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School Academic Success and Athletic Commitment Boost Each Other, Study Finds

Guest blog by Bryan Toporek. Cross-posted from Schooled in Sports.

High schools that succeed athletically are not necessarily punting on their academic success, according to an analysis published recently in the Journal of Research in Education.

As it turns out, academic and athletic success may actually be correlated. The authors found that schools which emphasize athletic success and participation also tended to have higher scores on standardized tests and higher graduation rates.

The authors, Jay P. Greene, the head of the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas, and Daniel H. Bowen, a distinguished doctoral fellow of education policy at the university, set out to investigate the link between athletic success and academic success in Ohio high schools.

They weren't initially sure what they'd find. In the introduction of the analysis, the authors theorize that "producing success in one arena" (athletics) might cause a reduced "investment in success in another" (academics). However, they also suggest "the potential for synergies in education," with athletics being able to teach students skills such as self-discipline.

As it turns out, the latter theory appears to be more on target.

The authors examined data from 657 public high schools in Ohio over a five-year span and found that "a school's commitment to athletics is positively related to academic success," according to the analysis. A 10 percentage point increase in a school's overall winning percentage was associated with a 1.3 percentage point increase in an estimate of its high school graduation rate.

Football produced the largest impact of any sport, but each sport analyzed "independently produces a positive, significant effect," the authors found.

The number of sports that each high school offers also appeared to have an effect on academic success. The estimated graduation rate of a high school rose by 0.3 percentage points for every new sport added.

Athletic success also appeared to be correlated with academic proficiency. Increasing a school's overall winning percentage by 10 percentage points was associated with a 0.25 percentage point increase in the number of students achieving academic proficiency or better. Adding one sport increased the number of students reaching academic proficiency by 0.2 of a percentage point, the authors found.

They note in the introduction that previous research has suggested a link between athletic participation and academic success in individual students, but their work aimed to determine the effect of high school athletics on academic success for those who don't participate, also.

"Based on these analyses of Ohio high schools, it appears that there is no necessary trade-off between emphasizing high school athletics and producing academic success," the authors conclude.

They stress, however, that they're not definitively suggesting a causal relationship between success in high school athletics and academics. They allow the possibility that schools with "larger and more successful athletic programs" could have "some other quality that is actually the cause of their academic success," such as organizational competence or effective school leadership.

The authors call for further research into determining whether there is a causal relationship between athletic and academic success. Still, they're confident enough to say, based on their findings, that "winning on the field and winning in the classroom tend to go hand in hand."

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