No More Revenge of the Nerds

According to the Wall Street Journal, Texas high school students can now receive additional course credit toward graduation for participation in athletics. 

Even before the Texas Board of Education and Texas legislature made this change, courses related to participation in high school sports could count for as many as 2 of the 26 courses required for graduation.  Now they can count for as many as 4 of the 26 required courses.

Advocates of the change “have been complaining for years that students weren’t getting credit for all their athletics courses. They argued that there was no comparable limit on marching band or ROTC military-training classes, which can earn students four years of credit.”

Detractors of the change complained: “There are only so many hours in a school day… This really equates to two less academic credits a student will then be taking.”

Of course students should be required to take a rigorous set of core academic classes, but the question is what they should be allowed to do to satisfy elective requirements.  Is football less academically beneficial than band or ROTC?

Many education pundits have a decidedly anti-athletics bias.  Perhaps it was those years of wedgies and romantic failure with the cheer-leading team, but whatever the cause, high school sports rarely receive a kind word from education reformers of all stripes (except maybe referee stripes).

To be sure, high school sports can detract time, energy, and money from core academic pursuits, but rigorous research suggests that athletics tend to be associated with academic and lifelong success.  For example, Eric Eide and Nick Ronan report in the Economics of Education Review that: “Using height as an instrument for participation, we find evidence that sports participation has a negative effect on the educational attainment of white male student athletes, a positive effect on the educational attainment and earnings of black male student athletes, and a positive effect on the educational attainment of white female student athletes. We find no effect of participation on the educational attainment or earnings of Hispanic males or black and Hispanic females.”

In the Review of Economics and Statistics, John Barron, Bradley Ewing, and Glen Waddell find, “There is a clear direct link for men between athletic participation and both additional formal education and wages.”  They use data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth and the National Longitudinal Study of the High School Class of 1972, and employ multiple models to estimate the relationship between participating in high school sports and educational attainment and earnings later in people’s lives. 

For the most part, the Barron, et al analysis supports the conclusion that high schools sports select people who are likely to be successful later in life, rather than causing them to be successful later in life: “Higher-ability individuals or individuals with a reduced preference for leisure are more likely to choose to participate in athletic events. In such cases, athletic participation can be viewed as a signal of individuals with higher ability or greater ‘work ethic’ or industriousness. The resulting higher educational attainment and improved labor market outcomes that are linked to athletic participation then simply become a reflection of the inherent capabilities of more able or industrious individuals.”

But Barron, et al are not completely convinced that the link between high school sports and later success is purely a selection effect for industriousness since they do not detect a similar relationship for other extra-curricular activities: “However, we do find across both data sets that athletic participation is distinct from participation in other extracurricular activities in terms of its link to wages. This one finding does suggest that athletic participation may in fact serve as a training activity.”

If sports are associated with later success in life while band is not, it’s not clear why we would want to give more academic credit for band than sports.  And if sports particularly help black male students stay in school, there’s even more reason to allow athletics to count as an elective course.  

5 Responses to No More Revenge of the Nerds

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Jay, I’m intrigued by this line of thought, but we should distinguish between two questions:

    1) Should we do more to encourage athletics?

    2) Is giving academic credit for athletics a smart strategy for encouraging athletics?

    My initial thought is that we shouldn’t give academic credit for athletics because athletics is not academic. Band is – it’s a music class, and music is an academic subject. Today we strictly separate “liberal arts” from “fine arts,” but while they can be distinguished I don’t think they should be separated; Aristotle includes a (limited) amount of study in the fine arts as a necessary part of a liberal education, and I think he’s right to do so.

    Athletics as currently practiced in U.S. schools is not educational (sorry, it just isn’t) and it’s not going to become educational (sorry, it just isn’t). Americans don’t concieve of athletics in a way that might provide educational value. I’m not debating whether that’s right or wrong – frankly, when I look at what athletics would be if it were educational (as in, say, Plato’s Republic) I’m inclined to think Americans are right to conceptualize athletics as primarly a pastime rather than a discipline. Of course for those few who can do athletics exceptionally well it is obviously a discipline, but we don’t structure music classes on the basis of what works for virtuosos and the same principle applies here.

    Oh, and the fact that athletics is correlated with later success while other extracurriculars aren’t provides precisely zero grounds for thinking that athletics produces rather than merely attracts successful people. When highly ambitious little kids think about what they want to be when they grow up, how many of them dream of becoming band leaders?

  2. You are right, Greg, that there are two distinct questions here. First, encouraging more athletics does appear to be beneficial, and not just as a selection effect. The instrumental variable in the Eide article removes selection effects so that he can claim that participation in athletics causes higher educational attainment and earnings. And the fact that Barron, et al don’t find a simialr result for other extra-curriculars also suggests that the effect may be causal.

    As to whether the athletics should be as part of academic coursework or only as an extra-curricular, I don’t have a strong preference. My only point is that athletics is no less beneficial than band. And it’s not clear to me that band is any more “academic.” Music might be academic, but why band per se? And if PE is academic, why not athletics?

    • Greg Forster says:

      I think a liberal education ought to include a (limited) amount of training in artistic performance, and I don’t think it particularly matters what kind. Band is a form of artistic performance. QED.

      PE is not academic and should not be a course. I make no distinction between PE and athletics, for the simple reason that there is none.

  3. educ8m says:

    This smacks of a sneaky way to artificially inflate graduation rates. Something like this is happening in Ontario, Canada with what reformers are calling the government’s “No Fail” policy.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Inflate graduation rates and create more employment opportunities for gym teachers! But of course that’s a separate issue from the objective merits of the proposal.

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