The Madison Metropolitan School District is the latest to engage in the discussion on the academic benefits of athletic participation.

The district may be the latest, but it’s certainly not the first, and it won’t be the last either, especially in today’s world where schools are required to do more with less money.

The debate whether the academic performance of those who participate in co-curricular activities, be it sports or fine arts, is not a new one. Studies, with conflicting evidence, have been published dating back to the 1930s and 1940s.

In May 2013, Luke Francois was awarded his Doctor of Education degree by Edgewood College. As former Athletic Director at Middleton High School, and current Superintendent at Mineral Point, Francois was especially interested in the relationship between athletics and academics and crafted his dissertation entitled “The Effect of Interscholastic Athletic Participation on Academic Achievement for Students in One Rural High School in Wisconsin.”

The purpose of the study was to determine whether or not a significant difference existed in the overall academic performance of athletes when compared to non-athletes.

The study was important to the field of educational leadership because, in the current environment of accountability, educational leaders need to be highly responsible in the area of student achievement.

When allocating resources, administrators and school boards must make difficult fiscal choices between what the school organization needs, such as building maintenance and instructional materials, and what it wants, such as vibrant co-curricular programs that support academic achievement.

Since 1895, the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) has been overseeing athletic programs for schools across the state and asserts the position that activities and athletics are part of a total educational experience. Francois was elected to the WIAA Board of Control in April 2015.

Nearly a decade ago now, the Green Bay Area School District conducted a study and concluded that participation in interscholastic athletics was more than simply attempting to boost academic achievement and the result was a decision to increase the school budget by $217,000 for co-curricular activities alone. Some reasoning included, “It is essential that districts maintain the current student base and attract other students and their families…Athletics play an important role in the health and success of a school district. School districts with excellent athletic programs are intentional and deliberate about remaining successful and strive for excellence in everything they do.”

The Case for High School Activities published by the North Carolina Athletic Association reiterated many of Green Bays findings and mentioned additional aspects including: Development of leadership skills, teamwork, discipline, perseverance; Increased goal orientation, desire to comply with codes, sense of direction, purpose; Ability to deal effectively with pressure while winning and losing with grace.

The cost to run athletic programs can sometimes appear high, but the National Federation of State High School Associations contends that high school activity programs are a bargain and cites that, even in large school districts, athletic budgets make up less than one percent of the total district budget.

However, all money is valuable and the cost of a robust athletic program must be weighed against the funding needed to meet an era of educational accountability standards. This becomes increasingly difficult when significant cuts are being made to education funding. Increased accountability means an increased demand for available resources. This means every dollar will be scrutinized more now than in the past. This means taxpayers are holding school boards and administrators accountable for justifying the cost of all programs to ensure dollars actually spent make a significant contribution to the overall academic success of students.

It might be argued that a casual relationship between an athlete and overall academic performance may exist because coaches act as additional academic counselors monitoring their students’ grades, attendance, and behavior. Furthermore, high schools in the state of Wisconsin are mandated to have a code of conduct and have minimum rules of eligibility.

The theoretical framework for the Mineral Point study compared two sets of students–athletes and all other students, or non-athletes. The study then compared five measures of performance to athletes and non-athletes: GPA, attendance, discipline, dropout, and graduation. The research question was whether athletes would outperform non-athletes academically as defined by the five measures above. According to the literature, previous studies have reported that results vary or are mixed with a tendency toward supporting the fact that athletes academically outperform non-athletes.

If athletes outperform non-athletes academically, then a fiscal return on a school’s investment in interscholastic sports may be a cost the school district will endure, but if not, it may be a cost that is difficult to defend.

The benefits of a comprehensive co-curricular program are far reaching in scope. A vibrant and healthy co-curricular program makes successful students in the classroom and also makes successful citizens within our communities. The National Federation of State High Schools’ study on High School Activities–A Community Investment in America showed that research supported the need for co-curricular programs. Benefits include: Students choosing healthy behaviors, like refraining from smoking and drinking, receiving good nutrition, and exercising regularly; Grades and attendance show noticeable improvement; Participating students will more likely stay in school; Learning values and life skills; Good sportsmanship and citizenship; Experience fewer behavioral problems.

An Education Statistics Quarterly report titled “A Profile of the American High School Sophomore in 2002” concluded that sophomores who spent nine hours per week in co-curricular activities were more likely to: expect to earn a four year degree or higher; expect to go directly to college; perform in the highest test quartiles; report to have never cut class; rate good grades as very important.

Carson and Scott conducted a study that supported the Department of Education survey finding that athletes were more likely than non-athletes to be employed eight years after graduation. If employed, they were more likely to be in positions of management and earn a higher income.

Community engagement with school activities can often be a struggle for districts, but athletics often provide the perfect vehicle to do just that.

Francois’ Mineral Point study was for grades 9-12 with an enrollment of 225 students.

Other factors may have contributed to the findings that were unable to be measured quantitatively including socioeconomic factors, physical community resources available, breadth and depth of programming offered, and athletic codes with academic incentives for eligibility.

This, as stated, provides insight into a rural school, so critics may say the same correlations do not exist in an urban setting.

The study analyzed 106 females and 118 males.

Of those students, 106 students participated in zero sports; 65 students in one sport; 41 students in two sports; and 13 students in three sports.

This means that 47% of the student population is non-athletes and 53% athletes.

The first area analyzed was Cumulative GPA. The mean GPA was 3.25. The mean GPA of athletes was 3.34. The mean for non-athletes was 3.14.

The second area looked at included days absent. The mean number of days absent was 4.64. The mean number of days absent for athletes was 4.52. The mean for non-athletes was 4.78.

Discipline referrals was the third area. The mean number of discipline referrals was 0.28. For athletes it was 0.21 and non-athletes 0.37.

Two students dropped out, and therefore, this number is not statistically significant to report for the dropout category, or the graduation category.

The extent to which participation in interscholastic athletics contributes to non-academic characteristics such as self-esteem, aspirations in education, self-control, and alienation is not clear from this particular study.

In addition, when an athlete is a star, starter, or substitute, does he or she have difference levels of success academically? Does it make a difference if an athlete is a multi-sport participant, or single sport player? Does one sport have a higher rate of success than another?

The majority of research read going into this study showed a relationship in which athletes outperformed non-athletes in each of five areas: GPA, attendance, discipline, dropout rates, and graduation rates. The Mineral Point study showed only one of those areas as being significantly higher from a statistical perspective and that was GPA.

Since four areas saw no significant change, these data outcomes may suggest to administrators that, when deciding to fund interscholastic athletics, more care needs to be taken in their deliberations.

In an era of accountability, strategic decisions to prioritize funding for core instructional areas like math, science, language arts, and social studies, should be considered prior to funding interscholastic athletics. Administrators should plan budgets that strike a balance between academics and interscholastic athletics and not fund interscholastic athletics excessively as a result of the study’s report on the few academic gains in overall academic performance.

It is clear athletic programs provide great value, but are they more important than anything else? Likely not. But combined with a well-rounded educational experience, they are a key part of the essential components needed to mold our youth for current and future success.

(Written by Luke Francois, Ed.D., Superintendent, and Joelle Doye, Communications Director)