As an avid runner and swimmer who has fond memories of four years of high school sports, I know that athletics builds character, teaches teamwork, fosters the work ethic and brings a sense of accomplishment. However, as a high school teacher, I know that sports has no monopoly on these values and skills. Unfortunately, athletics does possess an unhealthy monopoly on the resources and energy of many public high schools. As a result, academic programs that challenge students to perform their best in extracurricular settings find little room to maneuver, at least in those schools where athletics reign.
For those who doubt athletics' preeminence in the high school program, consider the numbers of students who participate (typically at least one-fourth of the student population); look at the money schools spend on maintenance, equipment, transportation and coaching salaries (more than $100,000 each year at Glendale high schools); or look at a school calendar where most days feature athletic competitions.
Look also at any community newspaper, large or small, and compare the number of pages devoted to high school athletics with the number devoted to high school scholars.
One high school principal once joked about how, when principals ask each other how their school year is going, the typical response is: "Oh, pretty good. Our team's 5-2."
Although sports play an important role in society, we suffer when the popular culture deifies sports at the expense of intellectual achievement. We need people who strive to be their best and who work well on teams, but we also need people who are literate, socially adept and thoughtful decision makers.
Educators should lead the United States toward a day when intellectual achievement gains at least equal footing with athletic prowess. However, until high schools show symbolically that they value academic competitions as much as sports and other extracurricular programs, little progress will be made.
Schools demonstrate what they value through the programs and personnel they fund. That the school district where I teach provides more than $60,000 to each school for athletic coaches' salaries suggests that the district encourages schools to offer a full range of athletic teams.
That the district offers monies to support advisors for school publications and performances suggests a similar support for choral classes, yearbook, newspaper, dance, drama and music.
That this same district offers no monies to support entry fees, materials or advisors for academic competitions--such as the Constitutional Rights Foundation's mock trial program, National History Day, the Westinghouse science competition and the Academic Decathlon--suggests that this district values such programs far less.
Most teachers who receive coaching or advising stipends do not sponsor the activities because of the money; they derive their reward from encouraging student success. However, the extra money allotted these select programs is significant because it symbolizes what a school deems worthwhile.
If schools still offer a rigorous academic program--and I think those in my school district do--should parents and students care that their local high school offers no extracurricular academics?
They should care if they believe that these activities serve a vital function in the high school experience. Although some parents may remember a favorite teacher or class as the focal point of their high school experience, more probably consider extracurricular activities as high school's raison d'etre. For some this may have been sports. For others drama. But for still others it was Academic Decathlon--at least if the school offered the program.
Society should care whether these academic pursuits are encouraged. As a new century approaches, high school graduates will find more expected of them. They will need the values good athletic programs teach, coupled with the career, social and academic skills they learn from programs such as mock trial.
I hope that in the 21st century, high school principals will respond to the old query about how the year is going with a new answer: "It's a good year. Our mock trial team placed third in the county. We had 50 students participate in the science fair. And, oh yeah, our football team is 5-2!"