Flim-Flam Says Sports Are Bad for Student Achievement, Evidence Suggests Otherwise

By 10/02/2013

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In a classic piece of Flim-Flam, Amanda Ripley has a cover story in The Atlantic arguing that high school sports are bad for student achievement.  Her evidence?  She looked at Finland and South Korea, countries with higher test scores, and they put less emphasis on sports than do American schools.  They also eat a lot more fish in Finland and South Korea.  I don’t know how Ripley knows that de-emphasizing athletics is any more causally connected to higher achievement than fish consumption is.  But since flim-flam passes for evidence even in serious intellectual magazines, like The Atlantic, we have to endure this type of argument.

Happily, The Atlantic just ran a rejoinder from my former and current graduate students, Dan Bowen and Collin Hitt.  They actually reference evidence and properly consider questions of causation and conclude that high school athletics probably contribute to higher student achievement.  And they see no reason to believe that the absence of high school sports explains the difference between student achievement in the US and countries like Finland and South Korea.

But evidence, shmevidence — I’m not taking any chances.  So I’m urging school districts to increase serving fish in the cafeteria to replicate what the Finns and Koreans do and match their level of achievement.

-Jay P. Greene

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  • Scott schoettgen says:

    Thanks for the article. I appreciate you pointing out how there is no causal relationship. I’m curious if there is any research on this topic that is more telling in answering the research question being addressed. The US is unique in that sports are associated and a part of schools, where in most other countries sports are available through clubs and rec leagues totally separate from school. Do you know of any good research out there that addresses academic performance for the two different implementations?

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