(Guest Post by Collin Hitt)
A random-assignment study of a high school athletics program shows that participating young men experienced a significant reduction in arrests for violent crimes and a significant increase in grade point averages and the probability of graduation. Athletics help young men channel their aggression in acceptable ways, increases their grit, and moves them toward a path of success.
This evidence comes from an initiative in some of Chicago’s toughest high schools that are embracing a new sports program that often includes violent sports. It is called Becoming a Man – Sports Edition, which is teaching adolescent boys boxing, wrestling, martial arts, archery and other Olympic sports like handball. The privately-run athletic program is combined with counseling sessions.
“So after you got hit in the face during that boxing match, what were you thinking that led you to drop your hands and charge blindly?” This is the kind of coaching – i.e. counseling – that accompanies a typical training day. Students also meeting to discuss their family circumstances. The program seeks to provide young men with male role models and athletic opportunities to help them deal with their aggression in a productive manner.
Much talk but little research surrounds high school sports. In fact, it’s astounding how rarely athletics in schools are rigorously studied. Sports are fundamental to a school’s identity, for better or for worse. Yet there is little evidence to tell us what to expect from BAM-Sports Edition.
Jay and Dan Bowen have new study that is somewhat helpful, recently published on Ohio high schools: “With regard to attainment, a 10 percentage point increase in a school’s overall winning percentage is associated with a 1.3 percentage point improvement in its CPI, which is an estimate of its high school graduation rate.” This certainly belies the notion that athletics undermine academics. But, as Jay noted on the blog, their data has limitations.
Of course, we cannot make causal claims based on our analyses about the relationship between sports and achievement. It’s possible that schools that are more effective at winning in sports and expanding participation are also the kinds of schools that can produce academic success.
In Chicago the schools targeted by BAM – Sports Edition are not known for producing academic success. Also, BAM-Sports Edition, while apparently intense, is not geared toward league sports.
However, participation was determined by random assignment, allowing researchers to make strong causal claims about the effects of participation in the athletics program. In perhaps the best least-publicized paper I’ve read in awhile, University of Chicago graduate student Sara Heller led a rigorous study of the program. This is the only study I know of that uses an experimental design to evaluate high school athletics. The program randomly assigned 2,740 students to treatment and control groups. During the program year, arrests for violent crimes fell by 44 percent among the treatment group. One year after the program, treatment students had significantly higher GPAs. According to the study:
we forecast that the changes in GPA caused by the program could translate into increases in graduation rates between 3 and 10 percentage points, or 7 to 22 percent relative to control complier baseline rates
The athletics involved – boxing, martial arts, etc. – might startle a lot of observers. Some people think sports like basketball teach kids the wrong lessons. So what do these sports teach students? Surveys suggest that the program improved the “grit” and attitudes of participants. Who knew? Fun sports and caring coaches can help students to give a damn about life.
Of course, this topic bears further study. Good thing Jay, Albert Cheng and I have a forthcoming study on the classroom performance of coaches as teachers.