Raised GPA rule can’t fix systemic problem

Published 8:33 am Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The issue about an academic threshold required to participate in extracurricular activities is not as simple as it first seems, in my opinion. Part of the difficulty in addressing this issue is that many of us who see a need to raise academic standards want to see something being done about it right away — something that’s easy to see and quantify — because needed changes are so long overdue.

So I wrote an argument in favor of raising the academic standard required for participation in sports. But, then with second thoughts, I wrote an argument that sets a particular academic threshold to the side, favoring a larger picture that is not receiving enough attention. What follows next is my initial argument, followed by my subsequent thoughts about the issue and placing it in a larger context.

My initial response: If the purpose of education is to prepare children for happiness and success as adults in the future — adults who can obtain, be trained, and keep a good job and who can protect themselves against predatory relationships, marketing schemes and politics — then our schools are obliged to place academic and behavioral standards upon students now that will best prepare them for such a future.

The dispute regarding a required academic threshold to play sports in our schools is focused on the wrong point in time if we are primarily concerned about the best interests of the affected students in the here and now, with consideration to their well-being and even a motivation to come to school at all. This parallels other myopic trends all across our nation to satisfy immediate wants over what is best for the long haul.

If students are coming to school just so that they can play sports, then they are coming for the wrong reason. And don’t we have laws that say what the obligations of students, their parents and a school system are regarding attending to a proper education? Does the law require participation in sports?

Having been a great football player on a championship team in school will have little, if any, real value 10 years from now in the face of a complexity of adult challenges that involve reading comprehension, research skills, analytical skills, oral communication skills and the like.

And my subsequent thinking:

There are many who care deeply about furthering the interests of education. However, by nature we all are eager to pluck the low-hanging fruit and see some immediate results — or at least feel as if we are actually doing something to improve things. Unfortunately, the needs for change and improvement are vast, systemic (therefore interrelated) and complex, and at times it may be a mistake to tweak one tiny part of it outside a comprehensive approach to the larger problem. This could be such a time.

The way I see it, we have been allowing some youngsters to “get by” with insufficient academic and behavioral standards (and support) for many years, and then all of a sudden in their junior or senior year we tell them they can’t participate in the one activity that for some of them is the only thing they can feel truly successful at because they are not performing better academically than we have been allowing them to all along.

It would be one thing if athletic experiences were of little value, but that is certainly not the case, in my opinion. As Sam Jones, Franklin High School principal, suggested, there are important, lifelong attributes that can be developed under proper coaching, such as self-discipline, interdependent teamwork and cooperation, leadership, “maturity,” professionalism, perseverance, self-restraint, goal-setting and follow-through, attention to detail, handling failure in a healthy way, following directions, foresight and planning — even applied physics such as leverage, vector analysis and inertia.

I will be among the first to insist that we must raise the bar (behaviorally, as well as academically), but we must begin doing that much earlier in the process and in a concerted, uniform way as well.

Short of that, I believe School Board member Johnetta Nichols has offered a good interim idea: Let’s require students who want to participate in extracurricular activities and whose GPA falls below a certain point to attend and take seriously a study hall with tutoring available but let them benefit from the extracurricular activity.

If they waste the opportunity to try to improve their academic performance, then deny them the extracurricular activity.

The “dumbing down” of behavioral and academic standards for children begins in the pre-school years, is exacerbated in each subsequent year and is a tragedy contributed to by the entire community in one way or another. Before raising a GPA threshold to play sports, we should be asking our best teachers about the problems they face every day in the classroom regarding behavioral and academic standards. We may find that arbitrarily raising the GPA threshold to some higher level to play ball will not even begin to accomplish what is needed.

HOWIE SOUCEK is human resources manager for Manry-Rawls Insurance in Franklin and author of “Notes on Education.” His e-mail address is hownester@charter.net.