arne duncan

It's a Slam Dunc’an


Okay, the title might be hokey, but this is perhaps the most simple lesson plan for the U.S. Secretary of Education Duncan:  if we are going to address dropout rates in schools, Race to the Top, No Child Left Behind, and education reform in general, we need to address the role that sports play in motivating children to succeed academically. No doubt Secretary Duncan has a challenging job in trying to reform public schools where the dropout rate is above 50% in many urban communities and hovers around 30% nationwide. Yet, the Secretary, himself, knows the power of sports. He played basketball, coached basketball, and was an all-American in basketball at Harvard.  In fact, he credits basketball for providing him his team-oriented and highly disciplined work ethic.  So, Secretary, why not make basketball part of your own lesson plan for education reform?

We know that students who play sports are more likely to have better grades, higher educational aspirations and advanced educational achievement beyond high school.  We also know that they are absent from school half as much as non-athletes, they get in less trouble, and they pay more attention in class.   One study has shown that student athletes are eight-times more likely to graduate than non-athletes.   Yet, despite this, public school districts have cut $3.5 billion from their school athletic budgets. We are not only losing athletes through these cuts, we're losing the students themselves.

I propose we launch Sports Empowerment Zones.  The Zones would target schools that are failing the most.  Instead of trying the same-old formulas for educational reform, what we will do is gather sports-based youth development programs to rally around these zones. We will challenge every student to sign up for at least two teams per year, whether it be baseball, basketball, swimming, track, lacrosse or biking. We will engage parents not to come out to hear if their kid “is failing or not” but to come out and cheer for their kid at a game or a competition or a race. We will engage the local police to ensure that the school grounds are safe throughout the extended day.  We will train the coaches to talk to their players about academic goal setting, health, wellness, and gang prevention.

And most importantly, we will use the joy of sports to attract kids to attend school more often and to set aspirations for themselves that use the values they learn as athletes on and off the field.  Sports Empowerment Zones will do more to turn around the dropout rate than any other education reform currently available.  They will also be cost-effective for us getting real results in our failing schools.

So next time you pass by a failing school, just imagine what it might look like to see a sign “You are Entering A Sports Empowerment Zone” and then see that school surrounded by kids with their coaches.  All of us, from sports program leaders to school administrators to parents, must advocate for sports in our community if we are to achieve these results.  Secretary Duncan certainly gets the value of sports in his life.  Let's remind him and our local school administrators the value it can have on the lives of so many other students as well.

Paul Caccamo Executive Director