What does it take to get a kid to stay in school and graduate? Sometimes motivation is highly external: New York City has experimented with paying students when they get good grades. Sometimes it’s highly internal: Angela Duckworth’s research focuses on how personality traits like “grit” and perseverance help students persist through hardships at school. Both of these extremes are elusive and hard to implement: Not every city has a wealthy mayor who wants to help bankroll a student-payment system. Not every child has “grit”—and researchers don’t really know how to teach it.
A new study from the University of Kansas suggests that there’s a simpler, more universal way to motivate students: Give them a reason to come to school—even if that reason has nothing to do with academics. University of Kansas’s Angela Lumpkin and Rebecca Achen analyzed high-school testing, graduation, and attendance data and found that Kansas’s student athletes go to school more often than non-athletes. They also have higher graduation rates: 98 percent of athletes in Kansas’s class of 2012 graduated, compared with 90 percent of non-athletes.
The higher graduation rates could be explained away by the theory that teachers have lower standards for athletes—that they’re willing to let athletes pass without doing all the work. But state test data challenges that theory: Athletes also score higher on the Kansas state assessments than non-athletes, in all subject areas. They are clearly learning something in their classes.
Athletes’ relatively strong performance on the Kansas state tests is more remarkable if you look at their ACT scores. Athletes scored lower than non-athletes on the ACT English and reading subsections, despite scoring higher in those areas on the state test. This seems to suggest that, at least in language arts, athletes are not inherently “smarter” than non-athletes. They do, however, manage to be more successful in school.
Why is this? Lumpkin, the lead researcher on the study, says it may be related to the requirements that Kansas puts on its athletes: Students must pass five credit units per semester to be eligible to play. Most schools also ask students to be in school to be allowed to attend practice or play in a game that day.
“When a student has to earn the right to play a sport by performing in the classroom, that is a very strong factor in keeping adolescents in school,” said Lumpkin.
As I see it, the lesson of this study is less about sports than it is about motivation. Sports aren’t the only activity that can make students want to stay in school, after all. In a lovely post on the New York Times website a few years back, Chicago public school teacher Will Okun wrote about the power of a single class in getting unmotivated kids to come to school: “In my own nine years of teaching, students enrolled in my photography class boast a 90% daily attendance rate while students enrolled in my English classes maintain a daily attendance rate of only 70%.”
It’s tempting to insist that schools focus solely on academics, and to dismiss non-academic activities as distracting. But as Lumpkin’s study and Okun’s personal experience attest, non-academic activities can actually serve learning. Soccer and photography class get students in the door. Once they’re there, it’s up to the schools to teach them math and English and science.