Tuesday, December 15, 2009

So Exactly What Do YOU Think of High School Sports?

Before beginning, I think it is important to point out that I do realize that I've only got one side of the story. Yet I think the situation is compelling and probably worth talking about.

On Wednesday nights, before they meet for their activities, I have been doing group tutoring with any of the Young Women who are interested in participating. Mostly math, but other things too. We have open enrollment in our city for public schools, so several of our girls go to a high school miles from here. Over the past few years, this particular high school has gained a well-earned reputation for having excellent sports' programs. The demographic of the area also lends itself to a fairly academic school as well. Generally high test scores, plenty of money and the football program have led to a general belief that it is the "best" high school in the city. Because of the open enrollment, parents all over the area put their kids on waiting lists to get in. The school is then able to have a large degree of discretion over who is allowed in. So naturally, as some schools cycle downward, this one is doing just the opposite.

From an LDS perspective, the high school is smack in the middle of the highest density of Mormons in our city (still, admittedly, not high). Coupled with the school's reputation, many local LDS parents try to get their kids into the school.

Now that you have some background I'll get to the point.

Some of the girls I tutor on Wednesdays attend this school, and each has a different math teacher. All men. All on the coaching staff at said high school. And every Tuesday this fall they each have a sub. A sub who doesn't have a clue about high school math.

The girls complain at length about this. They have heard that the coaches hold a day-long meeting every Tuesday in order to watch tape and to strategize. If not, this whole, all-the-football-coaches-are-sick-every-Tuesday thing seems terribly coincidental. I asked the girls if the teachers prepare ahead of time for their absences, and if they are especially helpful when they return.

They laugh and express the opinion that when these men are teaching, they are only halfway interested anyway, and that it is impossible to get the time of day from them unless you are an athlete, or dating one.

Again, one side of the story, and not an unbiased viewpoint. I'm just sayin'.

But what, exactly, am I saying? I guess it is that I'm frustrated about a school culture that allows athletics to take such heavy precedence over academics. I am especially frustrated that it happens to be the school that "everyone" wants in to. I'm frustrated that the girls (and other kids in their boat) don't feel like they have anyone they can express their anger over the situation to.

Make no mistake, if they did complain, it is hard to believe that anyone who could fix the situation would pay attention. Their team just took state, again. This year with a perfect record. Such a high school triumph gives a class bragging rights forever. Or at least it seems that way. ChrisW and I went to a high school that hadn't had a decent football team in a decade. And every year, for a seminary fireside, they would dig up some nearly thirty year-old to come and talk to us about what a spiritual experience it had been taking state in the mid-eighties. Really.

So I guess if my girls cared about football, or really lived in that community with the other kids, or were having a more "traditional" high school experience, then they wouldn't care for a moment about being immersed in a culture that glorifies a certain type of kid to the detriment of others. And make no mistake, even at schools where they work the hardest at keeping priorities straight, students with athletic ability end up with a (too often undeserved) lion's share of popularity and veneration. Sometimes because they work very hard, yes, but also because they were just born with a certain type of body or set of skills.

When our public schools go out of their way to further advantage that percentage of students already highly advantaged, are they really providing a free and fair public education?

Let's talk.


AmyJane said...

Have you read "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell? Not that it makes this type of situation any better, but it certainly lends insight into how talent and advantage combine.

heidikins said...

Hrm, I think I must be too much of a nerd to really get this. I am/was one of those Academic Social Outcasts, and I loved it. I didn't even go to high school sporting events, let alone care about who won them.

I was on several academic and otherwise non-sport-related extra-curricular teams, and we usually took home trophies and medals at The State Competition.

Five years later and I hardly remember the teams, let alone the "spiritual experience of taking State".

See? I must be too nerdy to get this. [Shrug]


Science Teacher Mommy said...

I have only read Gladwell's original essay in the New Yorker by the same title. I'm sure the book is wonderful; he is a great writer. I felt like his principles apply to any time we are talking about hard work in conjunction with (or sometimes versus) talent then Gladwell's ideas can apply. So not just to sports here.

Nor, Heidikins, am I criticizing clubs/teams/etc. in general. They probably do have their place. My problem in this anecdote is that the school's community, administration, culture, etc., has allowed football to take precedence over their math program. Colleges routinely do this: the schools with the best football programs are not always known for their strong academic programs. Particularly in the sciences.

I mean, what is the point of calling it a school if it is just a place to glorify athletes?

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Heidikins and I were cut from similar cloth. The only high school sport events I attended were the track meets I ran in freshman year. After that I was too busy with AP classes to bother with sports. Nothing against people who enjoy playing or watching, but I had other interests.

At least colleges hire coaches purely to coach. It irks me when high schools let a coach get away with teaching a mediocre class; no contribution they can make to the school team justifies shortchanging their students like that. Sports victories last a season; education (or lack thereof) can last a lifetime.

Anonymous said...

I agree that often sports becomes a bigger focus in high schools than we want it to be--I see that in my tiny little school, which is just south of where you are. However, sports can also be a big motivator for kids. If they want to practice or play in a game, they must a) attend all classes that day. b) have a 2.0 and no Fs. I see kids work to get their grades up and just plain show up to class because of athletics eligibility requirements. In that way, it can be positive.

However, in my rural school district, so much money goes to sports and the fields/courts/facilities, while other academic endeavors are left with practically zero in funds. The entire English budget is around $200. This means if we have to purchase any supplies or books, it comes out of that budget. Yeah, it doesn't last long. But the district just spent $600,000+ on a new building, where a lot of the purpose is sports-related.

