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'Absent From Class'


Will Fitzhugh, the founder and president of the Concord Review, a journal of academic writing by high school students, has written a thought-provoking essay, "Absent From Class," for edweek.org that poses the question: Why do so many of our high school students do so little work?

This, of course, is a question educators have been asking for years. But what was especially interesting about Fitzhugh's essay was how he contrasted the high levels of motivation today's high school students show in sports and other extracurricular activities versus the disturbingly low levels of motivation they have for academic work.

"I cannot think of a single high school sport that asks for only three or four hours a week of practice," Fitzhugh writes, citing a study indicating that only half of high school students spend more than 3-4 hours a week on homework. "So little time spent preparing would easily lead to an athletic failure to match the academic failure of so many of our students."

Fitzhugh's contrasting of motivation in sports versus academics raises some important questions and might point educators in the direction of figuring out how to get students more motivated to learn traditional academics.

But as a longtime youth sports coach who is now coaching high school boys in lacrosse, I am not convinced that today's high school athlete is as highly motivated as Fitzhugh suggests. In fact, at times, they seem much less motivated than athletes of a generation ago. Some high school coaches I know have said that this generation simply has too many choices or distractions--and, hence, they have trouble focusing their efforts. Other coaches have seen a sense of entitlement among today's teenagers, an attitude that they should be given special treatment regardless of how hard they work or whether they are willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the team.

So let the debate begin...What must be done to get today's high school students more motivated? And do high school sports provide a model for figuring out how to motivate today's teenagers to perform better in their classes?


It's really simple:

Young people choose the sports the play. They are there because they want to be there. From practicing, they get the real-world pay off of taking part in a game.

Contrast that with school. The student doesn't get to choose the curriculum, classes she has to take, assignments she has to complete, ect. She is there because she has to be there. Furthermore, the assignments are often unconnected to the real world, they is no perceived pay off.

Personalize education. Take students out of the classroom and put them in the real world: apprenticeships, volunteers, interships alongside accomplished adults. Give students the choice of what they want to study.

It's that simple.


Well, I don't think it's really that simple. But it's a very interesting question. One that takes a whole lot more thought than whether or not NCLB has been a boon or a detriment to the whole student.

Somehow, I doubt that the time put in for athletics is much more than that put in for most other extra-curricular activities such as chess, school plays, band, etc.

As such, the question then becomes whether or not to use these pursuits as a hedge to do better in traditional academics, or to allow students to pursue these narrow interests irrespective of their academic achievements.

As an athletic coach, I believe that most students should be able to pursue their interests regardless of their performance in the classroom, with some basic qualifications of course. For many, if it weren't for athletics, they wouldn't stay in school to begin with.

But I don't believe that is an absolute. For some, there is no way they would stay in school unless they could play sports, so they do enough to pass in order to stay eligible to play, and thus gain the high school diploma they otherwise would never have attained. For others, taking away their athletics because of poor academic performance gives them no reason to come to school anymore and they drop out. It is a delicate balance that only attuned coaches really can assess and respond to. Unfortunately, as we see time and again, not all coaches are so student-oriented. Many times, winning trumps all things academic. Better vetting of coaches would be the best idea, but successful athletic teams bring a lot of money to otherwise academic institutions and make that a dubious proposition, to say the least.

I would be willing to listen to any and all ideas about how to balance the academic interests of students with their desire to pursue the athletics of their choice, without subverting one to the other, and in a way that provides a balance between those who need the incentive of playing to perform academically, and those who will do the academics only if they get to play.

The idea of too many choices and distractions is an interesting one. When we think of our children, it's hard to understand this new generation's ability to multitask and multi-think. I think we would have a much more effective educational system if we could learn to incorporate multiple subjects and learning opportunities. Why do we still have single subject classes that work irrespective of one another? The same can be asked of sports. What if we incorporated physics into football? Logic and strategy into basketball? I think the future brings more and more layers and less time to choose between activities and opportunities. We need to change with our world and incorporate multiple subjects and lessons into a variety of teaching opportunities.

What a timely topic, not only because this is the beginning of a new school year, but also because this debate repeats itself annually.

My husband has been in education for the past 34 years, either as an administrator or in the classroom. His solution to this debate is to HONOR classtime as academic and extracurricular activites as just that, time given OUTSIDE designated school hours. If students, coaches, sponsors, administration, and most importantly, parents, would recognize the importance of uninterrupted classes as well as class attendance, teachers could concentrate on the lessons at hand rather than the catch-up teaching students have missed.

Isn't the word 'student' used in an interesting way in this discussion? By definition a student is a "person studying: somebody who is studying at a school, college, or university" or a
"knowledgeable or interested person: somebody who has studied or takes a great interest in a particular subject" or, when used as an adjective as "in training for a job: studying as part of the training for a job or profession"

I do believe in development of the whole person. We are complex and find many areas of interest, however, I would ask how many of the kids involved in sports will go on to become professionals and earn a living this way? The answer is minimal at best. Do we think about this future at the Friday night football or basketball game? At the Saturday soccer match? I wonder.

I do believe sports, as well as other extracurricular activities, can do much to promote some of the necessary attributes to life success; pursuing goals, endurance, learning defeat, achievement, fairness, and many others. My question is: why aren't these positives being connected and supported to carry over into classroom success?

My hope is that this division will find common ground for the good of all our kids.

Come on...we're beating around the bush here.

School is boring.

Give kids the freedom to study subjects that interest them....connect them with adult mentors in the wider community...give them adult responsibilities. If you look at just about any Nobel prize winner, you'll find that they spent their young lives in "nontraditional" academic environments similar to the one mentioned above.

When you treat young adults like babies, they act out or tune out. You would do the same if someone tried to micromanage your life.

Education is much more than just preparing oneself for a job (though one might never know that with the outsized influence business has on the system).

Education provides access to various experiences that one might use to advance themselves personally or just to enjoy the various things we can do in our lives.

In that sense, while most athletic participants won't become professionals, besides learning the life lessons that go with athletic participation, they are acquiring skills and knowledge of athletics they can enjoy for a lifetime. And should we lesson the importance of say, physics, just because the vast majority of students who take physics probably won't become physicists?

Students never know what they will be doing or enjoying in the future, but if they don't experience it now, we know what they WON'T be doing.

As a coach, I object to using sports as a crutch to perform better in the classroom. My instruction has value independent of other classes and shouldn't be subservient to any of them.

I do, however, believe in some standards for participation and recognize that interscholastic sports and other athletic enrichment activities are after school and thus have an element of privilege to them that day school doesn't.

The question I am still looking for an answer to after many years is, specifically, what policies can we propose to connect the two without hurting either one.

If ALL kids were forced to play football, no one would enjoy it.

When you treat all people the same and force people to do things they don't want to do...they resist...making life miserable for everyone.

This is simple, obvious stuff and yet we do it in schools every day.

We force all kids to take classes they don't want to take.

Give kids the responsibility of choosing their own studies.

Sport, is just that, sport. There is a significant difference between school and sport. Sport is for fun, for interest, for expanding and enriching one's interactions.

Education is for life. It should be the primary focus of our elementary, middle and high school educations. Utilizing every moment of a scheduled school day for education is essential. I have no problem, with then leaving it in the classroom to head out for "sport".

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • AEVelder: Sport, is just that, sport. There is a significant difference read more
  • Matt: If ALL kids were forced to play football, no one read more
  • Jason Norman, Teacher: Education is much more than just preparing oneself for a read more
  • Matt: Come on...we're beating around the bush here. School is boring. read more
  • Katie Beatty, children's writer: What a timely topic, not only because this is the read more




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