Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Overcoming Educational Challenges to Women Living in At-Risk Communities through Urban Debate

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Overcoming Educational Challenges to Women Living in At-Risk Communities through Urban Debate

Article excerpt


Approximately 1.3 million students in the United States drop out of high school each year (Office of the Press Secretary, 2010). More than half of those failing to graduate on time attend schools in the primary school systems of the nation's 50 largest cities (Swanson, 2009). Schools in urban districts are particularly at risk for producing high numbers of dropouts because they serve large concentrations of students who share documented predictive indicators for dropping out of school: those who are African-American or Hispanic minorities (Maxwell, 2012;

Newcomb et al., 2002; Prater, Sileo, & Black, 2000; Snyder & Sickmond, 2006, Swanson, 2008), those who belong to families with low incomes (Newcomb et al., 2002), and those who have comparatively lower levels of academic achievement (Battin-Pearson et al., 2000; Finn & Rock, 1997; Krohn, Thornberry, Collins-Hall, & Lizotte, 1995; Storm and Boster, 2007).

In an effort to improve urban students' academic engagement and timely progression to graduation, 26 U.S. cities have implemented Urban Debate Leagues (UDLs). Begun in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1980s, UDLs have historically served more than 40,000 students and are now active in more than 500 schools nationwide (NAUDL, 2012). Previous research on the leagues' impact has been promising. One study reported that African-American males who participated in the Chicago UDL from 1997 to 2006 were 70% more likely to graduate, 3 times less likely to dropout, and more likely to meet ACT benchmarks for college readiness in English and Reading than a matched sample of their non-debate peers (Mezuk, 2009). Another study of the same city's UDL focused on poor students with low grades who held special education status. It found that those debaters were 3.1 times more likely to graduate and more likely to reach college-ready benchmarks for English, Reading and Science on the ACT than their non-debate peers (Anderson & Mezuk, 2012). The remaining published studies attempting to quantify the impact of UDLs have focused on the totality of their league populations without consideration of how different genders respond to such programs. Studies combining the male and female participants have found that debaters were more likely to graduate, meet college readiness benchmarks, and improve their cumulative GPAs than their non-debate peers (Mezuk et al., 2011); debaters improved their reading levels beyond national norms for annual progress (Winkler, 2010); and debaters substantially improved their school attendance and conduct after only one year of participation in the activity (Winkler, 2011).

No published study to date has focused on the impact of UDLs on female participants. The oversight is troubling for only one in four U.S. females completes high school on time. The problem worsens for minority females. Only 37 percent of Hispanic women, 40 percent of African American women, and 50 percent of Native American women graduate from high school on time (National Women's Law Center, 2007).

The need to focus on female participants becomes even more compelling when the consequences of leaving school receive consideration. Of all U.S. students who dropped out of high school in 2006, for example, males were more likely to find employment than females by a margin of 77 to 53 percent. Female dropouts on average earned $6000 less per year than females who stayed in school, a figure representing only 63 percent of the wages earned by male dropouts during the same period. When compared against females who stayed in school, female dropouts were also more likely to become pregnant before the age of 20, to become obese, to smoke, and to drink more heavily (National Women's Law Center, 2007). A key reason why females held back a grade in school were twice as likely to drop out as their male peers has been that female students, in particular, viewed their lack of timely progression as embarrassing (Fine & Zane, 1991). …

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