Does Football Make an American High School Great?
Should the presence of a football team be a criterion for considering a school outstanding?
The Washington Post has been ranking U.S. high schools for 16 years. They just released their 2014 list, but for the first time included whether each school has an 11-person football team. Jay Mathews, who creates the list, justifies his decision by writing that research indicates that high school sports, including football, give students valuable time-management and leadership skills.
Mathews explains how the Challenge works:
We take the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education tests given at a school each year and divide by the number of seniors who graduated in May or June. I call this formula the Challenge Index. With a few exceptions, public schools that achieved a ratio of at least 1.00, meaning they had as many tests in 2013 as they had graduates, were put on the national list at washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge. We rank the schools in order of ratio.
But this year Matthews has added something different:
I added a question to The Post’s annual survey: “Do you have an 11-person football team?” To my astonishment, 67 of the top 100 schools, ranked by participation in college-level tests, said they do not field a team, denoting a shift in American high school culture, at least in those schools that challenge their students most.
He goes on to question whether the top academic schools in the U.S., who have abandoned the football culture, should stand as a model for all high schools nationwide. But apparently he disagrees, stating that football provides excellent training in leadership and time-management.
Mathews should take a look at the impact of football on the culture and life of American high schools.
As a high school teacher in the U.S. for over 20 years, I have seen over and over again how high school football rules the school especially, but not exclusively, during football season. The big bucks are raked in because of football. The football players are placed on pedestals, regardless of what kind of students they are. Football becomes the god to whom we all bow during football season. Education takes second place.
In spite of Title 9, football has traditionally grabbed a much bigger share of the sports budget than any other sport, and especially female sports.
There are numerous ways in which students can learn leadership, and work as a team: the multitude of clubs that exist on every high school campus, leadership classes, the community service requirements for high schoolers, and wonderful programs like Sojourn to the Past. Football is one of many options, not THE option.
If Mathews had actually spent extended time in five or six American high schools, as I have, he would understand that football can serve more as a pernicious influence than a benefit.
Indeed, why football? Why not softball, or volleyball, or soccer? Moving beyond sports, how about rating schools for their performing arts curriculum, or their music program? There’s plenty of team-building going on in these arenas.
I’d like to suggest the European model here. I grew up in the UK, where school sports were a necessary evil, but none of us really embraced them as anything noteworthy. By contrast, my town and my local community had numerous sports teams that were extremely competitive. That’s where sports really took off, and I believe that’s where they belong.
American high schools have, in my experience, become places where the football team is god, and I believe that is wrong. Jay Matthews, please take the football team question off your “Challenging High Schools” index.
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