Hoops and Ladders

How sports are wrecking schools.

A few years ago, when the college presidents staged a palace revolt at the NCAA convention and raised the academic qualifications for scholarship recipients from abysmally to merely low, Haskins was one of the most outspoken critics of the change. Along with other members of the Black Coaches Association, Haskins argued that whatever the intent of the new regulations, the effects were racist and discriminatory.

"We recruit a lot in the small towns of the South," he says. "Many of the schools there have no labs and no advanced math classes. The kids who attend them can't be competitive on standardized tests. Those are the kids who should have a chance to go to college and [if they don't seize the opportunity] to fail there."

The crux of this argument is that somehow it is still overwhelmingly the fault of the schools and the broader (white) community that minority children, especially blacks, don't perform in the classroom. "In the past two decades, schools in America haven't improved enough to justify continuing to raise standards."

Haskins is talking about college admissions, but variations on that argument have long been used to justify low standards within public schools. A lot of kids, goes the theory, are only in school for sports, and they will simply drop out if you raise any academic impediments to participation. It's an odd proposition which says that school should be tailored for the few determined to get the least out of it. It is often buttressed, however, by social expediency: In both the poorest of ghettoes and rural areas, perhaps the most real purpose of schools is to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble for six hours a day. The losers in this line of reasoning--as always--are all those kids who actually would buckle down and learn if they knew they had to.

But raising standards presents a real and immediate threat to the black community. Children are in some ways more rigid and slower to deal with change than adults, and changing the rules means that a certain number of already disadvantaged children will get caught in the crunch of upward expectations. Since scholarship athletes comprise a significant portion of poor black children bound for college, any change that will reduce their numbers, even temporarily, seems like Jim Crow reborn in the eyes of civil rights advocates of Haskins's generation.

Worse yet, taking such steps looks somehow like absolving the white community of their unconditional historic blame for the problem. Politically, it is far easier for minority leadership to tell its constituency that white people have caused the problem and, damn it, it is their moral obligation to fix it. When that policy is brought down to the level of classroom practice, it means that it is the job of the schools to find ways to foster learning without employing any negative sanctions on those children who won't. This position gains support from a tradition of liberal educational orthodoxy dating back to John Dewey. In summary, it holds that children just naturally love to learn and will do it splendidly if only adults can find the right (in recent years, culturally correct) pedagogical methods.

But there are now two generations of teachers out there who know that for most children, the joy of learning happens only after they have accepted the inevitability of real sanctions for not doing it. For children, just like adults, accomplishment includes a great deal of routine drudgery, and it is unrealistic to expect the young to perform purely out of strength of character or for the sake of long-term goals. Unless there are negative consequences he can clearly understand, no child will sit at the kitchen table and master the multiplication tables if he is allowed to spend the evening shooting hoops with his buddies. If you wait for the child to raise his own performance before raising standards, neither is likely to go up.

But that's the sticking point for many people in Haskins's generation, both sports and civil rights leaders. What is thoroughly unpalatable is the fact that whites bear complete historic responsibility for minority educational problems, but those problems cannot be fixed without real--if short-term--sacrifices by the victims.

When it is suggested to Haskins that raising performance and standards go hand in hand, not in sequence, he does not entirely disagree, qualifying what has been his standard position on the subject. "I'm not totally opposed to higher standards, but let's not make it difficult for those high-risk kids who don't have the opportunities. I was a high-risk kid myself, and school was very hard for me."

But he also worked very hard at school. And at North High, while the classroom equipment isn't what it could be, they do have labs and computers, as well as the advanced courses needed to do well in college or on standardized tests. Abdul Quddoos certainly isn't buying the notion that the school can't offer the student what is needed to compete. "Students can get an education and they can achieve here." You can even do it and play sports, as Javonte Adams and Jabbar Washington have done. The problem is not what's available but that the district doesn't demand that students make good use of it.

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