33 percent." A Mathematica Policy Research study also shows that although math had the biggest impact of any skill on later earnings, playing sports and having a leadership role in high school also were significant factors.

Maybe that has nothing to do with gutting it out on the last lap of the backstroke or launching off the pommel horse for good old Beltway High. Maybe athletic talent produces leadership skills even if you never go out for school sports. But research indicates otherwise. Kuhn and Weinberger found evidence, Jerald said, "that leadership is not just a natural talent, but one that can be developed by participation in extracurricular activities." Christy Lleras last year wrote in Social Science Research that students who participated in sports and other extracurricular activities in high school had higher earnings 10 years later, even when compared with those with similar test scores.

I am typing this the same day I watched two splendid young educators, working as instructional coaches, put the math and reading faculties of a previously troubled D.C. middle school through a series of skill-building exercises. The coaches' work seems to have helped test scores. I asked these leaders of teachers about their high school days. One was captain of his swimming team. The other was captain of her soccer team.

If cutting back on sports means we will have fewer people like that to help save our schools, isn't that a false economy? Helping teenagers discover that with grit and teamwork they can do something very well is not an aspect of schooling I want to sacrifice, even if it saves a few thousand dollars.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company