High school sports support academics

Schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates, write Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt in The Atlantic. Amanda Ripley’s cover story, The Case Against High-School Sports, is a lot of hooey, they argue.

Success in sports programs creates “social capital” — or reflects the fact that it’s already there, they theorize.

The success of schools is highly dependent on social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up,” wrote sociologist James Coleman.

The need to build trust and social capital is even more essential when schools are serving disadvantaged and at-risk students. Perhaps the most promising empirical evidence on this point comes from a Chicago program called Becoming A Man–Sports Edition.

In this program, at-risk male students are assigned for a year to counselors and athletic coaches who double as male role models. In this partnership between Chicago Public Schools, Youth Guidance, and World Sport Chicago, sports are used to form bonds between the boys and their mentors and to teach self-control. The usual ball and basket sports are sometimes played, but participants are also trained in violent sports like boxing at school.

Applicants were chosen by lottery.  According to a 2013 evaluation, the sports program “creates lasting improvements in the boys’ study habits and grade point averages. During the first year of the program, students were found to be less likely to transfer schools or be engaged in violent crime. A year after the program, participants were less likely to have had an encounter with the juvenile justice system.”

If schools dropped sports teams, middle-class kids would have opportunities to play sports out of school, Bowen and Hitt conclude. Affordable access would be limited for low-income students.

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