High School

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. 

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.

High School Football: The Folly of Trying to Sustain the Unsustainable

There were two recent items in the media regarding high school tackle football that, taken together, provide a strong hint of the future of the sport in our schools.

The first was a report that a three-judge panel of Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court rejected an attempt by the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) to have a suit against it tossed out. The suit demanded extensive steps to limit the harm from concussions among high school and junior high athletes.

The second was a report from Oklahoma Watch outlining how high school athletes in that state are sustaining hundreds of concussions and how the high schools are woefully understaffed with athletic trainers and licensed medical professionals trained to identify, treat and prevent brain trauma in athletes.

Taken together, these two developments point to the folly of attempting to sustain an activity that is becoming increasingly unsustainable by the day. While many will lament this reality, if one is willing to approach it in an open and honest way, it could provide an opportunity to create a blueprint for the future of high school sports in America.

There are several trends regarding the sport as well as the challenges facing our secondary school system that will make the sponsorship of tackle football increasingly problematic. The first is the mounting evidence of the link between participation in football and damage to the brain. Seemingly every day there is a new study confirming the harmful outcomes of participation in football. This trend is not likely to abate anytime soon.

In response to this alarming trend, football advocates point to various safety measures such as improved equipment, increased medical oversight and staffing and improved concussion testing and protocol. While these efforts are commendable, they are measures that require significantly more costs for an already very expensive sport. Another example of an expense that will rise dramatically relates to risk management and the cost of liability insurance. As a result, educational leaders will be asked to evaluate the supposed benefits of football against the very real risk of their students suffering debilitating injuries to their brains. Many of them will come to the conclusion that the risk is simply too great.

And if these troubling trends are not enough, they are playing out against an environment of increasing academic expectations and tightening school budgets. In such an environment, it will be more difficult for an educational institution to justify allocating additional resources for an activity that scrambles brains. Educational institutions are in the business of strengthening brains, not destroying them.

In short, while there may always be communities and school districts that will continue to sponsor tackle football, given these trends and the reality they reveal, with each passing day, it will become increasingly clear that high school football is no longer a sound educational investment. As a result, the sponsorship of football in our secondary and junior high schools will slowly but surely wither on the vine.

If kept safe and in the proper perspective, interscholastic sports can be a powerful supplement to the educational experience of young people. Thus, it is understandable why educational leaders remain reluctant to eliminate any interscholastic sports. But football, due to it’s extremely barbaric nature, is a different animal. But rather than bemoan and resist this reality, the elimination of football presents an opportunity to restructure the role that sports plays in our schools.

Specifically, it is time for educational leaders to begin to seriously consider moving to the European model of school sports. In that model, elite athletes pursue their athletic experience through participation in private club teams. The role of school athletics in the European system is to provide broad based participation opportunities in activities that can be practiced for a lifetime (i.e., the type of programming that has traditionally been provided through physical education classes and intramural and wellness programs). This, as opposed to our current system of highly competitive interscholastic programs that are geared to a small percentage of elite athletes while relegating the vast majority of students to the sidelines to watch. In one of the world’s most obese nations, such an approach simply makes no sense.  

That said, interscholastic sports have become so ingrained within the culture of the school and broader community, that moving directly to the European club system may not be realistic at this point.

Perhaps there is an intermediate step.  The elimination of football provides an opportunity to redirect the resources, energy and emotion currently allocated to football to not only other interscholastic sports such as soccer, basketball, swimming, cross country and baseball (sports that are less physically punishing and that can be practiced for a lifetime) but also to strengthening physical education and intramural programs as well as lifelong wellness activities such as yoga and weight training. Such a shift will clearly result in far better health and fitness outcomes for far more students than the current tackle football centric model.  This might be a viable intermediate step to eventually moving to the European model of scholastic sports and fitness.

In short, it’s time to stop trying to sustain the unsustainable. With each passing day, it is becoming clearer that both from an educational and public health standpoint, the European school and community sports model is far superior to our current football-centric elite athletic system. That being the case, rather than bemoaning the growing negative health and safety trend lines associated with tackle football, education and community leaders should seek to leverage those developments to re-imagine and restructure how schools can more effectively utilize sports and fitness activities for more positive community health outcomes.