Envisioning a Better Model for Interscholastic Sports

Athletes often use a technique called “visualization” to improve their chances of success. For example, the athlete imagines an act such as hitting a baseball or envisions reacting during a competitive situation. It is believed that if the athlete sees herself performing a particular skill, it will improve her chances of actually performing that skill successfully. In other words, to achieve success, one must be able to visualize what success will look like.

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The purpose of this essay is to encourage the reader to envision success of another sort: the successful transformation of the role that athletics plays in our high schools, and as a result, in our society.  I am not talking about change around the fringes, but a progressive vision of systemic change. A vision of change from the current “elite” model of sports in America, where the vast majority of resources are heaped upon the few who show extraordinary potential, to one that would have as its fundamental purposes, to use athletics as a tool to supplement the educational development of participants, to support the missions of our educational institutions, and to promote broad based participation in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime for purposes of public health.

This is not about the intrinsic value of athletics, but whether the current system is best suited for making the most of athletics’ potential to meet our nation’s education and public health needs. There is a place for elite athletics in our culture. The question is simply whether that place should be in our schools.

Elite sport is an important American cultural institution. As such, we as individuals and, collectively, as a society, must critically assess its impact on our schools, communities and culture. This is no different than other American institutions. From our health care system to our welfare system, old ideas, programs, institutions, and philosophies must continually be examined, refined and, if appropriate, restructured. And the fundamental standard of evaluation is utility. Do these institutions continue to serve the public in relevant and timely ways? If it is determined, through honest debate and data based research, that elite athletics have a positive impact on educational institutions and public health, we should invest more heavily in them. But if elite athletics’ supposed positive benefits are disproved, we have an obligation to reconsider that investment. To do anything else would be irresponsible.

One only needs to look in any newspaper’s sports pages, watch the local television newscast or tune into ESPN’s 24-hour a day sports coverage to appreciate sports’ popularity and the breadth of its influence in America. There is also no denying that virtually every aspect of the sports enterprise has changed over the past two decades. There is more money, more media exposure, more pressure to win, and that pressure is creeping further and further down sport’s food chain. Regardless of how popular sports are, there are serious questions about the ways they have come to influence our schools, communities, and culture. The question is whether our nation’s system of organized athletics, as currently constructed, is meeting its educational, civic, and public health purposes.

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Sadly, the answer is that it is not. It is within our educational system that this shortfall has had the most impact and greatest consequences. Despite how much we love sports, we must be honest about their impact on our culture.

Before continuing, I would like to be clear on two points. First, I love sports. I love playing them. I love watching them. I believe they play an important role in our lives. I do not advocate the elimination of organized sports in America. This is neither wise nor realistic. It is critical however, that we honestly evaluate its impact on our schools and society, and if appropriate, restructure our educational investment in athletics accordingly. 

The issue is balance and perspective, not elimination.  Sport’s potential to positively contribute to our society is enormous. If kept in the proper perspective, sport provides compelling entertainment, contributes to a healthy lifestyle, and builds character in participants. The problem however, is that we have lost perspective regarding the role that organized athletics should play in our culture. And our educational institutions have played a significant role in that development.

Second, the type of athletics to which I refer are elite, interscholastic sports. There is absolutely no doubt that athletics have a place within our educational institutions. Athletic activities can and should be utilized to supplement the educational experience of participants as well as the academic mission of the institution. And there is a place for elite athletics within American culture. The question is whether that place should be in our educational system. In short, should our educational institutions be saddled with the responsibility of developing elite athletes and teams? And is our current system of athletics the best model for meeting our nation’s educational and public health needs?

It is notable that the United States is the only country in the world in which elite athletics programs are sponsored by high schools and universities. In Europe, the responsibility for the development of elite athletes and teams is borne by private sports clubs or professional teams. Could it be that in the case of the development and promotion of highly competitive, elite athletics, the Europeans have it right?

In Europe, when a youngster is identified as having superior talent and potential for a particular sport, he or she pursues that sport through a local club program.  The responsibility of the educational system regarding athletics is to promote and encourage broad based participation in activities that can be enjoyed for a lifetime for purposes of improving public health. This, as opposed to the American system which devours increasingly large amounts of resources for an activity that has as its primary purpose to provide public entertainment and to serve the athletic needs of a select group of athletes.

While the move to the European club sport system may sound radical, it is not. Our school systems and universities would survive without highly competitive sports as would our elite athletes and coaches. Local organizations and youth groups would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs. And, as in Europe, existing professional teams would begin to sponsor their own feeder systems and programs. Each professional league would be forced to develop a minor league system, similar to the one that currently exists in baseball. In short, the responsibility for developing future professional athletes would shift from our high schools to private sports clubs and pro teams.

In some sports, such a shift is well on its way. Many elite athletes in the sports of soccer, basketball and swimming have come to consider their participation on elite local clubs or traveling AAU or all-star teams more important than participation on their high school teams. To these athletes, this is a logical progression of their involvement in youth sports clubs and elite travel teams. Further, the direct link between high school athletics and the educational institution has become increasingly tenuous as a growing number of high school coaches are not professional teachers. These trends are simply the first signs that the de-coupling of elite athletics and high schools is under way.

Shifting the responsibility for conducting elite sports programs to outside sports clubs is clearly in the best interests of our schools, athletes and coaches. Our educational system would be rid of a highly visible source of hypocrisy and scandal.  Intramural, physical education, and wellness programs could be expanded, resulting in more students being able to avail themselves of health and exercise related resources. The credibility of our educational system would grow because such a change would signify that our schools and communities have strong educational values and public health priorities. With such a change, our educational system would be better positioned to serve the broad, long-term, health and exercise needs of America.

It is interesting to note that when compared to other countries, American students fair poorly academically when compared to students in counties such as Japan, Germany, France and South Korea to name only a few. Students from these and most other industrialized nations consistently perform better than American students in science and math. American students also consistently rate last in the area of physical fitness. Although there is no data demonstrating a direct link between these two dubious distinctions, the fact that America is the only country where schools are responsible for the development of elite athletes and teams, leads one the think that there has to be a correlation.

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In such a system, athletes and coaches would continue to have the opportunity to hone their skills as elite sports activities and training would simply shift to other local sponsoring agencies. As in Europe, local sports organizations would develop and sponsor more comprehensive athletic programs and professional teams would sponsor feeder systems and programs.

Contrary to what avid sports fans might believe, our nation’s educational system would not collapse if the responsibility for developing elite athletes and teams were “privatized”. While our school systems might be less dynamic, and in some ways, less fun without elite athletics, they will continue to go about the business of educating. In fact, the education of students would likely improve with the elimination of such programs as the focus on academics would intensify.

Guns for Teachers? How About More Violins for Students?

Originally published in Lancaster Online on May 25th, 2018


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As I walked home from the March for our Lives rally for gun control and school safety in Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s Binns Park, being one of millions of participants in the estimated 800 events worldwide, I couldn’t help but think, “Maybe…possibly…this time will be different.”
The typical reaction to school shootings has been a burst of public outrage, prayers for the victims and their families, calls for change, pushback from the NRA and then soon forgotten as the next big news story emerges.

But this feels different.

It is being lead by young people with their boundless energy, pure ideals and the fact that they know how to effectively leverage social media. And not only have they not been bought off by the NRA, many of the young leaders of the March for Our Lives movement have stared the realities of school gun violence right in the face as they have witnessed first hand, their classmates being gunned down in cold blood by weapons of war. Theirs is a generation where, since the Columbine massacre in 1999, 187,000 students have experienced a shooting on their campus (Timothy Egan, New York Times, March 31, 2018).

That’s a very powerful combination.

If this time is truly different, it’s about time. Kids don’t feel safe in their schools and the rest of us don’t feel safe in our communities.

And if this time is truly different, lawmakers and community leaders will begin to allocate resources to address not only gun control generally, but also school safety, which is the focus of this essay.

If this time is truly different, school boards and community leaders will face some very important decisions regarding how to efficiently and effectively allocate those resources to make our schools safer. And the fundamental challenge is how to strategically “harden” the outside perimeter of our schools?

To date, the dialogue surrounding this challenge has fallen into three categories.
First, arm teachers. This however, is not a credible solution as the vast majority of teachers oppose it. My sister has been a second grade teacher for 35 years. While I love her dearly, if I was the parent of one of her students’, I’d be terrified of arming her. The fact is, more guns in the classroom will result in more accidental firings and deaths.

Second, hiring, arming and training additional security guards. And, finally, “hardening” the school perimeter with more checkpoints, barriers, metal detectors, video cameras and additional safety features.

While it can be argued that the second and third measures can make schools “safer”, the larger question is whether they will make them “better”. There is no denying that a consequential byproduct of hardening school perimeters will be that their look, feel and operations will become significantly more “militarized”.

While the point is not to downplay the need to harden school perimeters, there is another part of an intelligent, strategic and sensible approach to this problem that should also be considered. What will be the impact of children being forced to learn in a more militarized environment? And what can be done to mitigate those impacts?

Effective learning is greatly impacted by the environment and school atmosphere within which teaching and learning take place. That environment must be welcoming, nurturing and joyous. Those are not terms typically associated with armed guards, checkpoints, barriers and video cameras. If we are going to “harden” our school perimeters, we have a responsibility to our children to make sure we correspondingly invest in things that will “soften” the inside of schools. We must strategically consider appropriate measures to counterbalance that increased militarization by making the learning environment within schools more nurturing and joyous.
Fortunately, we know the types of educational activities and programs that make school learning environments more welcoming, nurturing, joyous and therapeutic: music and the arts. Not only do children learn better, but teachers enjoy teaching more when surrounded by beauty, creativity and joy. Research tells us that music and the arts create a more nurturing, joyous and therapeutic learning environment.

Stated more directly, rather than placing a gun in the hands of my sister, why not place more instruments in the hands of her students?

If our schools are going to become increasingly “hardened” and “militarized” on the outside, it is important that once within that militarized perimeter, the halls and classrooms within the school are joyous places where the thoughts of fear of violence or school shootings are relegated to the back of students’ minds. In such a “locked down” environment, the arts, more than any other educational tool at our disposal, can do that.

A result of these marches will likely be that lawmakers and school leaders will find money to add security personnel and safety measures that will result in a more “militaristic, locked down” school environment. At the same time, history tells us that they won’t hesitate, if money needs to be found in existing budgets to fund new programs or when programs need to be reduced or cut in a budget crunch, funding for activities such as music, theater and the arts often suffer.

Even without taking into account the need for additional security, it is educationally sound to invest in the arts as they are essential to providing an education worthy of the 21st Century.
Due to their universal nature and clear educational benefits, music and the arts are not simply an extra-curricular or co-curricular activity but can, if used strategically and effectively serve as the “glue” that holds together the entire core curriculum. For example, music is math. Music is reading. Music is language. And music is logic. As a result, music in some form can be incorporated into virtually any subject matter or academic curriculum to enhance learning and understanding thus leading to powerful learning opportunities across disciplines.

Additionally, we must instill in students the ability to navigate our increasingly multicultural, complex and integrated world. Music, as the universal language, clearly has the capacity to reach across cultural boundaries like no other activity. Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of a 21st century education is creativity. The ability to think outside the box to address increasingly complex issues and challenges and to make new and different connections that lead to exciting discoveries and knowledge will be one of, if not the most important characteristic that students must possess to be successful in a globalized world. Music is our most effective educational tool to encourage and develop creativity. Music and the arts are also therapeutic, providing young people who feel alienated, isolated and confused within the traditional educational setting opportunities to “find themselves”. The arts offer activities and a community that makes them feel they belong as opposed to feeling like an outcast. One of the most valuable characteristics of the arts is that they are inclusive, forgiving and nurturing. It’s a place of belonging. There is tremendous value in that. I‘m no social scientist, but my guess is that many of the school shooters feel they are ostracized and outcasts.

Enhancing school safety in an age of easy access to deadly firearms in a pervasive gun culture is a complicated issue. Simply increasing investment in music and the arts in our schools will certainly not solve the problem. That said, neither will a collective knee-jerk reaction to simply further militarize schools.

If this time is truly different, significant resources to enhance school safety will very likely be coming down the pike. That being the case, it is critical that school and community leaders allocate those resources wisely. Rather than simply adding more armed guards, check points and metal detectors and then wiping our hands clean and stating our mission of making our schools “safer” accomplished, we must think outside the box to make our schools not simply safer, but better.

School Daze: Athletics and School Schedules

As has been well documented, athletic programs in our high schools have various impacts on the academic values and priorities and school culture and environment. For example, students involved in sports are more “engaged” in school and as a result less likely to cut classes or skip it entirely. On the other hand, a case can be made that the violent, win-at-all cost and sometimes anti-intellectual culture that often surrounds athletic programs can have a significant negative impact on the academic culture of the school.
 
That said, there is one impact of athletic programs on a school’s educational mission and academic culture that does not receive nearly enough attention. Specifically, how athletics impacts a school’s class schedule and the way school days are structured.  Typically, the school day starts at 7:30 or 8:00 AM, is fragmented into many periods with many interruptions throughout, and ends as early as 1:30 or 2:00 PM. This allows long afternoons for sports practices. There are several problems with this structure. Research suggests that adolescents don’t truly wake up until 9:00 AM. Further, 50 minute class sessions are too short for effective teaching and learning. Finally, the school day ends too early. Ironically, the “subject” that occurs in the best learning environment (a long, uninterrupted period of time in the afternoon) is sports.
 
Etta Kralovec has written about this impact in her book Schools That Do Too Much: Wasting Time and Money in Schools and What We Can Do About It. When you ask a board member about the structure of the school day, “you are likely to hear all kinds of reasons why the teachers’ and other unions have set the time schedules the way they have. What school administrators are less willing to admit is that the schedule meets the needs of the competitive athletic program and always has.” (p. 24) Further, “since most students do not participate in competitive athletic programs after school, many communities must struggle to find meaningful activities for students for this chunk of time. What is the message we are sending when we reserve the best part of the day for sports?” (p. 24)     
            “What is perhaps most remarkable about Alexandra’s (ficticious student used by Kralovec) day is that for a full three hours and fifteen minutes she had a perfect learning environment. No interruptions, a student teacher ratio of one to six, and pedagogical practices that build on an adolescent’s developmental need to belong. Was this her math class? Her English class? Her science class? Was this time turned over to intense individual work? Did she work on her intellectual passion for writing a play? Nope, she played sports.” (p. 28)
 
Given that athletes generally represent a small percentage of the student population, assigning the optimum learning environment to sports practice negatively impacts the educational opportunity for the majority of the student body, thus undermining the teaching mission of the school. The structure of the school day, tailored in large part, to meet the needs of the athletics department, is an example of distorted educational and community priorities.  While high school athletics’ impact on the general student body is less visible than the highly publicized, hypocritical relationship between college athletics and the education of the athlete, that impact is just as profound. 
 
Recently, West Hartford, CT’s school board took on this issue. District leaders appointed a 22-member committee to research the impacts of changing school start times. As expected, a major concern voiced was the impact such a change would have on athletic programs. For example, it was pointed out that moving school schedules to start later and end later would force more athletes to miss classes near the end of the day to participate in games. Also, scheduling games against other school districts who would retain their current school schedule would present problems as would scheduling bus routes and schedules.
 
Clearly, changing the school schedule would be challenging as there are many moving parts and administrative challenges. That said, simply because there may be challenges is no reason for school boards to dismiss the notion of revamping school schedules if at all possible. While it may be difficult and will no doubt take some time to implement and adjust to, it is clearly something that should be considered for two reasons.
 
First, the research is clear that teenagers’ biological clocks are better suited for starting school later than the current schedule allows. In short, teenagers learn better at 10:00AM than they do at 8:00AM. And second, the fact is, the majority of students in most schools are not athletes. In other words, school districts are on a schedule that caters to the athletic needs of a limited number of students and coaches at the academic expense of the majority of students.
 
The primary responsibility of school board members and academic leaders is to create a learning environment that is optimal for student learning. Refusing to seriously consider a shift in the school day is academically short-changing the majority of students.
 
Why not simply shift athletically related practices to occur before school? While exceptions might be made for games, there is no reason why those who want to play sports would simply practice before the academic day begins. In short, the fact that such a shift in schedule would inconvenience and present some scheduling challenges for sports programs is hardly enough reason to academically penalize the rest of the student body. Sports are, after all, an extracurricular activity. Important, yes, but not fundamentally critical for an educational institution to successfully fulfill its mission.  
 
Without a doubt, proposing such a shift will be controversial. But at a minimum, the concept deserves serious consideration, if for no other reason that the fundamental responsibility of school board members and education leaders is to create an optimal academic and learning environment for all of their students rather than an optimal playing experience for a minority of students who are athletes. 

High School Tackle Football: Its Origins Foretell its Future

USA Football, the NFL funded national governing body for the sport recently held its annual meeting in Orlando. According to a January 30, 2018 account in the New York Times, they would have been better off holding it at a beach resort as it would have made it much easier for participants to dig holes to bury their heads in the sand.

According to Ken Belson, the conference amounted to a series of coaches, former players and various administrators coming to the lectern to deliver the same stern warning: “Football is under attack and your job is to change the narrative.” Apparently, many of the speakers insisted that the sport is “vital to the American experience, essential for its survival, and it doesn’t have a health and safety problem as much as it has a messaging problem.” David Baker, the president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame said that if we lose football, “I don’t know if America can survive.”

Seriously?

I must have missed the American history lesson that explained how George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton felt a need to carve into the U.S. Constitution a clause specific to football being essential to the survival of our nation. Trust me, America will survive and thrive with or without football. Yes, it is extremely entertaining. Yes, we love being fans and being a part of a “tribe”. And granted, playing youth tackle football can have a positive impact on participants. But the fact is, so can involvement with any number of other sports. At the end of the day, it is simply game. To think it is essential for very survival of America is delusional. That said, the focus of this essay is not football in general, but rather youth tackle football specifically.

If Baker and his colleagues would lift their collective heads out of the sand and take an honest look at the current state of the game, they’d see that virtually all of the research emerging regarding football and brain trauma is making the connection between the two irrefutable. As a result, more parents, including many former NFL stars, are expressing concerns about letting their children play or prohibiting it outright. Meanwhile, for the second straight year, television ratings for the NFL fell both for the regular season and playoffs. And in the last two months, legislation to ban tackle football before the age of 14 was introduced in four states (Illinois, California, Maryland and New York).

Clearly, something is happening here. And it’s not simply a product of poor messaging.

If these developments on their own are not enough to paint a very cloudy picture of football’s future, something even more fundamental is at work, particularly as it applies to the future of tackle football sponsored by our junior high and high schools. Specifically, it relates to the fundamental justification for football being incorporated into our educational system in the first place.

Until the mid 1800s, America was primarily an agrarian economy and society. And, true to its purpose, our educational system reflected and served the needs of that society. Schools existed to provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There wasn’t much time for anything else. Sports, games, music and the arts were considered frivolous and, for the most part, didn’t have much of a formal role in schools.

It was not until the Industrial Age that sports and football in particular, began to gain a foothold within our school curriculums. America’s emerging middle class began to experience a rising standard of living, with shorter workdays and more disposable income. As a result, it became more accepted to engage in a little “frivolity.”

But in the case of football, there was another influence at work. The primary reason football was incorporated into high schools had little to do with education in the traditional sense. The driving force behind the implementation of such programs were the great industrialists of the late 1800’s and early 1900s. Rather than having an interest in educating through sport, these business leaders looked upon organized athletics and in particular football, as a means to train, socialize and control a workforce. In short, Industrial America required workers to be dependable, in good physical shape, able to work as part of a team and, above all, obedient. It was widely believed that football instilled these characteristics. In the minds of factory owners, there was little room for lofty thinking on the assembly line. Industrialists of that time did not want their line workers to be great thinkers, preferring that they passively conform. “The leaders of American industry felt that their workers needed to be loyal and punctual, but not necessarily good academically.” (Miracle and Rees, Lessons of the Locker Room: The Myth of School Sports, 1994, p. 178.) 

At its origin, football was considered an extracurricular activity that was an entertaining addition to a school’s broad offerings, but certainly not central to the educational mission of the institution.  But as our society’s love affair with football, grew, so too did football’s place of importance in our schools. As a result, football has, if not structurally, then culturally and philosophically, moved closer to being considered a “basic”, or at least a more important part of the curriculum, than other extracurricular activities such as music, theatre or visual arts.

Because this notion has become so engrained in our public psyche over the past century, we continue to accept it without question. If this were not the case, why has it been far more likely that arts programs, rather than football programs, are reduced or eliminated in times of budget shortfalls?

It is precisely this long held belief of the educational utility of football as it applies to instilling in youth the necessary skills to successfully compete in the workforce and economy of the day that foretells its future in America’s educational system.

In short, the fundamental educational rationalization for incorporating football into the fabric of our educational system has gone the way of the leather football helmet. It simply does not apply in today’s world.

The fact is, our economy and our society have changed dramatically since these programs were initially incorporated into the educational system.  We no longer live in an industrial economy that requires workers to be physically fit, unquestionably obedient and able to methodically perform the manual tasks required for an assembly line. While football may have been a wise educational and economic investment in the early 1900s, continuing to invest in an activity best suited to prepare workers for a world and economy that no longer exists, is misguided. Music, for example, is a far better educational investment than football in providing the creative skills necessary to succeed in the interrelated, global, information-based, creative economy and world community of the future.

Change is difficult. It is often much easier to cling to the comfortable models from the past. But how silly would it be for a politician, school administrator or community leader to propose reforming our schools to place the primary emphasis on preparing students to become farmers and steel workers? That may have been quite reasonable in 1850 or 1900, but to propose that today would be considered crazy. While we still need a certain number of farmers and steel workers, to systematically structure our educational system to concentrate on preparing future generations for an agricultural or industrial economy is ludicrous.
 
This is why it is important to have a serious discussion about extracurricular activities in our educational system. This discussion must take place against a background that recognizes the fact that America’s economy has changed from one based on industrial might to one based on creativity and innovation.  Clearly, the skills necessary to succeed in the workplace of the future have far more to do with brains than brawn, requiring intellectual and creative skills nurtured in the classrooms and concert halls rather than muscles built in the weight room and on the playing field.
 
It comes down to whether we, as educational and community leaders, continue to fund an activity that scrambles brains and is better suited to prepare our children for an industrial economy that is long gone or invest in an activity that strengthens and builds brain capacity and brain function that is perfectly suited to prepare our children to more effectively meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. We should welcome this discussion and analysis, because if we approach it honestly, the end result will be better schools serving our children and communities more effectively.
 
In the end, isn’t that what we all want?

Music as the Glue of the Core Curriculum

An ongoing debate within the educational community relates to how to classify physical education classes, athletic programs (in particular, football) and music programs within the academic curriculum. Specifically, the question relates to whether these programs should be considered “extracurricular” or “core” activities. The purpose of this essay is not only to examine that question, but to make the case that music programs are not only “core” in nature, but actually have the potential, if utilized strategically, to be the “glue” that holds the entire core curriculum together.

Clearly, some form of physical activity should be a part of a well-rounded, core educational experience. Plato’s concept of “sound mind, sound body” is, in fact, sound. The question is what is the best way to effectively achieve this goal? Of the resources that a school devotes to physical activity and athletics, what percentage should be devoted to football, in which virtually no girls and a small percentage of male students participate, largely for entertainment purposes, versus a robust physical education program? A strong case can be made that a comprehensive physical fitness and wellness program should be considered and funded as a core activity because it can be accessible to all students and structured to offer activities that emphasize, teach and instill lifelong fitness habits.

Although football may have some positive academic impacts, it is extremely difficult to make the case that it is a core academic activity. This assertion is not widely disputed because football, as currently structured and conducted, is not about providing broad-based participation opportunities to benefit the general fitness of the entire student body. The reality is that Plato’s concept of a well-balanced and conditioned mind and body has been distorted in our current “football as entertainment” model.  A high school football program and a general physical fitness program have little in common. In a nutshell, while a case can be made for general physical fitness and wellness as a core activity, football is clearly extracurricular.

