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Would Academics Improve if American High Schools Dropped Sports Teams?

The cover story in the October 2013 issue of The Atlantic argues that if the money, time and energy devoted to Friday-night high school football games were taken away, academic performance would soar.

Credit: Leslie Yager
Credit: Leslie Yager
By Leslie Yager

With American educational rankings lagging behind in international comparisons, and high school students in particular dealing with multiple challenges including an uptick in homeworkand increasingly competitive college admissions, one journalist begs the question: Does our country's sports obsessed culture hold some blame?

Amanda Ripley, an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of the new book The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, wrote, "How Sports are Ruining High School," in the October 2013 issue of The Atlantic, arguing that sports are an important reason US students fall behind.

If the results of one Texas school district's experiment are anything to go by, Ripley might have a point. 

Writing about Premont, a small rural district threatened by the state with a shut down for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ripley describes how the superintendent, Ernest Singleton, suspended all sports, including football.

"As the news trickled out, reporters from all over America came to witness the unthinkable," said Ripley in her Atlantic article. "Many observers predicted that Singleton's experiment would end in disaster." 

Instead, what ensued was an eerie quiet. "There was a level of energy devoted to planning and lessons, to after school tutoring. I saw such a difference," Singleton said in Ripley's article.

Ripley observes that in many US schools, sports are so entrenched that their true costs go unacknowledged and that football is the most expensive high school sport. In Premont the superintendent used some savings from suspending sports to give teachers raises. 

Ripley also points out that athletics necessitate early morning school start times, in part to reserve afternoon daylight hours for sports practice, and that later start times correlate to increased student performance. 

In Premont, Ripley reports that through a combination of new leadership, the threat of closure and refocused emphasis on academics, the percentage of students passing their classes surged and there was a decline in misbehavior. Along the way the district's budget returned to the black and, Ripley said, this fall the school restored a limited number of sports. "But for now, still no football," Ripley said.

Do you think that, short of the threat of closure, any school district would sacrifice high school football to improve academics? Tell us in the comments.

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