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.