There’s a lot of debate now about the proper role of college sports and whether or not varsity athletes should be paid. Louis Barbash looked into this issue in the latest issue of the magazine. I wrote about the money in college sports earlier in the week.

But the cover story in the latest issue of the Atlantic looks at another part of sports in academics: high school sports. According to the article, by Amanda Ripley:

Sports are embedded in American schools in a way they are not almost anywhere else. Yet this difference hardly ever comes up in domestic debates about America’s international mediocrity in education. The challenges we do talk about are real ones, from undertrained teachers to entrenched poverty. But what to make of this other glaring reality, and the signal it sends to children, parents, and teachers about the very purpose of school?

At this moment in history, now that more than 20 countries are pulling off better high-school-graduation rates than we are, with mostly nominal athletic offerings, using sports to tempt kids into getting an education feels dangerously old-fashioned. America has not found a way to dramatically improve its children’s academic performance over the past 50 years, but other countries have—and they are starting to reap the economic benefits.

American students seem to spend a lot more time and effort on sports than students from other countries with higher education achievement.

I’m a little skeptical about this, in part because student athletes actually tend to perform better in school. Indeed, students with low grades are usually not allowed to participate in varsity sports.

Ripley acknowledges this, but argues that the focus high schools have on athletics has an impact on the whole school, particularly because administrators and teachers have to keep athletics in mind when scheduling classes and examinations. As the author writes:

If Americans transferred our obsessive intensity about high-school sports—the rankings, the trophies, the ceremonies, the pride—to high-school academics. We would look not so different from South Korea, or Japan, or any of a handful of Asian countries whose hypercompetitive, pressure-cooker approach to academics in many ways mirrors the American approach to sports. Both approaches can be dysfunctional; both set kids up for stress and disappointment. The difference is that 93 percent of South Korean students graduate from high school, compared with just 77 percent of American students—only about 2 percent of whom receive athletic scholarships to college.

Good point, but the other thing missing from her analysis is that, while the role of sports is one difference between low-performing America and high-performing Asia, it might matter a lot more just that there are simply a lot more poor students in the U.S.

Still, anyone who’s ever attended a varsity football game in rural Texas or urban Maryland knows where high schools are placing their energy. Maybe it’s time to focus on something else.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer