LSUS Outlook: Competitive debate could be education vaccine

Troy Gibson, Shreveport Times

We all agree on the diagnosis that Louisiana ranks poorly in education.

Dropout rates and poor test scores are but a couple of the cancers plaguing our state. Of course, many well-intentioned people have brought their own cures to the table resulting in fights over STEM, WISE and Common Core. Failing schools have been taken over or charter schools have swept in to fill the void. Each has caused a fight and none are the complete solution.

Unfortunately, as well-intentioned as these different options may be, each appears to miss a key prescription Louisiana’s educational skills. I believe the vaccine for our educational system is to have our local and state leaders implement competitive debate training in our schools.

Rhetoric and debate go back thousands of years. Though Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle get most of the credit, it can be traced to the courts of the pharaohs of Egypt and emperors of Chinese dynasties.

During the Middle Ages, rhetoric was one of the seven required liberal arts.

For definitional purposes, academic debate is much like any sport out there. Teams meet in various formats and engage in a battle of research, wit and delivery in front of any number of judges and a winner is determined.

Unlike the normal classroom, competition drives students to achieve and studies confirm the benefits.

Here is a dose of evidence detailing some of what this medicine can do:

The Urban Debate League is a great model for failing schools in the Caddo/Bossier area and beyond. Last year they helped more than 7,000 high school and middle schools students, 76 percent of whom were from low-income families. According to their web page, the results speak for themselves.

Seventy-two percent of students with the highest risk of dropping out of school graduate on time and 90 percent of all of their students graduate on time. They also state that grades go up and students are more college ready. Eighty-six percent of their debaters enroll in college and 80 percent of those are more likely to graduate college.

We see this on the college level, too. LSU Shreveport has a national championship-caliber debate team and sees these benefits each year. In the past seven years at LSUS, the debate team has earned nearly three dozen program and individual national championship titles in debate, placing second this year at the IPDA National Championship Tournament.

Students on the team travel approximately 600 hours on the road, spend about 42,000 minutes competitively researching and 42,000 minutes competitively arguing. Despite all of this work beyond their work schedules and classes, during the 2013 fall semester they completed 300 credit hours of coursework and maintained an average GPA of 3.46.

Like many drugs, there are side effects. In 2007, Dr. Jack Rogers released a remarkable study that compared debaters and non-debaters. He found that depression was 33 points lower among debaters (11 percent vs. 44 percent). Societally, debaters were not only significantly more likely to vote (53 percent vs. 17 percent), they were also more likely to participate in social advocacy (81 percent vs. 41 percent).

That is what we all want — our children to grow, not only academically, but personally and to become good citizens.

This is not to say that Common Core, STEM or WISE can’t be good things to pursue. But, if we don’t teach our children to communicate effectively then what good does any of that mean in the future?

Debate is metaphorical vaccine that can really make a difference.

Trey Gibson is the Director of Debate and Leadership Studies at LSU Shreveport. He is the 2014 Louisiana intercollegiate Debate Coach of the Year, a national champion professional debater, and has coached students to dozens of individual and program national championship titles.