Study: There’s no arguing the benefits of debate teams

November 12, 2009
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At the height of the political season a few weeks ago voters sat down and watched political rivals debate the issues affecting Boston but did you know these structured arguments can actually improve one’s grades?

A new study suggests that African-American students who participate in debate leagues like the one at East Boston High School (EBHS) earn better grades, are more three times more likely to graduate from high school than similar students who do not join their debate team, and are better prepared for college success.

The study. conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, which can be found at www.urbandebate.org/emergingresearch.shtml>, examined 2,500 Chicago Public Schools students who participated in at least one debate tournament over a 10-year period, comparing their performance to about 10,000 other African-American students.  The researchers found a direct correlation between a student’s level of involvement in debate and academic gains across several measures – including increased college readiness in English and reading.  The study is published this month in Howard University’s Journal of Negro Education.

As a result, Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, Dr. Carol R. Johnson has increased the district’s investment in the Boston Debate League (BDL) as a powerful tool for engaging urban students in academically rich activities during school, after school, and during the summer.

“Debate has quickly become an exciting way for Boston Public Schools students to learn and express themselves outside of the traditional school day,” said Dr. Johnson.  “It’s rewarding to see the debate league help students improve skills in reasoning, argument, research, public speaking, and teamwork, and perhaps most importantly, build their self-confidence.” 

The debate team at EBHS was formed after volunteers started the Boston Debate League in 2005 with three participating schools. Last year, Dr. Johnson committed district funding to the league, enabling it to expand to EBHS and seven other Boston high schools. This year, with additional support from BPS, EdVestors, The Boston Foundation, The Shapiro Family Foundation, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, and Social Venture Partners (SVP), the league has grown to 10 schools:

“This academically rigorous, peer-reviewed research coming out of VCU finally confirms what we have known all along: that debate can play a significant role in addressing some of the most pressing problems urban students face,” said Executive Director of the Boston Debate League. Steve Stein. “As the BDL expands to more schools and reaches larger numbers of students, we will see attendance, grades, test scores, and high school and college graduation rates go up, and dropouts and discipline issues go down.”

Hundreds of Boston public high school students participate, spending countless hours outside the regular school day researching, studying, and debating timely issues.  Boston is one of 18 large cities affiliated with the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. BPS students have competed and earned distinctions in national tournaments.

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