High-School Sports Aren't Killing Academics

Research shows that schools with strong athletic programs have higher test scores and lower drop-out rates.
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Mike Blake/Reuters

In this month’s Atlantic cover article, “The Case Against High-School Sports,” Amanda Ripley argues that school-sponsored sports programs should be seriously curtailed. She writes that, unlike most countries that outperform the United States on international assessments, American schools put too much of an emphasis on athletics. “Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else,” she writes, “Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education.” 

American student-athletes reap many benefits from participating in sports, but the costs to the schools could outweigh their benefits, she argues. In particular,  Ripley contends that sports crowd out the academic missions of schools: America should learn from South Korea and Finland and every other country in the top tier of international test scores, all of whom emphasize athletics far less in school. “Even in eighth grade, American kids spend more than twice the time Korean kids spend playing sports," she writes, citing a 2010 study published in the Journal of Advanced Academics

It might well be true that sports are far more ingrained in American high schools than in other countries. But our reading of international test scores finds no support for the argument against school athletics. Indeed, our own research and that of others leads us to make the opposite case. School-sponsored sports appear to provide benefits that seem to increase, not detract from, academic success.

Ripley indulges a popular obsession with international test score comparisons, which show wide and frightening gaps between the United States and other countries. She ignores, however, the fact that states vary at least as much in test scores as do developed countries.  A 2011 report from Harvard University shows that Massachusetts produces math scores comparable to South Korea and Finland, while Mississippi scores are closer to Trinidad and Tobago. Ripley’s thesis about sports falls apart in light of this fact. Schools in Massachusetts provide sports programs while schools in Finland do not. Schools in Mississippi may love football while in Tobago interscholastic sports are nowhere near as prominent. Sports cannot explain these similarities in performance. They can’t explain international differences either.

If it is true that sports undermine the academic mission of American schools, we would expect to see a negative relationship between the commitment to athletics and academic achievement. However, the University of Arkansas’s Daniel H. Bowen and Jay P. Greene actually find the opposite. They examine this relationship by analyzing schools’ sports winning percentages as well as student-athletic participation rates compared to graduation rates and standardized test score achievement over a five-year period for all public high schools in Ohio. Controlling for student poverty levels, demographics, and district financial resources, both measures of a school’s commitment to athletics are significantly, positively related to lower dropout rates as well as higher test scores.

On-the-field success and high participation in sports is not random--it requires focus and dedication to athletics. One might think this would lead schools obsessed with winning to deemphasize academics. Bowen and Greene’s results contradict that argument. A likely explanation for this seemingly counterintuitive result is that success in sports programs actually facilitates or reflects greater social capital within a school’s community.

Ripley cites the writings of renowned sociologist James Coleman, whose research in education was groundbreaking. Coleman in his early work held athletics in contempt, arguing that they crowded out schools’ academic missions. Ripley quotes his 1961 study, The Adolescent Society, where Coleman writes, “Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution."

However, in later research he would show how the success of schools is highly dependent on what he termed social capital, “the norms, the social networks, and the relationships between adults and children that are of value for the child’s growing up.”

Coleman finds that social capital is highly predictive of academic success. He comes to this conclusion after conducting substantial research on the remarkably low dropout rates at religious private schools. “After extensive investigation,” he and his colleagues Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore conclude that the private-school effect “was not the result of greater curricular demands or anything else within the school, but was due to a different relation of the school to the parental community.” He concludes that it is weekly gatherings for religious services that facilitate increases in social capital. Although Coleman never studies sports from this aspect, we believe school-sponsored sporting events provide a secularized equivalent to these weekly, religious gatherings.

These events provide venues for parents, students, and teachers to come together, providing opportunities for increasing social capital. The research results from Ohio suggest that these venues bolster, rather than deter, academic missions.

Presented by

Daniel H. Bowen & Collin Hitt

Daniel H. Bowen is postdoctoral fellow at Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium. Collin Hitt is a doctoral academy fellow with the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform.

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