LSJ Opinion

Are schools placing athletics above academics?

The graduation season is almost over. I have already attended four graduations events with three more to go.

I am also scheduled to speak at one. Graduation ceremonies offer some of the only opportunities to see the best students. In high school graduations, the valedictorian sometimes speaks and the honor students’ have a special sign by their names in programs. A few scholars are recognized.

But the rest of names are simply read. That’s all as far as student academic validation is presented to the parents and public. You would not know who these high academic achievers are unless you attended the ceremony.

By contrast, if you have been paying attention the newspapers, many editions have published pictures of students signing “letters of intent to play” a certain sport at a specific college or university. These athletes are surrounded by their parents and siblings, their high school coaches and their college coach.

Everyone reads about them and knows them and their families by names. Publicity about athletics is a big deal, especially when compared to the timidity of spreading the word about student academic triumphs. This high tribute for athletics becomes even bigger in college.

In the U.S. educational environment, we recognize and publicize more about athletics than academics. When walking in the halls of most high schools around here, you are overwhelmed by the pictures of student athletes hanging on the walls.

Multiple trophies are displayed in showcases. Curiously, no single artifact represents most academic achievers. No one knows about the geniuses in math or science. But educators in the building make sure that everyone knows who the quarterback is.

As a soccer referee moving all over urban, suburban and some rural high schools, I have had the opportunity to talk to numerous coaches and players about their teams’ motivations to win. On top of their list was the time the day after a game that a school administrator would freely interrupt classroom instruction to announce scores via the building intercom. Again, in the same building, the academic achievement of students is placed in the back burner.

In my days as administrator of international studies at a local district, I chaperoned students on a field trip to the south of France. Many of my relatives living in Aix-en-Provence helped me with trip preparations. The trip schedule included some tourism. Students lived in host families to experience local cultures and to practice their French in a non-academic setting.

Most importantly, my Kansas City students attended two full weeks of high school education at Lycée Emile Zola, along with their assigned French peers. Their biggest surprise was how much importance was placed on academics.

Our students attended an assembly during which the top academic achievers, students of the month, were introduced and recognized. Then their giant pictures were displayed on the walls of the school for the rest of that month until the next selection. At the same time, the local newspaper published their pictures and names for public recognition. Although the school schedule was overwhelming to our students, the learning was intense and rewarding, making the remaining tourism part of the trip even more enjoyable.

Our students also came back with the awareness that the International Baccalaureate or was the norm in this system and not an optional program for a few students. Everyone is an IB student. The national IB test is not inexpensive to create or administer. At the conclusion of the senior year, each student must take and pass the baccalauréat that qualifies them for university admission.

Next week, I’ll address the results of the 2016 Program for International Student Assessment, and what experts think can be done about the low performance of U.S. students when compared to their international peers.