Pushing Kids in Sports vs. Pushing Kids in School

My daughter had two great privileges growing up: she attended a pair of first-rate private schools; and she played youth sports for many years at a competitive level. Here’s something I’ve said privately for years, but have been reluctant to say publicly: If I had it to do all over again and could provide only one of those two advantages—private school or competitive sports—I’d choose sports. And it wouldn’t be a difficult decision.

Given my perch as a teacher and education policy analyst this is, I suspect, a surprising admission. My reason for coming out of the sports dad closet is a piece written last week by Mark L. Perry at the American Enterprise Institute. “Why do American parents push their kids so hard when it comes to sports, but not so much when it comes to academics?” he asks.

Hand wringing over Americans’ obsession with sports at the expense of academics is a hardy perennial in education writing, social commentary, and even sketch comedy. Many parents “don’t push their children very hard when it comes to academics” Perry explains, because they “don’t necessarily believe in the connection between effort and academic achievement, and don’t believe that academic success is within reach of any student willing to work hard for it.”

Not quite right. For starters, I don’t buy entirely the comparison; I’d wager that most parents still make participation in organized sports conditional based on their child’s keeping his or her grades up. It’s also easier for most parents to engage with their child’s athletics than academics. By the time my daughter was in middle school, my days of helping with her math homework were over. But I can still lace ‘em up and go for a run with her.

But there’s another explanation for our comparative indifference to academics, and it bears the thumbprints of education policymakers: If you are of a certain age, it’s a fair bet that your parents held you—and you alone—accountable for your grades in school. Over the past several decades, we have eroded student accountability, assigning it as a matter of public policy to schools and teachers. If a child is an indifferent student, even that is perceived to be an adult failure for failing to stimulate and engage every child. On the one hand, this was an essential corrective for decades of the system’s neglect and complacency; on the other, we have overcorrected to the point where we hold children insufficiently accountable for their educational outcomes.

Eric Kalenze, Director of Education Solutions for the child-development research firm Search Institute, made precisely this point in his under-appreciated 2014 book Education is Upside-Down. “As responsibility for engaging students and helping them succeed has almost completely shifted to teachers, any personal stakes students may have had in their own education has dwindled down to nothing,” he wrote.

While there’s no shortage of toxic and obnoxious sports parents eager to blame coaches, referees, even other kids—for their child’s poor performance, competitive sports remain unabashedly old school. Kids are held directly accountable. You show up, work hard and perform, or else you sit; the scoreboard is the last word in accountability and resiliency. School-based “social-emotional learning” rarely equals the lessons learned through long hours of practice alongside teammates to whom you are directly and intimately accountable. Small wonder then that many parents “push” their kids to excel as athletes. You’re simply more likely to see a clear cause-and-effect relationship between effort and outcome in sports than in school. Perry hints at this in his piece noting—correctly, I think—that grade inflation and the “diffusion and degradation” of academic excellence “would never be tolerated in sports where there are still state champions, state rankings for sports teams, and state records like track and swimming.”

Most parents still hold their kids accountable for their efforts in school, but that effort is more visible in sports. Mike Goldstein, the founder of Boston’s MATCH Charter School points out that we get to watch our kids play volleyball and basketball. Physics lab is not a spectator sport. “I suspect if this were reversed—never see sports, frequently see kid-in-classroom—so would the headline,” he sagely notes.

It has become commonplace to complain about youth sports where kids play without keeping score and everyone gets a participation trophy. Criticizing parents for valuing sports over academics is the exact opposite complaint, and just as overly broad. A more sober critique might ask what lessons one can learn from the other. We are comfortable recognizing and cultivating extraordinary talent and ambition in sports; we think it’s un-egalitarian to accept unequal ability and outcomes in school. In sports you rarely succeed without putting in the work. In school, we create the illusion of success when it’s not entirely warranted, particularly when it serves adult interests to be less than candid with kids about where they actually stand. The stopwatch and the scoreboard are the most honest report cards some kids will ever get.

Comparisons between sports and school are inexact, and it’s not a binary choice. I can afford to be somewhat blithe about my daughter’s schools because of the considerable advantages conferred upon her by race, class, and zip code. But it’s a mistake to assume parents don’t see the connection between hard work, practice, and rewards in school. For many, those habits and virtues are simply more likely to be learned—and more likely to stick—on the court and between the lines than in class.

— Robert Pondiscio

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

This post originally appeared in Flypaper.

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