Monday, November 5, 2007

Pompoms and the Decline of American Education

by Pa Rock

Christian Lund Ducheylard was born in Santiago, Chile, in the mid-1960's. The son of moderately successful parents, he was a bright boy who was popular with his peers, had a good academic record, and loved his futbol (soccer, to the uninitiated). He came to North America in the early 1980's to live with my family and to do his senior year at a rural Missouri high school. One of Christian's first observations upon beginning classes was his amazement at how easy academics were in the United States. He said that he had nine subjects to study each year in Chile, and that daily class schedules were devoted entirely to academics. "Pompoms," his catch-all term for athletics, cheer-leading, and other high school distractions, were scheduled on Saturday in his country - and they were truly "extra-curricular."

While few would argue that the overall academic achievement in the United States has seen a steady decline over the last three to four decades, the opinions as to why that has occurred are as varied and numerous as fleas on a country hound. Teachers, of course, form the easiest target. They are charged with teaching, and if the kids aren't learning, well then, the problem must be the teachers. Radio talk show hosts, television preachers, and other demagogues love to rail on teachers. Teachers, in turn, often point at parents and say if they would just provide some support such as checking to see that homework is completed, ensuring that kids get enough sleep and proper nutrition, or, God forbid, instilling some respect for authority in their spawn, then the result would be better students. School administrators focus on budgets and test scores in an effort to quantify education and boil it down to something that can be manipulated like a pocket calculator, and school board members listen to their loudest and most contentious neighbors in order to craft school policy that reflects the will of the well-connected. Everybody has an axe to grind or a finger to point, and education just keeps on sliding into the crapper.

When all of the studies have been completed, all of the test scores analyzed, all of the innovative teachers fired and replaced by people who don't even believe in Darwin, will things be any better? When teachers are paid what they believe they are worth, will kids learn more? Will test scores rise? Will futures be brighter when all of the "problem" kids are forced out of school and onto the streets in the name of discipline, or safety, or national security? Will our kids be smarter when the halls are devoid of all but those born in the best zip codes and a small contingent of babysitters with teaching certificates? Don't bet the farm on it!

Christian had it right. In a world of Friday Night Lights and Beverly Hills 90210, we have let schools evolve into little more than host bodies for athletic teams and a coiffed cadre of class-conscious princesses. School is no longer a sanctuary for learning. It has morphed into the place where kids come to hook-up socially and be admired for their clothes and cars and gizmos rather than for academic achievement.

But football is important, isn't it? And basketball? And baseball, and track, and maybe even volleyball, skeeball, and croquet? Don't team sports build character, teach teamwork, and separate the real men from the pansies? Does a game on Friday night really take away from academics? Maybe not much if the school only has one coach per sport and that person also has an academic load. But if the school has a squad of coaches and assistant coaches for each sport and their salaries are fluffed with extra titles to the financial detriment of the classroom teachers and the student body, then the athletic program definitely takes a toll on the educational potential of the school. Sadly, though, athletic programs are often seen as sacred cows that are immune from budget scrutiny or criticism.

Aside from the funds that athletics siphon away from academics, there are also the issues of time and elitism. The "game" may be on Friday night, but practice occurs daily, taking time that could be dedicated to study. And it's more than just Friday nights and weekday practice sessions. When do junior varsity and junior high teams play? Not on Friday nights because that time is reserved for the real jocks and the entertainment spectacle that sports provide to the community. Those "junior" teams are on buses late into the week nights going to hell-and-back and who-knows-where in order to learn the skills and pay the dues that may one day earn them their ticket to the Friday night show.

And which students benefit from the athletics program. Clearly the biggest beneficiaries are the ones who participate. If sports have merit for one student, then every student should have the opportunity to participate. If cheer-leading has value for one, then it should be made available to all. But that is not the way things work in most of our schools. The emphasis is on winning, and winning is not congruent with spreading the resources of time, instruction, and money throughout the entire student body. Unfortunately, the elitist, extra-curricular programs that exist in American schools today shortchange most students in all of those areas.

Why not save pompoms for Saturdays? Maybe then we could get back to the very real issue of education and make every hour spent at school a time for learning.

"God made the idiot for practice, and then he made the school board." -- Mark Twain

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