Johns Hopkins University’s Daniel Shackelford has conducted the first quantitative study examining the effects of participation in an extracurricular debate club during pre-adolescence on pupils’ later academic and engagement outcomes, including entry to selective-entrance high schools.
Dr Shackelford examined a 10-year sample of 2,263 4th to 8th grade pupils (Year 5 to Year 9) participating in Baltimore City’s Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL) between the 2004 to 2013 school years, comparing their standardised maths and reading scores, attendance, and entry to selective-entrance high schools to 81,906 peers who did not participate in BUDL. Ninety-one percent of both groups were African American, and 96% of both groups received free and reduced-price lunch.
It is of note that these two groups were not matched at baseline: pupils who became debaters differed from controls prior to their participation in BUDL, with higher standardised test scores and attendance, so no true causal conclusion can be drawn from comparing groups. Yet among the debate pupils themselves, results showed that pre-adolescent debate participation yielded more than a 6% increase in reading scores and a 4% increase in maths scores on standardised testing. While debate inherently involves reading and might be accountable for increased reading achievement, Dr Shackelford observes that debaters were 10% more likely not to be chronically absent than non-debaters, and this increased engagement in school may have yielded the improvements in maths scores. BUDL pupils were also more likely to attend a selective high school (+0.12) or selective career tech high school (+0.01) than to attend a traditional high school.
Source: The BUDL effect: Examining academic achievement and engagement outcomes of preadolescent Baltimore Urban Debate League participants (February 2019), Educational Researcher.