Higher standards fueled the rush to school reform the last time around. Now, some of those reforms are being reformed. The “no pass, no play” rule, legislated in Texas just over 10 years ago, is one of those recently reformed measures. Emblematic of the former period's heightened concern for academic excellence, this recently revised policy represents more than a change of legislation. It provides a startling example of the empty relationship between policy, practice, and research.
“No pass, no play,” of course, is the popular slogan for a policy that requires students to maintain passing grades in their core academic subjects to be eligible to participate in a school's extracurricular activities. The slogan lumps together student athletes and all other students who represent the school in interschool competitions, from members of the drill team and pep squad to contestants in drama and chess. Over the years, schools established a variety of rules to implement the slogan, thereby asserting the primacy of the schools' academic offerings. Twelve years ago, as state legislatures rushed into law a bevy of statewide reforms, some legislators decided they could no longer trust teachers, administrators, and local school boards to set high enough standards even for students' participation in extracurricular activities. The law passed by the Texas legislature attracted national attention. It was as plain as it was severe.
Legislators told Texas students: fail one course during a grading period and lose eligibility for the next grading period. For Texas students, the penalty for failing one course meant that they could not participate in extracurricular activities for six weeks. Not only could they not participate (e.g., play in a scheduled football game, hold a role in a one-act play competition), they also could not “practice” with the “team” during their suspension. The practical consequence of this loss of eligibility meant that students lost the entire season of competition.
The policy's opponents characterized it as “draconian.” As expected, legal actions challenged the Texas “no pass, no play” law, but courts upheld the policy. That the new, “stiffer” penalty targeted student athletes was never questioned. Most of the state's teachers and administrators offered the policy their silent assent. As the decade wore on, bit by bit, earlier robust public sentiment began to soften about the fairness of the rule.
Last spring, the legislature enacted a revised law. Still, the law spoke of “no pass, no play,” but with a difference: the revised law reduced the penalty for loss of eligibility from six weeks to three weeks. Coaches of school athletic teams expressed satisfaction with the new rule. Athletes seemed pleased with the new policy. Most teachers and administrators maintained their silence about the policy; those who spoke publicly commented about the usefulness of the policy “to make the right statement.”
As schools opened in the autumn, discussion of the revised “no pass, no play” policy revealed a significant absence of evidence. No research about the effects of the original “tougher” policy was available for reference. “No pass, no play” had no research.
Recent public debate about the “no pass, no play” policy, especially that in the legislature and the media, proceeded without reliable evidence about the effect of the policy on individual students, in individual schools, and in schools across the state. Unmaintained were records of students' lost eligibility, of the relationship between students' lost or regained eligibility and the prospects of their dropping out of school, of students' regained eligibility and their subsequent graduation, of enhanced or blighted student motivation and incentive, of the relationship between students' participation in extracurricular activities and their academic achievement, or the possible differential effects of the policy with respect to, for example, students' gender and ethnicity, and the size and nature of school. Substituting for research evidence was the impassioned rhetoric of assertions and claims, of anecdotes stretched beyond recognized reality, of fancied suspicions, and, at times, of outright fabrications.
Research not conducted might have supported the controversial “no pass, no play” policy. Research results might have spotlighted troublesome consequences or that the policy actually discouraged students' academic work. Research might have found that the policy was ineffective in some areas of participation (e.g., basketball, band) but had positive results in other areas (e.g., track, choir). Even in football-mad Texas, research results might have prompted a public reassessment of the role of sport in the life of the state's secondary schools. Research might have documented that the policy essentially was symbolic for politicians and educators, that it really eliminated few students from extracurricular participation, and that those anonymous few student casualties developed a freshened sense of school and self. What might have been, however, simply does not exist. No one knows the facts. No research is available to understand the state's previous “no pass, no play” policy and the practices related to it.
Perhaps teachers and administrators considered research about the policy to be irrelevant or unimportant to routine educational practice. Also, maybe, the policy's effects did not interest anyone—not educational leaders nor legislators nor researchers, neither local schools nor the state education agency. Whatever may explain this situation, the consequence remains: the research cupboard on this policy is bare.
So what? The question is both realistic and cynical. A new policy substitutes for the previous one. Research might have been interesting, but it likely would not have been central to the political debates. This particular policy applied only to schools in one state, and for many teachers and administrators, the policy itself remains only marginally important. Such reactions, however valid or inflammatory, miss an important point: curriculum policy and practice did not link with research, with mindful evidence and analysis.
Now, with the newly revised policy in place, will we pick up the ball? Or will we again remain absent? A fresh opportunity exists to fashion a productive relationship between policy, practice, and research. Similar opportunities exist in other areas as well. For instance, what practical, reasonable steps might link policy, practice, and research in local and statewide reform efforts such as site-based decision making, higher-order thinking in the curriculum, and curriculum integration? How do policy, practice, and research fit into the idea of voluntary national standards? How can they support programs of deliberative supervision or the development of campus leadership teams?
This cupboard of relationships can remain bare—for singular policies like “no pass, no play” and for much more ambitious and wide-reaching reforms, too. Simply, the absence of research can continue to plague practical educational policy and practice. It need not. It should not. Who should take the next steps? Policymakers? Practicing teachers and administrators? Researchers? “All or any of the above” seems to be the only appropriate response.
O. L. Davis Jr. is Editor of the Journal of Curriculum and Supervision and Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, The University of Texas at Austin, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, EDB 406, Austin, TX 78712.