I read something recently that I found amazing. There is something that schools can do to increase education results by 20% and raise future employment by 40%. In addition, it boosts important social and emotional skills, as well as health prospects. No, it isn’t more computers, or high stakes testing, or even universal high quality early childhood development (a crusade of mine). Rather, it is school-based sports for girls.
There is nothing new about the fact that sports are associated with higher grades and self-esteem. But, until recently, the chicken and egg question was never adequately resolved. Was sports driving these results or were those kids who were attracted to sports already high achievers with the ambition, resilience and opportunities needed to succeed? New research has untangled the direction of causality: controlling for self-selection (the chicken or egg), it finds that, for girls, participation in team sports can result in lifelong improvements in education, work and health.
In the United States, Title IX of the Educational Amendments to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a watershed piece of legislation passed in 1972, mandated that no person, on the basis of sex, could be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance. The biggest impact of this change was on high school athletics, an area where explicitly discriminatory policies existed. Prior to Title IX, just about the only physical activities school offered girls were cheerleading and square-dancing. Only 1 in 27 girls played high school sports. Title IX required schools to increase female participation rates in athletics to near equity with boys’ participation rates. Six years after its enactment, at the point at which compliance was required, a quarter of all girls participated in some form of organized sports at school. Boys’ participation held constant over this time, at about 50%.
Fast forward to the present. More than 40% of girls play some type of organized sports at school in the US. Women make up about half of the labor force and have made strong headway into careers that were dominated by men in the early 70s.
So what is it that sports does for girls? It can increase the number of years they spend in school, and the probabilities of attaining higher education and being employed fulltime. It can reduce rates of teenage pregnancy and obesity. It fosters skills valued by the labor market. Its participants must resolve conflicts within strictly defined parameters, rules and procedures. You win – or lose – by the rules, often as a team. It requires perseverance and focus, as well as motivation and competition.
As Latin America and the Caribbean move towards incorporating more sports into the school day, the implications are clear. Measures need to be put in, up front, to ensure that these activities benefit 100% of the student population. Whether or not it will take a Title IX to make it happen remains an open question.