I think the over-emphasis on sports starts with the adults. The kids will follow our lead if we place the emphasis on academics with sports as a close second. But getting all the adults to believe that and behave that way is the real struggle.

mstanger said...

Simple market influences. Sports get priority because they are profitable. How many high schools sell tickets to watch their Academic Olympiad team compete? There isn't much of a market for chess club jerseys. Unrestrained, market influences will do crazy things, like cause coaches to skip class. Market influences creeping into the public education realm is particularly troublesome because those kids who get left behind are often those with the least buying power (think vouchers).

Here's one area where Bronco Mendenhall gets it right (man that hurt to type): Faith, family, knowledge, friends, football, in that order.

Yankee Girl said...

All of my math teachers in high school were male coaches as well! And I hated math--thought I couldn't do it--until I got to college, had really great teachers, and almost became a math major.

Sherry said...

Fortunately for me, our high school had the coaches teaching less important subjects like history and geography. Math classes were for people who could genuinely teach, and some of those were also coaches.

I agree with Loradona that sports can be good for students, particularly because it forces them to keep their grades at a reasonable level. Moreso, I think it often keeps kids doing SOMETHING, anything besides getting into trouble after school. (Of course, it doesn't always work. There are still plenty of times to get into trouble.) But the emphasis is absurd. I'm irked by how many really awful teachers I had who taught only because they had to teach in order to also be coaches. For some reason I resented them a lot more than I resented the regular teachers who were just plain bad at teaching.

Dr. Fu Manchu said...

When I was in elementary and Jr. High none of the coaches in our schools taught anything but P.E. and Health. They monitored a couple study halls and subbed sometimes. They were coaches all the time.

At some point that changed and I had English, Science and History teachers who were coaches. I formed the strong opinion that teachers should not be coaches. I'm know there are people who can do it without getting sucked into high school teen drama, but none of the coach/teachers I saw were strong enough to resist.

They wasted class time chatting, joking and gossiping with the athletes while the rest of us sat bored and ignored. They participated in bullying and cliques. They distanced themselves from the non-coaching teachers and even made jokes about them to students.

And definitely our school's focus and money went to the sports department. Before the teachers became coaches we had quiz bowl teams, teams that competed at Ecology and Geography competitions, Debate teams and more, but by the time I was in High School all of that was gone.

I could go on and on, but I think teachers should teach and coaches should coach. If there isn't enough money to hire both then don't hire the coach. With in a week the community will magically come up with the money to hire one. I think the money available should be divided equally among the different departments and if the school has a great football team that would do so much better with better equipment or a new field then the community should foot the bill.

emandtrev said...

I saw some of that in my own high school, but not as bad or concentrated as the examples these girls have shared. Thankfully and also in my experience, there were a great number of teachers who could have cared less (or cared, but cared about academics more) about sports, so I don't have too much bad to say about it.

I certainly think that in *school* the focus should be first on academics and second on extracurricular activities, no matter what that activity is.

The idea of taking one whole school day during the fall to watch tape and strategize seems ludicrous to me. That's just me, though. :)

Caitlin said...

Ummmmm...I live in Texas...where high school football is on TV...all year. I am not knocking sports but sometimes it all seems a little off-balance. I worry because I happen to have an extremely uncoordinated son. He's 5 and it would seem that 5 is not a time to worry about a child's lack of interest/talent in sports. Here- he may as well be crippled. Some local kids have been in training since they could walk. I worry that he will be an outcast because he likes art, reading, and Legos. Why am I feeling such pressure when he is FIVE!?!

My second beef with sports is also the money channelled into it. Why is transportation provided to teams, coaches, cheerleaders, trainers, stats. people (?), etc. but there is not enough money for basic needs in special education. "Oh, your child needs a wheelchair to get around instead of dragging themselves on the floor? Sorry, how would our teams and their peeps get to a scrimmage 90 miles away?" Don't get me wrong, special education is WAAAYYYY better than it was in California. Again-it seems disproportionate.

As for coaches/teachers, let me take you back to 1997: High School Spanish 2, Coach Z. teaching/screaming verb conjugation, "O, AS, A, AMOS, AN!"

Science Teacher Mommy said...

When I first taught in TX, I was frustrated that many of the larger schools had entire coaching staffs that were paid just to coach. Now I think it is really the only way to go. And like a college, the athletic department's budget should be a bare minimum from the school, with the rest raised through ticket sales, fees and boosters.

Another funny TX story: I had a friend whose daughter wanted to be on a cheerleading "team." You see, the little league football in our area also had little league cheerleaders. She was assigned a coach and a team to root for. When my friend told the cheerleading coach that they wouldn't make it to Sunday games, they nearly cut her daughter entirely. The coach later relented, however, as no games were actually scheduled on Sunday. Just a play off possibility.

And the Sunday-thing is a major issue for us sports-wise. In the city we live in now, every sport schedules games on Sunday. We may just have to stick to swimming and gymnastics lessons and ride our bikes a lot. Organized sports may not be on our radar for a variety of reasons.

Caitlin said...

The Sunday game playing is a very divisive issue in the ward. I was actually surprised to see just how many people feel completely fine with Sunday games. I have also noticed the tiny cheerleaders and at first I was disturbed, then I felt bitter because I tend to hate things my daughter can't do. But then I saw a cheerleading team that is made up of only special needs children and I started hysterically bawling. It's been a long week.

I feel bad about what I said about the Special Education Program. They have been very accommodating and I don't feel like they are trying to withhold services for my daughter to save money. Like I said, it's been a bit of a long week.

Keep up the thoughtful posts. I know it probably takes a lot of time and effort, but I really appreciate them. Sometimes it's the only thought-provoking thing I read all day. Well, except for the scriptures of course!