The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Z_CNHI News Service

October 1, 2013

Will the lights go out on Friday nights?

Many of us will travel Friday night to cheer on the local high school team. It’s a reoccurring ritual – one that’s been passed down over the generations -- where young men and women carry the pride, hope and dreams of a school and a community.

It’s been that way for more than a century. High school stars became hometown heroes, helping to shape a town’s character, reputation and identity. But is that long relationship headed toward a slow death?

There are worrisome signs. Some say the demise is inevitable.

The reasons are numerous. The cost of funding athletic programs is climbing at the same time schools are being forced to fire teachers. Crowds at sporting events are dwindling. Lawsuits stemming from concussions sustained on athletic fields are a growing concern.

Now comes a damaging article in The Atlantic, a magazine that’s developed a reputation for writing about important societal issues. It attempts to make the case that the emphasis on high school sports is, in part, responsible for America’s international mediocrity in educating students. Sports, not learning, have become the central mission of American high school, author Amanda Ripley observes.

Andreas Schleicher, a German educator cited by The Atlantic, said the most engaging environment students can be offered is one of cognitive challenge combined with individualized support. “If you offer boring and poor math instruction and try to compensate that with interesting sports activities, you may get students interested in sports but I doubt it will do much good to their engagement with school,” he said.

Certainly, it is agonizing and frustrating to see extremely gifted high school athletes, ones that have demonstrated they can play for the best college teams in the country, barely make it through high school and then fail to have the minimal test scores necessary to qualify for a scholarship.  But it seems unfair to issue such a sweeping indictment of high school sports and then link it to academic achievement by the entire student body. There are many student-athletes who have shown the ability to exceed both on the field and in the classroom, just as there as those who have failed.

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