Academic Excellence School Reform

Are we serious about improving schools?

High School Football: practice begins before classes

If you didn’t see this commentary by LZ Granderson, Why do school sports start before classes do,? on CNN then I strongly suggest reading it.  I believe in educating the whole child, so I really don’t have anything against sports in school.  In fact, I support the development of a student’s kinesthetic capability.  Athletic programs, as well as good physical education programs, do just that.  Many schools, especially high schools, put their primary emphasis on athletic programs rather than on lifetime fitness through good physical education.

In case you have not read Granderson’s article, let me share a series of quotes that illustrate his viewpoint.

For much of the country, high school football practice started last month, and for much of the country, high school classes start next month.

Given where our high schoolers rank globally in reading, math and science, that (starting sports before classes) is essentially putting the cup before the helmet in the 21st century.  Here again are the numbers: 14th out of 34 nations in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Again — 25th in math. No wonder we keep saying we’re No. 1; there’s a chance many of us can’t count much higher than that.

And high school sports starting before high school classes literally screams misplaced priorities. Many parents as well as students are against year-round school, noting the lessons that can be learned during summer vacation. I’m fine with that rationale, but why can’t the first sign of fall be classrooms opening instead of team practices?

A final quote from his article:

My son’s first track meet is in less than two weeks away. His first day of school is after Labor Day. Something just seems wrong about that, especially in Michigan where 48% of the state’s school districts did not make, what the U.S. Department of Education calls, “adequate yearly progress.

After I read his article, I too wondered why do we start athletic programs so early or why do schools seem to place greater emphasis on athletics than on academics?  Is it because Americans place greater value on leisure activities than they do on intellectual activities?  Maybe!  Is it because our consumer oriented society places greater value on acquiring designer athletic wear than we do on buying and reading a good book?  Maybe!  Regardless of the reason, Americans do show more enthusiasm and support for athletic contests than for academic exploits.  We are obsessed with our sports.
So maybe, just maybe that has something to do with why we are making little progress in preparing our children to compete in this competitive, global economy that demands an intellectually adaptive and creative thinker.

Allen Eagle StadiumIf you think that I am overly sensitive to this issue, then I suggest you read another article that appeared in Huffington Post this past week.  The article was about a Texas school district in suburban Dallas that has spent 60 million dollars on a high school football venue, Allen Eagle Stadium.  Give me a break, 60 million dollars on high school football.  I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the stadium and read the article.  This is a ridiculous expenditure of resources on an activity that has little likelihood of materializing into a real job.  Here are some statistics on football in the United States:

  • 306,227 — number of high school seniors playing football
  • 17,501 — number of NCAA freshman positions in football
  • 3% – percentage of athletes who transition from high school to NCAA football
  • 250 — number of NCAA athletes drafted into pro football
  • .08% — percentage of high school athletes who eventually transition to pro football

If we want our children in the United States to be competitive in this global society, then we have to get our priorities straight.  Granderson points out:

Studies as far back as 1906 have indicated that over summer vacation children forget significant portions of what they learned during the school year, and yet we keep using the same academic calendar that was instituted in the 19th century — before schools were air-conditioned or teachers certified. That would be like us using leeches to cure diseases — something else we used to do in the 19th century.

Of course, the football coach will defend the early start by saying, “we have to get sufficient practice under our belt so we are conditioned and prepared for the first game.”  No disagreement from me on that point.  However, don’t students need to get sufficient practice under their belts to be conditioned and prepared for what lies ahead.  Of course they do.  What amount of time is needed to be prepared?  Clearly, 180 school days doing in traditional classrooms is not sufficient for many students.  Remember only about 75% of students graduate from our public high schools in the United States.

I believe we will be unsuccessful if we try to tackle the challenges we face in our educational system with antiquated techniques or strategies.  Here is what we’re trying to do:

  • retool our national or state standards
  • redesign our national assessments
  • propose evaluating teachers based on student achievement
  • spend valuable resource dollars on high-tech tools
  • value the individual teacher with accolades

As Michael Fullan states so clearer and powerfully in his article, Choosing the Wrong Drivers for Whole System Reform, we are using the wrong drivers for whole system reform.  The wrong drivers are:

  • accountability: using test results, and teacher appraisal, to reward or punish teachers and
  • individual teacher and leadership quality: promoting individual;
  • technology: investing in and assuming that the wonders of the digital world will carry
    the day;
  • fragmented strategies vs integrated or systemic strategies.

For Fullan, the right drivers for whole system reform are:

  • foster intrinsic motivation of teachers and students;
  • engage educators and students in continuous improvement of instruction and learning:
  • inspire and honor collective or team work; and
  • affect all teachers and students – 100 per cent.

Fullan points out that these “wrong drivers” are:

Although the four ‘wrong’ components have a place in the reform constellation, they can
never be successful drivers. It is, in other words, a mistake to lead with them. Countries that do lead with them (efforts such as are currently underway in the US and Australia, for example) will fail to achieve whole system reform. (page 5)

How can we expect to reform the quality of the academic experience for our students if we explicitly tell them that sports are more important than academics?  How can we expect to reform the quality of the academic experience for our students, if we do fail to invest 60 million dollars into improving instruction rather than football stadiums?  There are clearly many more questions along the same lines that all of you could ask.  The point is the United States will not close the achievement gap or the opportunity gap until we invest creatively into changing the way (curriculum, schedule, etc.) we educate our students.

The time to act is now.  I would rather see a Huffington Post article that read, “School district invests 60 million dollars into faculty professional development to improve instruction and learning.”

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