Defining Education-based Activity Programs

By Bob Gardner on September 23, 2015 hst Print

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The term “education-based athletics/activities” has been used frequently to describe the U.S. model of incorporating sports and other activity programs within the high school setting. The opportunity to participate in sports as a part of a young person’s overall educational experience is a privilege that is not available in most countries.

Except in the United States and Canada – and perhaps one or two other countries throughout the world – sports are separated from the school setting. The union of academics and athletics/activities at the high school level does not exist in most countries; and while some people think the United States should follow the way of the rest of the world, history shows that the U.S. model offers the best educational opportunity for the majority of today’s high school students.

Why? Education-based athletics/activities provide learning opportunities in the classroom and on the playing field/court. However, simply offering young people the opportunity to play sports or compete on the debate team during their time in high school does not constitute education-based athletics/activities. There must be an educational component that extends from the classroom to the gymnasium or playing field, or our programs are no different than those in countries where academics and athletics are separated.

Playing sports and participating in activities is a privilege that students earn by maintaining academic standards and good conduct in the classrooms and outside the sports or activities. This disciplined behavior is the cornerstone of high school sports and activities.

In past years, the NFHS has defined athletics/activities as “the other half of education.” The goal is that in addition to core academic subjects learned in the classroom, students experience additional educational opportunities through their participation in sports, speech or band. Beyond the specific skills of a sport or activity, these individuals have the opportunity to learn important principles that can guide them the rest of their lives.

While the subjects learned on the court or field or in the music room are not math, English or science, it could be argued that the principles students learn in these vital programs are just as important as the core academic subjects.

David Hoch, longtime coach and athletic director in Maryland, in a February 2009 article in High School Today, listed the following educational benefits for participants in athletics/activities. These are right in line with our document, “The Case for High School Activities,” and provide a tremendous definition of “education-based athletics/activities.”

Common outcomes for participants in athletics/activity programs are that they should: 

• Learn sportsmanship to win humbly and graciously and to lose with dignity.
• Model integrity through playing by the rules.
• Use teamwork in order to contribute to a greater goal in which the athlete places the team’s success or recognition before that of an individual.
• Reach out to assist teammates, which translates into helping others around them in life and contributing to the community.
• Develop perseverance and the ability to bounce back from defeats.
• Incorporate goal-setting learned through athletics into their approach to life.
• Develop a solid work ethic that emphasizes preparation and effort.

While some of these principles can be learned simply through involvement in these programs, others require the intentional focus of coaches, administrators and other school leaders. Learning the concepts of sportsmanship, playing by the rules, teamwork and perseverance will pay huge dividends throughout these students’ lives.

In fact, in education-based athletics/activities, imparting these principles to high school students is more important than the number of games they win during their four years in school. Certainly, improving skills and winning games is a part of the overall goal, but the quest to win games, events, championships cannot come at the expense of failing to provide these educational opportunities.

Some would say that school-sponsored sports work against the educational mission of schools. In reality, education-based athletics/activities is the best of both worlds. Surveys have shown that those students involved in sports or other activity programs have higher grade-point averages, lower dropout rates and a better chance for successful careers than those not involved in these programs. Not only are athletics/activities participants completing their academic courses at a higher rate than non-participants, they are learning vital lessons – not available through the classroom – through their participation in school activity programs.

Others believe these programs are a financial drain on a school district’s budget. In reality, studies indicate that only one to three percent of a school district’s budget is typically devoted to athletics/activities programs. Although budgets are shrinking and some schools have been forced to enact participation fees, athletics/activities programs are still a tremendous bargain when matched against out-of-school club teams where no educational component exists and winning is indeed the No. 1 priority.

In non-school clubs run by private groups, parents spend thousands of dollars for their son or daughter to compete – sometimes year-round – without the benefit of the educational component and esprit de corps that exists in the high school setting.

Indeed, there are challenges ahead for all of us involved in high school athletics/activities programs. The NFHS and its member state associations continue to address the concern regarding concussions in sports (see article on page 14), and the financial hurdles will continue to be ever present. However, there is no better structure in place to address these and other issues than within our nation’s high schools.

While a non-school club or travel team may be a good fit for the highly skilled, elite athlete, the majority of the 7.8 million participants in high school sports (and another four million in performing arts programs) are in the best place possible – education-based athletics/activity programs.