Could Debate Help Struggling Students Succeed?
Participating in high school debate significantly boosts reading scores and graduation rates, according to a study.
Why not begin the new year with some good news, something that’s all too rare these days? We haven’t made much progress in figuring out how to change students’ academic trajectories once they reach high school. But now there’s evidence that participating in debate can have a powerful effect.
Years ago, I read about a young woman from a lower-income, Spanish-speaking family who was valedictorian of her high school class and won a scholarship to an Ivy League college. Once she got there, she was told by one of her professors that she didn’t know how to write well. Initially crushed, she eventually realized that she could draw on the skills she’d learned as a high school debater: marshaling evidence to support her points, organizing her arguments effectively. Her writing improved dramatically.
That young woman became Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Ever since reading that anecdote in her memoir, My Beloved World, years ago, I’ve wondered about the power of debate to improve academic outcomes—and writing ability.
Some studies have shown that debate has benefits, but it’s been offered primarily as an extracurricular activity at private or elite public schools that are already full of high-achievers. (Sotomayor’s Catholic school was an exception.) But in recent decades debate has spread to some schools serving lower-income communities. An organization called the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues was founded in 2002 and now includes partner leagues in more than 20 cities across the country, serving about 10,000 students.
One of the first of those partners was the Boston Debate League. And a research team from the University of Virginia and Harvard recently undertook a study of its effects on the academic achievement of a sample of about 3,500 participants, primarily economically disadvantaged high school students of color, over a decade.
Boosts to reading scores and graduation rates
What the researchers found is pretty astonishing. The average impact on English language arts achievement, as measured by state reading test scores, was 0.13 of a standard deviation. That may not sound like much, but it’s almost three times the typical effect size on reading tests from high school interventions (0.05). It’s comparable, the researchers say, to the typical amount of growth students make in reading during ninth grade. And the gains represent about 20% of the difference between higher- and lower-income students on national reading tests given to eighth-graders.
The study also found that students who participated in debate were 12 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school. The percentage who enrolled in post-secondary education increased by the same amount, with most of that increase driven by enrollment in four-year colleges.
Students who started out at a lower level benefited the most—suggesting, the researchers say, that the opportunity to participate in debate shouldn’t be limited to high-achievers. In addition, the gains in reading scores were “concentrated on the reading standards that represent higher order subskills,” like critical thinking. Those measures are particularly hard to move.
Not only that, but the intervention is relatively inexpensive. The estimated cost is about $1,360 per student per year, one third the cost of an effective high-dosage tutoring program called MATCH. Debate appears to generate about twice the impact of that intervention on reading scores per dollar spent.
“Overall,” the researchers conclude, “[the] results provide policymakers a rare promising program for reducing inequality in reading achievement, analytical thinking skills, and educational attainment among secondary school students.”
It’s good to have quantitative data on this question, but to some extent the results are not surprising. Debate requires students to dig deeply into an issue, analyze it from multiple perspectives, create persuasive arguments, and anticipate and poke holes in arguments from the other side. It stands to reason it would help them become better at those things. Participating in debate—and succeeding at interscholastic tournaments—could also change students’ perceptions of their own capabilities, spurring them to pursue ambitious goals.
The potential benefits of debate aren’t limited to academic outcomes. The ability to spot weaknesses in arguments can help people resist being duped by misleading “news” stories or social media posts. The skills of listening and responding civilly to the arguments of those on the other side of an issue are crucial for democracy.
Still, a few caveats are in order. Previous studies of the effects of debate have been hampered by the fact that debaters are a self-selected group, making it hard to determine whether debating itself caused the academic improvements observed. Maybe those who choose to participate in debate are more motivated and higher-achieving to begin with.
The researchers in the Boston study came up with ways to minimize that selection problem—comparing debaters to similar students who didn’t have the opportunity to participate in debate, for example. But they couldn’t entirely control for bias in their sample. A more reliable study would randomly assign essentially similar students to one “condition” or the other—debate or no debate—and see what happens. Let’s hope someone will undertake that kind of study in the future.
Bringing debate into the classroom
The researchers also suggest that to expand the benefits of debate to those who can’t or won’t participate in it as an extracurricular activity, regular classroom teachers could employ “debate-centered instruction,” as some teachers have already done. It’s not at all clear, though, that the same benefits would result.
For one thing, the study participants engaged in a kind of debate—“policy” debate—that had them focus on a single topic for an entire school year. Few classroom teachers have the luxury of spending that much time on a single topic. Often they need to move through a series of topics at a fairly rapid pace to try to cover everything in their state standards or the textbook they’re using.
I’m not suggesting high school students should spend a year on one topic, but if they’re debating topics they know at only a superficial level, I wouldn’t expect to see much improvement in their critical thinking skills. As evidence from cognitive science has told us, you can only think critically about topics you know well—and the more information you have about a topic, the better able you are to think critically about it. Critical thinking is not a skill that can be taught in the abstract or that easily transfers from one topic to another.
True, the debaters in the study were apparently better able to think critically about topics on a standardized test—topics they presumably had not studied for a year, or perhaps at all. But that may be because their debate experience helped them adopt the habit of thinking critically about a question or problem. Perhaps equally important was the general academic vocabulary and familiarity with complex syntax they had acquired through the research they did for debate, which probably enabled them to understand the passages on the reading test. Students who don’t get the opportunity to dig deeply into a topic might not acquire either the habits of thinking or the knowledge that debaters do.
It's also important to bear in mind that many students at high schools serving low-income communities read far below their grade level because of inadequate instruction at lower grades. No doubt they too could benefit from debate, but their teachers would need to figure out a way to help them access the information they need to participate.
Thanks for reading Minding the Gap! Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Nor is it clear that some of the other benefits identified in the study would transfer to the classroom situation. For example, the researchers observe that through debate, students are exposed to a “college-going culture.” For example, many debate judges at tournaments are current or former college-level debaters who become mentors for younger students. In a regular classroom setting, that element would be absent.
And of course, teachers would need good training. Policy debate is far from a free-for-all. Detailed rules ensure that students aren’t just yelling at each other, as in some political “debates” on TV, but rather presenting evidence and listening carefully to the other side. Without those guardrails, classroom debate could be a recipe for disaster—especially if the issue is one where there are strong feelings on both sides.
Despite those reservations, I would say classroom debate is an intervention worth trying, given that so few interventions work at the high school level. Explicit writing instruction is another one that can work—if it starts at the sentence level and is embedded in the content of the curriculum. And the combination of the two could be extremely powerful, under the right conditions. As Justice Sotomayor realized decades ago, debate and writing draw on and develop many of the same crucial abilities.
This post originally appeared on Forbes.com in a slightly different form.