Why do we accept higher expectations on the field than in the classroom?

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My really smart and brave friend from Tennessee, Vesia Hawkins, wrote a thought provoking piece about how all in parents and families are when it comes to youth football and she wonders if those same families show an equal level of engagement and commitment when it comes to their children’s literacy and numeracy. As the mom of boys who play football, baseball, and basketball, I’d say the point Vesia makes applies beyond football—though football does bring out a special kind of passion and commitment—to other sports and also to competitive dance, cheerleading, and any other activity that pushes kids to their limits. The common thread is a fundamental belief in high expectations and excellence.

So it’s got me wonderin’ if these parents are as aware and as fervently engaged in their child’s literacy and numeracy performance as they are in the x’s and o’s of pee wee football. If the high expectations around making plays are equal to the expectations of making good grades. Let me be clear, I’m not sitting in judgment. Rather I wonder if parents and grandparents know what not reading at grade level really means for the long-term and if they fight for little Daniel’s reading level as hard as they fight for his football literacy.

—Vesia Hawkins, Volume and Light

Already I’m sure many reading this are thinking, “could this blogger and her blogger friend from Tennessee be a bigger buzzkill?” And I totally get that. In fact, it’s been said to me more than once at cookouts, parties, and yes, even tailgates. But I remain unapologetic because as much as I love youth sports, I also care deeply about the futures of our youth and no matter how far down parents—and yes, community leaders—want to bury their heads in the sand, I will keep hitting, gently, with my shovel. To quote Ms. Vesia one more time, “A buzzkill, indeed, but so is poverty and prison. Just saying.”

Don’t you want to invite us to your next party?

The brutal truth, which seems abstract and far away when you’re watching your kid break tackles and soar into the end zone, is this: Based on all empirical data, reading, writing, and math will ultimately be far more determinative of our children’s futures than their skills on the football field. Or any field. Or court. Or track. Or stage. And while the discipline, resilience, and teamwork that our kids learn as athletes and performers will hopefully stay with them, it will not be enough to make up for weak literacy and math skills. No one likes to see a flag thrown against their team in football but a far more important flag is the red one when a child is not reading at grade level by third grade or doing math at grade level in fifth grade.

I know firsthand that the high expectations, tough talk, and insistence on repetition that my kids experience from their coaches are often nowhere to be found inside their school buildings. And while I concede that the contexts are different and an English classroom may not be well served by all the qualities that come with an impassioned football coach, it would certainly be well served by some.

"You can do it" is a fundamental belief coaches have about their players. It is often expressed as more of a command like “do it” or “make it happen” or “do your job” but embedded in those demands is the belief that the player is capable of meeting expectations.

Do we see that in enough schools?

When the cross country coach pushes her runners to the brink because she knows they can shave a tenth of a second of their best time, she is giving them the gift of high expectations and belief in their potential. If we ask ourselves how often we see that from our kids’ teachers, what’s our honest answer? And when we ask it more explicitly about black and brown kids, what’s our answer?

When George W. Bush talked about the very real soft bigotry of low expectations, he was not talking about black and brown students on the football field or the basketball court. He was talking about their education. Their reading. Their math. Their science. Their futures.

Parents—yours truly, included—can easily fall into the trap of assuming that schools will ensure that our children learn what they need to know and be pushed to do their best. We want to believe that all those A’s and B’s are evidence of excellent work even when deep down, many of us know the grade often doesn’t seem to align with other measures of our child’s learning. Many of us want to believe the rhetoric that tells us to dismiss those pesky standardized tests—or even opt-out of them—because those kinds of tests “don’t tell us anything.” But time and time again, we are forced to face the truth that they actually tell us a lot. Just as the pass completion percentage or batting average or fifty meter dash time tell us something that matters, so do the tests that are designed to tell us whether or not our children are proficient in reading and math.

So let’s aim higher. Let’s work to be as engaged in our children’s learning as we are in their football games, soccer tournaments, and cross country meets. Let’s ask—or even demand—that their teachers push them as hard academically as their coaches do after-school and on weekends. Let’s aspire to the real meaning of what it is to be a student athlete.

And thank you, Vesia from Tennessee, for inspiring this piece.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form on the Good School Hunting blog.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

 
 
Erika Sanzi
Erika Sanzi is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute