Why do Schools Have Sports?

What do you think the most important class is in school?  Math? Science? Social studies? How would you know, anyway?  Because I don’t mean the class that seems the most important.  I mean the class that the school and the community demonstrate, through their actions, is the most important.  There’s one way to know: You’ve got to follow the money.

There are two places we spend money on classes:  time (which is money in schools) and staff. So to locate the most important class, you might start by considering which classes 1) Are given the most time during the school day, or 2) Are best staffed (have the lowest student-teacher ratio).  Sound fair? Let’s look.

Consider two typical classes at an American high school:

  • Class A meets 38 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1.
  • Class B meets 120 minutes per day, with a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1.

Which one’s more important?  That’s not even hard. So what are they?  What two classes could be so imbalanced, with one so clearly valued over the other?  Does this really happen in modern schools?

The answer is yes.  It happens in almost every school in America, right now.

Class A is English.  Class A is math, or science, or social studies.  Class A is any core academic course.

Class B meets right after school.  It’s two hours long. There are no interruptions.  There are usually two, sometimes three coaches, for a small number of students.  Parents flock to watch Class B. Kids in Class B are celebrated for their accomplishments around the school and community.  Class B can sometimes get them special scholarships to college in ways that any individual class like math or science cannot.  Class B is clearly a lot more important.

Starting to see the picture?

Class B is after-school sports — the most important class in American schools.  

It’s true.  We say we value academics, but the numbers don’t lie: sports get more time and staffing than any academic course.  Every day kids spend more time on the basketball court or the football field than they do in any one academic class.  Total it out over a year for a multi-sport athlete, toss in time spent driving to games and practicing in the summer and it’s not even close.

Teachers know.  Ask any poor English teacher who’s had to run writing groups with a half-empty room because twelve of his students had to leave an hour early for away games.  Ask any principal who has ever strolled into a packed basketball gym and run into a half-dozen parents who’ve ducked parent-teacher conferences for a decade. They know.  Here in America, we love our sports.


But should our schools be the places to house them?

This is the question posed by a fascinating book I just read, Schools That Do Too Much, by Etta Kralovec, published in 2003.  Kralovec believes that sports, expensive and time-consuming, drain public school resources better spent on core academic programming.  Not only that, but Kralovec believes we’re better served by pushing the responsibility for funding and directing sports out to community organizations.

Kralovec traces schools’ stewardship of competitive sports to the early 20th century, when Americans were increasingly utilizing compulsory public education to “Americanize” large numbers of newly-arrived immigrants.  For a time, competitive sports were the purview of student-run athletic associations, until reformers, concerned about the “rowdiness” of student leagues and “driven by the anti-immigrant sentiment of the day” began to insist sports come under the control of government-run schools:

“Believing that sports would be a great way to teach the American virtues of hard work, fair play, and competition, civic and school officials began calling for sports clubs to be housed in public schools.  A public campaign was launched denouncing student-led leagues as unsafe . . . and this was the birth of the institution of school sports.”

To this day, Kralovec writes, sports are so entwined with public education that it’s almost impossible to read a school budget and determine the cost of athletics.  Most Americans don’t even question the arrangement.

But we should.  

Why?  Because, as the title of her book implies, American schools are overburdened.  I agree. It’s starting to become clear to me that early 20th century progressive reformers, who not only saddled public schools with Americanization but with curing social ills, might just have overplayed their hand.  If you make big promises, you just might be held to them. In the wake of both the 1957 launch of Sputnik and 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” responsibility for America’s perceived lack of international economic and technological competitiveness fell squarely on the shoulders of its schools.  This was never fair, and we knew that; later, when the economy boomed and innovation flourished, public schools received none of the credit. It was simply that the increased importance reformers had trained on public schools made them easy targets when things weren’t going well.

But it’s not as though school reformers had made the case to an unwilling public.  In fact, the opposite. As Michael Katz argues in his essay “Public Education as Welfare,” unlike many European countries, we’ve long offered education as the primary social support in lieu of government welfare programs:

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, while other nations were introducing unemployment, old age, and health insurance, the United States was building high schools.”  

According to Katz, in contrast to American ideals of equality, which have always been about “a level playing field where individuals can compete unhindered by obstacles” and in which “education has served as the main mechanism for leveling the field,” European countries “focus on group inequality and the collective mitigation of handicaps and risks that, in the United States, have been left for individuals to deal with on their own.”

