Urban youth with great talent, creativity, and potential often go unchallenged and unrecognized in Boston’s public schools. When the classroom doesn’t engage them, students respond by dropping out, behaving disruptively, or giving up on themselves. Consequently, too many grow up without the skills they need to succeed in college and compete in today’s economy.
Competitive academic debate offers a powerful means of engaging students in their own education and reversing these negative trends. Debaters come from across the academic spectrum, including those who do not attend school regularly or are not thriving in the traditional classroom.
Debate appeals to these students as a fun, competitive, and student-centered way to encounter academic subjects. For many, debate tournaments are a rare opportunity to connect intellectually with their peers and to have their ideas about important issues considered seriously by adults.
Benefits of Urban Debate
Improving Academic Performance. Despite recent gains in academic achievement, low-income and minority students continue to under-perform their peers. Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs) have a proven record of decreasing that gap. While debate can help high-achieving students to access and succeed in college, it has an even greater impact on struggling students. Debate is a powerful literacy tool for students whose reading difficulties bring down their grades and sap their motivation to succeed. A University of Missouri study found that after one year in a UDL, debaters attended school more frequently, improved their GPAs by 10%, decreased risky behaviors, and achieved a 25% increase in literacy scores relative to a non-debating control group.
Building a Bridge to College. Dr. Carol Johnson, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools, describes a “dropout crisis” with a four-year graduation rate of less than 60% system-wide and even lower rates among minority males. A recent Bill and Melinda Gates foundation study documents that 47% of students who drop out said they were bored in class, 69% were not motivated to work hard, 66% would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them, and 88% had passing grades when they dropped out. It should not be surprising that nearly 100% of urban debaters graduate from high school, and more than 80% graduate from four-year colleges.
Eliminating Non-Academic Barriers to Success. Debate equips students to resolve conflict appropriately and offers an individualized, empowering, and student-centered learning model that engages students who may not be thriving in a traditional classroom. It fosters relationships between students and their teachers and among students who have the common goal of succeeding academically. Many debaters view their team as their family and receive some of the emotional support they are not getting elsewhere. Instead of turning to gangs for a developed sense of identity, students turn to their debate families and their school. Simply put, debate gives our students many reasons to keep coming to school.
Skills for the 21st Century. A task force for the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts recently found that our students are not leaving our schools with the skills needed to compete in the workplace. The specific skills they outlined were communication and oral presentation skills, the ability to solve complex problems, and the ability to work in teams. This skill set screams for the need for more instruction in debate. Debaters work in two person teams during the debate, and work as a larger team during practice to prepare for debates. They are forced to think through complex arguments often on their feet. Whether or not these skills become part of larger changes to the MCAS or the 10th grade history exam, they are incredibly valuable skills for our students to develop, and debate is an essential tool for students to realize that goal.
Developing Leaders. According to a survey by the National Forensics League, 64% of U.S. Congress members competed in debate or speech in high school. Debaters are disproportionately represented in leadership ranks in law, business, and the academy. With high expectations, expanded horizons, and advanced skills, urban debaters are equipped to improve their schools, strengthen their communities, and ultimately make a contribution to the nation’s leadership.
Cultivating Citizens. Debate engages students in politics and community issues. Debaters develop powerful, accomplished voices and grow accustomed to professionals treating their public policy ideas seriously. According to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, urban debaters “learn about political issues in the here-and-now; they investigate and prepare information about topics that are important to the world they live in today. Preparing to debate requires collecting information from various sources, analyzing and organizing the information, and articulating a point of view.”