Amanda Ripley is an investigative journalist and author of “The Smartest Kids in the World,” her attempt to understand why so many other nations do a better job of educating their children than America does. One of the reasons, she concludes, is the inordinate emphasis on sports and athletics in America’s schools.

To drive home that point, she recounts the story of one student, Tom, a high school student from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he attends Gettysburg High. Tom decides to spend his senior year studying abroad in Wroclaw, Poland. At least as measured by standardized test scores, Poland is a success story. Over the past ten years, Polish students have moved from scoring below average to scoring well above average (and higher than American students)—and they’ve done this even though Poland spends on average less than half as much per student as the United States.

What Tom finds in the high school he attends in Poland is something of an alien landscape, a culture in which educational attainment is valued above all else, and sports, at least those sponsored by and paid for by his school, are non-existent. There’s no football team, or soccer team, or any kind of team. The only sports students play are the ones they organize themselves. No one gets out of class early to participate in a game. No teachers divide their time between the classroom and coaching responsibilities, and no students divide theirs between playing and learning.

For Tom, the change is dramatic. As Ripley writes, sports had been “the core culture at Gettysburg High.” In Poland, by contrast, “there was no confusion about what school was for—or what mattered to the kids’ ‘life chances.’”

America Is Not Poland—Or Finland, Or South Korea

What Ripley found in Poland and the other countries she visited in researching her book is not all positive, however. In Finland—another country whose students perform significantly better in math and science than their American counterparts—Ripley tells the story of another study abroad student, Kim. A 15-year old from Oklahoma, what Kim expects to find in Finland (“a snow-castle country with white nights and strong coffee”) is very different from what she actually finds:

“Instead, what she finds is a trudge through the cold dark, to a dingy school with desks in rows and an old-fashioned chalkboard — not an iPad or interactive whiteboard in sight.”

Other students in other countries have similarly jarring experiences. Eric, a high school student who attends an “excellent public school” in Minnesota, is shocked at what he finds when he begins attending a high school in South Korea. Fellow students are sleeping in class, and are not reprimanded for doing so. Some are even wearing small pillows on their wrists to make their in-class dozing sessions more comfortable. Eric soon discovers the reason for the napping ritual: these students have been up all-night studying at “hagwons,” the cram schools where South Korean students are really educated.

So, What’s the Answer?

What constitutes a “well-rounded” education varies from one school, or for that matter, one country to another, and many educators argue that participation in sports helps students learn important values, like collaboration, teamwork and fair play. Some also argue that playing sports not only doesn’t detract from academic performance—it actually improves it. That’s the conclusion of a recent University of Kansas study, which found a statistically significant correlation between participation in interscholastic high school athletics and “positive educational outcomes.”

Of course, the fact that there’s a correlation between playing sports and doing well in the classroom does not necessarily mean that a causal relationship exists. It’s also possible that the kind of ambition which drives students to excel in sports also motivates them to work hard at their studies. More importantly, it’s hard to argue in favor of schools which allocate substantial dollars to subsidize athletics while simultaneously eliminating music and art programs, pushing ever more students into already-crowded classrooms, and creating “one-size-fits-all” curricula.

Conclusion

In the final analysis, it’s a question of what kind of education parents want for their sons and daughters. While the kinds of rigid academic programming one finds in Finland, South Korea and Japan (among other countries) probably wouldn’t work in an American context, the emphasis many American schools place on sports often detracts from the arguably far more important educational goals which are their reason for being.

At the Tenney School, we are committed to creating the kind of learning environment that contributes to strong educational outcomes. To learn more about the ways our personalized curriculum and ability to work at the pace you find most comfortable can help you achieve your educational goals, contact us today.