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Why Treat Jocks and Nerds Differently?

The start of the fall semester is a propitious time to examine the claims made by school officials across the country about the importance of academics. Despite their insistence, athletics continue to receive far too much attention in my opinion. I'm not talking about physical education, which I think is vital, but about interscholastic sports ("Classes come first, but schools must add more physical activity," The Boston Globe, Oct. 2, 2011).

I was reminded of the disparity after receiving an essay submitted for publication by John Richard Schrock, a professor from Kansas who trains biology teachers in China ("Sports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," Aug. 17). Schrock correctly notes that in too many districts in the U.S. "it is not the loss of the high school as a center of academics, but the loss of high school sports that brings the communities grief." He refers to what is taking place as a "jockocracy."

The Los Angeles Unified School District is a good example. It is known as the Rodney Dangerfield of California because it never seems to get any respect, even though it has won the national Academic Decathlon competition 11 times since 1987 - more than any other school district in the country. You'd think that this achievement would be given the publicity it deserves in today's accountability movement. But it is little noted and quickly forgotten. Sports, on the other hand, consistently are in the spotlight.

I have nothing against sports, particularly today when so many students are obese. I'm also aware of the argument that sports keep students from dropping out. But their place in the curriculum is way out of proportion. It's time to admit that athletics have no academic purpose. They can boost school spirit and provide other benefits, but I'd much prefer to see students turn out for academic decathlons than cheer for sports teams.

There is a glimmer of hope along this line in the LAUSD. Academic coaches there seek to identify and nurture talent in the same way that athletic coaches have done for generations. Just as athletes willingly spend hours during vacations and weekends practicing their skills, so too do decathlon candidates. In many cases, they devote about 300 hours preparing for the decathlon season.

Perhaps when pressure on schools increases enough, priorities will change. No other country places so much importance on athletics to the detriment of academics.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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