Zero tolerance policy on academic eligibility for athletics is out of step with science, law
Change is long overdue for the academic eligibility requirements governing high school athletics.
As established by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association and reinforced by more punitive policies in districts including Cambridge, interscholastic competition is prohibited for students whose academic performance falls beneath a specific threshold.
The resulting automatic suspension contradicts recent research. It also counters the spirit of state law, which prohibits districts from “zero tolerance” policies and automatic school suspensions.
While no doubt intended as supportive and motivating, automatic suspension from sports far too often is experienced as punitive, exclusionary and humiliating and leads to further student disengagement. It’s a scenario recounted time and again by Cambridge Rindge and Latin School parents and athletes.
Yet in the vast majority of cases athletics generally is not the cause of a student’s academic challenges. While there are studies showing eligibility requirements have motivated some students to engage better in academics, there is also evidence that reengagement is often seasonal (for instance, of basketball players disengaging in the spring, once the season is over).
Here are more reasons for a policy change:
Athletics are a vehicle for social and emotional learning. Schools are increasingly embracing responsibility for development of the whole child, and social and emotional learning standards and instructional practices have been adopted at district and state levels – including at Cambridge Public Schools. These decisions are based on recent brain science, psychology and research showing a link between social and emotional learning and academic performance. Bodies governing youth sports associations as well as our CRLS high school athletics program agree that the primary purpose of high school athletics is educative and to support social skills development, and winning is secondary. Athletics participation is less and less considered a privilege, an incentive or a reward. Yet current eligibility policies contradict this. It’s especially disheartening that Cambridge Public Schools have adopted an even more regressive standard than the state.
Change in school suspension law. Massachusetts enacted a law in 2014 prohibiting automatic student suspensions from public schools. The law requires that students get the same kind of due process that’s guaranteed by our wider judicial system and democracy, and that a hearing with the student be held to determine a strategy to address underlying issues and ensure that schools better fulfill their educational mandate. It is also consistent with restorative justice theory and associated practices that are increasingly embraced in Cambridge, across the state and nationally. This change in law was sparked in part by research finding that “zero tolerance” school discipline policies and practices were too often counterproductive and disproportionately affected students of color and students with disabilities.
Leaving the industrial revolution behind. Despite considerable progress in recent years by youth sports organizations, coaches and school athletic leaders, sports are still clearly not treated as educational in the policy domain. The separation of athletics from education was influenced largely by late 19th and early 20th century needs to place certain students in factories and farms. There was a common belief that professions requiring physical labor best draw on academically lower-performing students (of lower class and economic status) and that these students would benefit from participation in sports as a means to instill discipline and submission to authority. While such rationale and goals are dated, many districts still place athletics under an “operations” department or district chief operating officer instead of within a curriculum and instruction department. As a result, non-educators often have authority over athletics budgets, policies and hiring. A dramatic exception is within the Boston Public Schools, where last year athletics were shifted from supervision by the chief of operations to the deputy superintendent of academic and student support services and within the department of Social Emotional Learning and Wellness. Athletics is now explicitly an educational endeavor, supporting the Boston district’s “whole child” approach to learning.
Athletics as a dated motivational lever for attending school. Many cling to the notion advanced in the 1980s that certain students lack educational aptitude or come from a family or cultural tradition that doesn’t value scholarship, and that sports provides the most meaningful hook to keep them in school. This mindset remains a leading argument for retaining academic eligibility requirements. Putting aside the cynicism of this position – that teachers are unable to create engaging and relevant instructional settings – it is simply not the case that most students who struggle academically and fail to meet eligibility requirements are motivated to attend school to they can engage in sports.
Impact of fitness and aerobic exercise on cognition. The positive correlation between aerobic exercise and academic performance is established science. It’s contradictory to deprive a student who is struggling academically from exercise opportunities. If anything, a strategy to support academically underperforming students would ensure athletic and fitness opportunities proceed unimpeded or are even stepped up. Athletics should be considered as an important strategy option for improving a student’s engagement, self-concept and competence to perform academically.
Though well-intended, the policies are a travesty, applying inappropriate and unjust consequences to too many students in Cambridge for too many years. Continuing to allow such injustice to persist compromises the integrity of the high school, the district and public trust in the district. Cambridge should abolish its punitive policy and advocate for reform at the state level.
Larry Childs is former president of Friends of Cambridge Athletics and a former parent of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School athletes.