The case for music is different. A reasonable argument can be made that music, because of its’ direct impact on various core academic activities such as math, reading, language and even science, should not only be considered a core academic activity, but an activity that can serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum. In short, music is math. Music is reading. Music is language. And music is logic. As a result, music in some form can be incorporated into virtually any subject matter or academic curriculum to enhance learning and understanding.

While some schools consider and classify music as part of the general, core academic budget, the majority of junior and high schools consider music an extracurricular activity because, from a cultural and public perception standpoint, music is widely considered a “nice”, “add on” offering, but not absolutely necessary from an academic standpoint. If this were not the case, why is it that when budget crises hit, decisions regarding funding cuts usually do not center on core subjects and programs in science, math or English but, rather, on athletics, music and arts programs? The result is that sports and music programs are all too often pitted against each other in the funding debate.

But after a thorough review of the relative educational value and effectiveness of these activities, one has to question why they are both considered to be in the same category of noncore activities.  The difference is so stark that not only should music be considered a “core” subject, but has the potential to serve as the “glue” of the core curriculum.

Clearly, music has far more in common with core academic activities than with extracurricular ones. Music possesses several unique and extremely valuable educational characteristics that are particularly important in today’s schools, which face increasing pressure to provide students with an education equal to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Music positively impacts reading, language, math and logic skills and is universal in application, leading to excellent learning opportunities across disciplines. Football programs, on the other hand, possess very little in the way of these benefits, producing few discernible, direct academic benefits.

That said, music’s status as a core activity is a bit different from that of other core subjects such as math, reading and science. Specifically, music should not be considered a stand-alone core subject such as math or science. It is not another subject matter box to be checked. Music’s value as a fundamental, core educational activity rests in its’ universality–it’s potential and ability to link all of the other core educational activities into a comprehensive educational experience. Music, if utilized strategically, can offer a common thread throughout an entire academic curriculum.

In addition to its’ potential to amplify, crystallize and enhance learning in virtually all other subjects, there are other characteristics of music that lend credence to the claim that it is core in nature. Any core educational activity must be available to everyone. While football generally caters to a small slice of the student population, music programs are accessible to and can be enjoyed by anyone and everyone.

Additionally, we must instill in students the ability to navigate our increasingly multicultural, complex and integrated world. Music, as the universal language, clearly has the capacity to reach across cultural boundaries like no other activity. We have long considered core subject areas to be math, reading, language and science. However,  a case can be made that, moving forward in this wildly diverse world, “cultural understanding” should be added to that list of core subject areas.

Another subject that must be considered a core aspect of an education worthy to meet the demands of the twenty-first century is creativity. The ability to think outside the box to address increasingly complex issues and challenges and to make new and different connections that lead to exciting discoveries and knowledge will be one of, if not the most important characteristic that students must possess to be successful in a globalized world. Music is our most effective educational tool to encourage and develop creativity.

Further, a core educational principle that our teachers and schools should instill in all students is a love of lifelong learning. It is not enough to simply teach facts and figures, but rather teachers must spark in their students a fascination with the world in which they live and encourage an intellectual curiosity about their place in that world that will last a lifetime. An important component of such lifelong learning is to provide access and exposure to activities that can be engaged in, and thus learned from, for a lifetime. Music is such an activity while the ability and opportunity to continue to participate in football after high school is limited to a select few.  
Finally, music should be embraced as a core educational activity because it offers something different from math, science and reading in its approach, methodology and process. As Charles Fowler writes in Strong Arts, Strong Schools, the arts have a distinct advantage over other subjects in that the arts are “refreshingly different in the way that they are taught and learned.” (Fowler, 1996, p. 102.)

After fully assessing the impacts and benefits of these activities, it is clear that because of music’s broad based, universal educational impact and academic value, it should be considered not only a core educational activity, but an activity that can provide a broad framework to bring together all of the core subject matter elements in a cohesive, comprehensive way that reflects the realities of a global, creative, interdisciplinary 21st Century education. That being the case, decisions regarding how to allocate increasingly scarce “extracurricular” educational dollars and resources become quite clear. If music’s academic and educational benefits are significant enough for it to be considered not only core in nature, but the glue that can be applied to enhance the understanding of all core curricular elements, the choice is indisputable.

