From Thinking Outside the Boxe’s London Correspondent
In March 2011, Gov. Rick Perry announced that over 100,000 teachers at Texas public schools would lose their jobs due to budget cuts. Similar cases have been occurring all over the United States, from California to New York City, as many school districts struggle to make ends meet. There’s no doubt that these cuts negatively affect the school system as a whole: as schools fire talented, experienced teachers in favor of cheaper, less experienced individuals, students lose out on these teachers’ expertise, and particularly talented individuals will be more reluctant to join the profession in the future. Yet while many qualified teachers find themselves out of a job, school districts continue to fund non-academic programs, like athletics, band and theater. How can these programs be more valuable to a school than the knowledge and skill of a talented teacher?
Many critics of the latest budget cuts argue that the U.S. school system is crippling itself and jeopardizing its students’ futures by allowing frivolous programs to continue while test scores remain poor and needed expertise is being thrown away. However, although schools should focus on the key areas first and ensure that students receive sufficient resources in English, math and the sciences, non-academic activities such as sports and the arts should not be dismissed. All are necessary to provide a school environment that mentally prepares America’s young people for the life that they will face once they’ve donned their cap and gown, and so none can be dismissed as “useless” and tossed under a bus in order to save the mass of qualified teachers under attack.
Education in schools is first and foremost about academics. The United States is already lagging behind other developed nations, ranking 14th in reading, 25th in math and 17th in science out of the 34 OECD countries in education standards according to a survey by the Program for International Student Assessment in 2010. Critics of current education standards in the U.S. point out that if our students do not even master basic reading, writing and mathematic skills, the U.S. cannot hope to maintain its standing as the world’s superpower in terms of economics, global influence and innovation. Obviously, the first step to providing students with a good quality education is ensuring that talented and highly knowledgeable teachers are available.
However, the assistance cannot end there. According to a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, physical activity in schools provided by sports programs, increases students’ concentration levels, attention spans and sense of community. Not only do these activities allow students to get more out of their lessons, as they can concentrate on work for longer periods of time, but they also encourage more students to attend school in the first place, as they develop a sense of belonging. No student will learn anything if they are never present on the school grounds, and activities that cater towards their specific interests and talents, such as sport teams, band and theater groups, encourage those who are not academically inclined to think of their education in a more positive light and turn up to classes on a more regular basis.
The inclusion of sports and music programs in schools also guarantees a better future for students than if they have only focused on passing aptitude tests during their school career. Psychological studies have suggested that physical exercise reduces the likelihood of suffering from anxiety and depression, mental health issues that currently affect approximately 30% of people in the U.S. during their lifetimes, and which cost the U.S. economy $31 billion in lost productivity every year, according to National Mental Health America. Considering the growing obesity rates in the United States, with 1/3 of U.S. adults now considered obese according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sports programs are also vital to teaching young people about the enjoyable side of exercise and establishing it as part of their daily routine. Perhaps even more importantly, from the short-term perspective, students who take part in extracurricular school activities such as sport and music are also more likely to be accepted to top colleges than those who only focus on academics, with varsity athletes being 4 times more likely to be accepted to an elite college than a non-athlete. A study reported in the Phi Delta Kappan even suggested that musicians were more likely to be admitted to medical school than those who are straight scientists: while 66% of music majors in the study were admitted, the highest success rate of any group, only 44% of biochemistry majors were successful.
Even more damning to the perspective that “music and sport are useless” are studies suggesting that these activities have a direct positive effect on student’s math skills. Students who participate in sport demonstrate higher problem solving abilities, while musicians showed enhanced learning of proportional math, according to a study in Neurological Research. Meanwhile, a study by the College Entrance Examination Board in 2001 found that musicians scored 56 points higher on the verbal section of the SAT and 41 points higher on the math section, compared with those who had not studied music.
Clearly, schools should encourage participation in these extracurricular activities as much as possible. But what about the teachers who are losing their jobs? Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly cut teachers are not those in core subjects, but those in areas that are considered supplementary, including those in sports and the arts. In fact, as a result of No Child Left Behind, SURRs, or Schools Under Registration Review, are often forced to cut their arts, music and gym programs in order to focus their budget on the failing core curriculum. Yet considering the significance of these “supplementary” programs for children’s intellectual, interpersonal and emotional development, cutting these programs will not improve standards in schools.
Steps should be taken to ensure that schools are not firing well-trained, quality teachers and jeopardizing students’ chances at mastering the core curriculum; students are going to do better in Math if they have a competent teacher than if they just practice music all day, regardless of the positive impact that these activities can have. However, once these fundamentals have been established, schools must offer additional activities, such as sport and music, to cater for students with a variety of talents and make school enriching and fulfilling for all.