25.9.13

REVEALED PREFERENCES.

The Atlantic's Amanda Ripley asks the Question of the Day.
The United States routinely spends more tax dollars per high-school athlete than per high-school math student—unlike most countries worldwide. And we wonder why we lag in international education rankings?
What the schools celebrate, they get more of.  Ms Ripley quotes James Coleman, in 1961, remarking on a visitor encountering the trophy case in the lobby of a representative high school.
His examination of the trophies would reveal a curious fact: The gold and silver cups, with rare exception, symbolize victory in athletic contests, not scholastic ones… Altogether, the trophy case would suggest to the innocent visitor that he was entering an athletic club, not an educational institution.
Indeed, even if one of your high school valedictorians went on to a high-profile career in entertainment,  you might not find her picture.  The first time I went to the Kiwanis pancake breakfast at DeKalb High, I noticed the cups, and the pictures, of sports accomplishments ranging from state titles to obscure third-place finishes.  No Cindy Crawford, or any other valedictorian.  And it might be the case that the new high school got built in order to provide a larger athletic complex, including a dedicated football stadium (although the annual tilt with Sycamore still takes place at Huskie Stadium).  My sources inside the high schools also tell me that the ridiculous starting times (first class at 7.30 am??) are dictated in part by practice times that don't run afoul of Hours of Service regulations for teachers who are also coaching.

But one hardscrabble district in Texas decided to go cold turkey on sports in order to free up resources to bolster the academic mission, and to reclaim the school culture.
In the spring of 2012, after the state threatened to shut down Premont Independent School District for financial mismanagement and academic failure, Ernest Singleton suspended all sports—including football.

To cut costs, the district had already laid off eight employees and closed the middle-school campus, moving its classes to the high-school building; the elementary school hadn’t employed an art or a music teacher in years; and the high school had sealed off the science labs, which were infested with mold. Yet the high school still turned out football, basketball, volleyball, track, tennis, cheerleading, and baseball teams each year.

Football at Premont cost about $1,300 a player. Math, by contrast, cost just $618 a student. For the price of one football season, the district could have hired a full-time elementary-school music teacher for an entire year. But, despite the fact that Premont’s football team had won just one game the previous season and hadn’t been to the playoffs in roughly a decade, this option never occurred to anyone.

“I’ve been in hundreds of classrooms,” says Singleton, who has spent 15 years as a principal and helped turn around other struggling schools. “This was the worst I’ve seen in my career. The kids were in control. The language was filthy. The teachers were not prepared.” By suspending sports, Singleton realized, he could save $150,000 in one year. A third of this amount was being paid to teachers as coaching stipends, on top of the smaller costs: $27,000 for athletic supplies, $15,000 for insurance, $13,000 for referees, $12,000 for bus drivers. “There are so many things people don’t think about when they think of sports,” Singleton told me.
The austerity seems to have worked, albeit not without some hurt feelings.
“We were freaking out,” says Mariela, a former cheerleader and tennis and volleyball player. American kids expect to participate in school sports as a kind of rite of passage. “We don’t get these years back,” she told me. “I’m never going to get the experience of cheering as captain under the lights.”
On the other hand, she's never going to get any practice at being a Mean Girl and enabling her clique to lord it over the less popular girls.  That may be a Good Thing, and it's salutary to see it in Texas, where small school districts still field football teams (seven rather than eleven to a side) and big suburban districts have indoor practice facilities suitable for Super Bowl preparations.

There's more on the story at Joanne Jacobs, including some spirited defenses of high school sports.

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