Sports Psychology

If you were an alien tasked with understanding the educational mediocrity of planet Earth’s largest economy, this would have been the perfect week for a reconnaissance mission to America. Two headlines, taken together, hold the clues to understanding our greatest challenge of all. It’s not a lack of money or a lack of good intentions; it’s not our diversity or poverty. It’s not something you can easily quantify, and yet it’s all around us.

On Monday, we learned that our colleges and universities have been increasing spending on athletes over the past decade--at the same time that they are cutting spending on instruction. The most rapid rise in spending was in Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships or lucrative TV contracts. Between 2003 and 2010, community colleges spent less per student on instruction—while spending per athlete jumped 35%!

Our visiting alien might wonder why. Aren’t colleges primarily places of learning? Isn’t it true that Earth’s economy now requires its inhabitants to build more agile, innovative minds in order to thrive? Or was our alien misinformed? Is there some giant fantasy sports league that will provide good jobs to millions of community college graduates? These humans must be in training for something, yes?

The report’s authors speculate that colleges are pumping up sports teams in an effort to attract more students, in a myopic and not entirely irrational race to the bottom. It’s true, after all, that many American students and parents are enchanted by the idea of attending a school with a winning basketball team they can vicariously claim as their own. The hard truth of the matter is that our students and parents are struggling with the same fundamental challenge that plagues our schools.

We Americans are confused. We have yet to agree about what school is for. This confusion distinguishes us from countries like Finland, South Korea and Poland. We say education is our priority and then act differently, and our kids are paying close attention.

Sports are a symptom of this confusion—and not the only one. (Our alien might want to visit our education colleges next week. Just one out of every 20 U.S. education schools is located at a highly selective institution. Far more have no admission standards at all. While in Finland, education colleges only admit the top 5 to 20% of applicants—sending a loud, clear signal to everyone about how serious education really is.)

Our conflicting signals create a kind of mission fog, the kind that limits what we can do in all our schools—and turns toxic in our poorest neighborhoods. Over the past decade, American high schools—just like our colleges--have been cutting back. Many of our communities have been laying off teachers and cutting school days out of already short academic calendars--while never even discussing whether it makes sense to continue to spend two to three times per football player what they spend per math student.

In fact, the vast majority of school districts don’t even track how much they spend (all in) per athlete. So how could they begin to talk about something they don’t even know? This kind of trade-off does not exist in most countries around the world, where kids play sports outside of school, if they play at all. In Finland, teenagers spend less and less time at the hockey rink as they get older—as they become more focused on getting into college or getting a job.

Our alien was starting to think it might be time move on to another, less confused jurisdiction on Earth. Canada perhaps. Then something surprising happened.

Jay Mathews of the Washington Post released his annual list of the most challenging high schools in America. He uses a simple ratio to compile this list: the number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year, divided by the number of seniors who graduated. Then he removes schools that are highly selective and attract a majority of students who are already performing way above average. It’s a blunt measure and wildly imperfect, but it remains a worthy attempt to identify schools that are challenging regular students with world-class expectations.

This year, Mathew noticed something startling about the list: 67 of the top 100 schools do not field a football team. It's just not part of their mission. Like high schools in the education superpower countries, they have focus. And this may be something of a trend: in 1998, 9 of the top 10 schools on this same list had a football team, Mathews writes. This year, only 3 do.

James Leathers, the spokesman for D.C. Catholic boys’ school St. Anselm’s Abbey, explained the school’s lack of football this way: “There is a fundamental difference between the traditional American high school, which balances various priorities, and schools like ours, which place academics over nearly all else.”

What does this mean? A small (teeny tiny) but growing group of countercultural parents, students and teachers are not confused. They know now that rigorous learning can be joyful. They understand that sports are great—and secondary; that teaching kids to think for themselves is hard. It requires the total focus of everyone involved. It demands outstanding teachers who are well-educated and well-trained, high standards and clarity. Our alien reports back: America is a strange, confused place, not without hope. 

EducationAmanda Ripley