College Coaching Salaries: A New Level of Absurdity

I’ve participated in, worked in, studied, researched and written about college athletics for over 40 years. It’s not often that I see something that makes me sit up, take notice and say “Are you kidding me?” Last week I had such a moment when LSU announced that it signed its’ defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda, to a four year, $10 million contract. All of it guaranteed. An assistant coach? Seriously?

For an educational institution? That’s absolutely absurd!

Of course, paying head football coaches exorbitantly is not new news. According to USA Today, in 2017, 78 college head football coaches and 41 head men’s basketball coaches earned at least $1.0 Million per year. Alabama’s Nick Saban heads the list at just over $11 Million and recently fired head basketball coach of Louisville, Rick Pitino, earned just over $7.7 Million. And in 2016, in 39 of the 50 states, the highest paid state employee was either a football or basketball head coach. (Business Insider, 9/26/16). 

Why does this matter? Why should we care whether LSU, Alabama or Penn State pays its football coach crazy money?

“I love my state and my state university and want them to be good in football,” is a common response. “It’s a point of state pride. And it’s far more fun and entertaining when they win. You need good coaches to win. Besides, the football program generates enough money to be able to afford it.” Others argue that this is simply an example of what the market will bear and that being able to have a quality coach is a sound investment.

But those who make these claims miss the larger point. American higher education is playing in a much bigger and infinitely more important “marketplace”. And spending that much money on a football coach undermines higher education’s ability to succeed in that larger marketplace.

That larger marketplace relates to higher education’s role in our society. From teaching to research from spurring economic development to being an agent for social change, the mission of higher education is many things to many people. But when you boil it down, it’s mission is to serve the public by helping to meet the many problems, needs and challenges that face society, including the role that sports plays in relation to education. And the effectiveness with which higher education responds to those needs will define it in the future.

It is no stretch to say that our country has lost perspective regarding the role of organized sport in our culture. We have come to glorify athletic accomplishment far more than academic achievement. Our colleges and universities, have, in large part, been responsible for allowing this culture to evolve. This is so, because in the case of the cultural subject matter of athletics, American higher education has failed in its public mission. Our colleges and universities have not provided the necessary leadership in establishing a healthy societal attitude regarding athletics. The result has been the grotesque distortion of educational priorities through the disproportionate resources and attention devoted to athletics. Aranda’s salary is simply the latest example of those skewed priorities.

While some may consider it a stretch, the fact is, the way colleges and universities conduct their athletic programs greatly influences higher education’s ability to fulfill its mission. Whether right or wrong, the fact is, major college athletics are the largest and clearest window through which the public views and interfaces with higher education. With such high visibility comes tremendous influence.

That being the case, as the public comes to view the hypocrisies and excesses of major college athletics with a more critical eye, higher education pays a price, specifically in the form of declining credibility, moral authority, and public trust. If universities cannot conduct their athletic programs in a way that makes it clear that while athletics are important, educational and academic excellence are paramount, how can it be expected that the public believe in its ability to effectively address issues such as poverty and illiteracy and to provide an education worthy of the twenty-first century?

Our colleges and universities can no longer afford to engage in practices that display for all to see, such skewed priorities. If there is any American institution that absolutely must stand up and demonstrate that academic and educational excellence are far more important than football or men’s basketball, it has to be our colleges and universities.

The values that are projected by college athletic programs are critical for another reason. What we do in our college athletic programs; the behaviors we condone, the messages we send and the “investments” we make, filter down to all levels of education. If our institutions of higher education tacitly endorse activities that undermine educational priorities and achievement in the name of athletic glory, it provides an example for all to emulate. In short, the public looks to higher education to provide educational leadership, including leadership regarding the role, importance, and purpose of sport in relation to education. Given its traditional role in our culture, it is clear that if we are ever going to begin the process of restoring our cultural consensus regarding the proper role of sport as it relates to education, it is up to the higher education community to initiate it.

It’s hard to see how paying $2.5 Million per year to an assistant football coach helps in that regard.