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Athletics Emphasized At Expense of Learning

November 13, 2004

By William L. Bainbridge

Educators recognize that extra-curricular activities are valuable in schools. It is, however, important in this age of the federal No Child Left Behind law that schools should be organized to emphasize learning in all program offerings.

The emphasis on athletics, however, might be to the detriment of academics in Ohio's schools, where many students are sent the message that sports are more important than learning.

Sports competitions increasingly are held on school nights, even as education leaders have advocated emphasizing learning by decreasing opportunities for students to be away from home after 7 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays.

On the national level, after a yearlong study, a 44-page report, "Athletics and Achievement," was recently released by the National Association of State Boards of Education Commission on High School Athletics in An Era of Reform. The group conducted a major review of the state of high-school athletics.

The commissioners gathered information from high-school athletic directors, sports experts and others. They reviewed topics ranging from inequities in athletics funding to the role coaches play in students' lives.

This report warns policy-makers and parents of a growing culture in high-school athletics where academic priorities can easily slip through the cracks.

According to the report, state education leaders across the nation are failing "to guarantee that interscholastic athletics do not take precedence over student academic performance.''

Highlights of the commission's many recommendations to their member state boards of education:

  • Obtain more data and information on athletics and student achievement.
  • Assure that athletic programs support and monitor academic progress throughout a student's high school career.
  • Require that athletic eligibility be dependent on a student's progress toward the successful completion of high school.
  • Consider policies and programs designed to educate students, particularly minority students, as to the limitations of viewing athletics as an end without equal consideration of academics.
  • Consider the impact of fiscal inequities due to the capacity of communities to differentially support fund-raising activities.
  • Review current state statutes concerning cyber- and home-schooled students to clarify access issues.
  • Develop guidelines designed to assist those schools and districts that allow the involvement of cyber- and home-schooled students.
  • Review charter-school legislation for content specific to high- school athletics.
  • Build a strong relationship with the state athletics association to jointly determine critical issues in areas of overlap, including eligibility standards, monitoring student participation and the impact of student transfers and recruiting activities.

The Web site of the Ohio High School Athletic Association says under the link for "OHSAA commitment" that the organization, to whom the state has delegated management of high-school athletics, is "committed to serving its member schools by being the nation's premier nonprofit athletic administration organization."

There is no specific emphasis on academics as a priority. By comparison, the mission statement of the Illinois High School Association, which guides that state's interscholastic athletics, says it "serves member schools by providing leadership for equitable participation in interscholastic athletics and activities that enrich the educational experience.''

This appears to be a good time for Ohio policy-makers to study the national report in light of the athletic-academic relationship in Ohio's high schools.

After Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary-high-school basketball star LeBron James went directly to the pros, he told a national ESPN audience that his idol Julius Erving was "old school," while he was "no school," referring to the fact that he skipped college.

But few students, regardless of their efforts, can jump from high school to a successful career. Exhancing academic achievement and providing young people with workforce and college preparatory skills must always be the primary objective.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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