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.