Rather than building a social safety net, we built schools, confident that education — along with American virtues of thrift, hard work, and ingenuity — are the most viable escape from poverty and hardship.

In other words, if ed reformers oversold what schools can do, their arguments fell on receptive ears.


All of this supports Kralovec’s argument: by doing too much, schools do little well.  It’s time, Kralovec argues, to rethink our educational goals and to carefully examine what we devote precious time and money to.

What should we do?  Get engaged, says Kralovec.  Attend school board meetings.  Review the budget. Ask to see how much money is spent on competitive sports.  Then ask, how does this money support the goals and mission of the school?

After all, how many students really do play sports?  I don’t think I realized until I became a teacher how few students continue playing competitive sports all the way through high school.  Where I work, by roughly tenth grade, the middle class kids are well on their way to captaining sports teams, padding their college resumes, and being applauded at state championships and at sports banquets.  Meanwhile, the poorer kids are turning in their cleats and jerseys for a 3-9 shift at Shaw’s bagging groceries. They’re not gearing up for the college admissions arms race, and they’d rather have a car than a high batting average.

But sports are expensive.  I looked at the budget for one central Vermont high school.  They spent $741,000 on co-curricular activities. That’s $1,000 per student!  That’s also more money than is spent on Social Studies ($647,279).  Of that money, about $608,000 was spent on sports alone.  Now, add in the $518,983 spent on P.E. and you’ve got $1,126,719.  That’s about 8% of the total school budget. How many kids are actually playing sports?  What’s the cost per student? These are good questions to ask.

And what about the educational value of sports?  This question is raised every year by students I teach who ask, “Why do I still have to take PE classes if I play three sports a year?  Can’t I get PE credit for being on the soccer team?”

This question pits a district’s PE goals, which usually include building habits of lifelong health and wellness, against a competitive sport’s, which are not subject to local or state educational standards.  When was the last time anyone even had a conversation about the learning goals of our sports programs? Where would that even happen?

Here’s how I see it.  I think we view competitive sports as merely an extension of the PE department, although not graded, and not supervised directly by PE teachers.  Sports are enrichment, let’s say — the way the debate team is enrichment. You must take a minimum number of PE classes, then sports exist if you want to further your physical education.  

Fine.  But let’s take a hard look at what that says.  We know that sports often dictate schools’ use of time.  The firmest argument always given to starting and ending school when we do, which we know is developmentally too early for teenagers, is because of sports commitments.  Not to mention all the kids who miss class because of away games. Think about that: Our entire school schedule is dictated in large part by the enrichment activities of one department, paid and administered by the school, but run largely outside of the dictates of local educational standards by coaches who are not required to be licensed educators.  Every school in America does this. When you walk into most schools you see a trophy case full of sports awards, not academic celebrations. It’s interesting to think about.

Also interesting is the surprising extent to which high school sports are already being run by non-school organizations.  Travel soccer teams and AAU basketball teams are more and more common. A few years ago I was taken aback to hear high school students in my class discussing how inferior the play was on the school’s varsity team than on their privately-run travel team.  Perhaps, in the way that other after-school programs are often outsourced to community organizations, someday sports will follow suit. This is what Kralovec advocates.

That said, I don’t see it.  For better or worse, sports are important PR for schools.  They’re a way for the community to feel pride in an institution.  They’re also a powerful “recruiting” tool: many are the young men whose primary attachment to the school is their sense of accomplishment on the football team, their feeling of belonging on the basketball court.  Once a week in the fall they get to wear their game jersey in the halls and feel like a conquering hero, not a remedial math student. There’s a reason most high schools have “spirit weeks” and a reason so many of them train in on sports-centered pep rallies: social climate is important in schools, and sports are a great way to foster pride and connection to the school among students and community members.  Could we accomplish this sense of belonging in other ways in schools? Perhaps. But sports have grown into that space so fully that it’s hard to imagine schools without them.

Schools That Do Too Much asks important questions about values.  What do we spend our time on? What do we spend our money on?  What should be the focus on a school? How much should schools take on given their limited time and money?  Where does this need to take on so much, including competitive sports, come from, historically?

It’s a great read that’ll make you think. I highly recommend it.