Social Change and Academic Gain: Debate in the Neighborhood and Competitive Debate

I recently (May 9-10, 2014) had the opportunity to attend the Debate in the Neighborhood exchange conference in Amsterdam that was sponsored by IDEA Netherlands.


The conference was attended by more than 100 people from throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. It was a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in debate and using it for the purpose of accomplishing social change.

Lessons from the Conference

A number of ideas stood out for me during my participation in the conference.

Assisting less privileged students with lowering the step gap. Dr. Judith Metz explained that when individuals move from youth to adulthood they must essentially climb a step and that for disadvantaged youth the step was larger than the step for privileged youth. She said that society needs to inject resources in order to reduce the size of the step that less privileged students need to take. As we have worked in the US to raise money to provide debating opportunities to less privileged students (see also: National Speech & Debate Association’s (NFL’s) Broward County Initiative), injecting these resources has been essential.

Youth challenging the trainers. Dr. Metz pushed those listening to her presentation to think about how they would react to initiatives that were actually successful in empowering the students. “What if,” she asked,  “the students began to challenge the trainers themselves?”

This question had a lot of salience for me because one thing that has started to happen in the US where debate opportunities have been provided for low socioeconomic status (SES) and minority students is that the students, and now some of the coaches who were provided with these opportunities earlier in life, are beginning to challenge current configurations of debating system. They argue that the urban debate league system (more below) and contemporary debate practice is not configured in a way that is most representative of their interests and often depicts them in inappropriate ways (Ghetto Kids Gone Good).

Debaters challenging the debate system (for lack of a better term) was the subject of a conference at UC-Irvine where Brinkley and others discussed the work of Dr. Frank Wilderson, a Black Studies professor at UC Irvine, who has argued (essentially) the current configuration of civil society itself is anti-Black. Debaters have used this work (going beyond Brinkley above) to argue that the debate system, which is grounded in the current configuration of civil society, is anti-Black.

These internal criticisms of the debate competitions are not limited to conferences and articles about debate but are often (with growing frequency) advanced by the debaters themselves within their debates.  More and more, debaters are questioning evidence standards and even the topics of debates themselves.

An article at discussed the evolving argument choices of Ayaan Natala, a junior participant in the Minnesota Urban Debate League.

A turning point for her was meeting a young coach from Baltimore at an Augsburg debate camp last summer. He encouraged her to take a more personal tack. Peter Nikolai, Central’s coach, calls it “a clash of civilizations”: traditional policy debate, with its hard-and-fast focus on research, versus Natala’s performance-based approach. He says performance debate has helped engage more students like Natala, stretched too thin for time-consuming research and sometimes hard-pressed to see its relevance to their lives. “I felt many of the research arguments would only give the perspective of the politicians and not the citizens,” said Natala. “I don’t think there’s just one way of knowing the world.” Judges have had mixed reactions. At December’s national competition at Blake School, Natala and Bellamy’s poetry-spiked argument didn’t take them far. Still, Natala made the Top 10 policy speakers list — “an extraordinary achievement,” said Central assistant debate coach Mike Baxter-Kauf. Then, the state debate tournament put Natala’s newfound confidence to the test. She got a call from Nikolai. Avendano’s partner for the competition was dropping out for personal reasons. Avendano wanted Natala to step in. Minutes before the contest started, the new debate partners tried to sync up their styles. Avendano decided to drop his argument, which had claimed 40 hours of research into federal mass transit policy. With a last-minute new partner, he figured the tournament was a lost cause. In his final high school contest, he would have fun and run with Natala’s argument. Her argument centered on the disruption Interstate 94 construction wrought on the Rondo neighborhood in the 1960s. The Powerpuff Girls had jointly penned a poem to kick it off — a rebuke to the debate community for resisting less traditional takes on the policy form. Natala had interviewed several Rondo neighbors about their memories of the I-94 project. The pair lost the first two rounds. But “after that, they were just on a roll,” Nikolai said. Before the final round, against a policy team from Blake, Natala heard she might well be the first black debater to make it that far. The Minnesota High School League does not track the race of tournament participants, so Natala’s distinction is impossible to confirm, said board member Chris McDonald. Natala was still shaken when she started her argument, marking the rhythm of her verse by slicing the air with her hands. At the culmination of her poem, she lost her composure for a beat. She finished the poem with tears rolling down her cheeks. She and Avendano lost to Blake, but they walked away feeling they’d scored a victory. This summer, Natala heads to debate camps at Augsburg and at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Then, she tackles college applications. Everyone on the team expects they’ll be hearing more of her. “Debate turns people into advocates,” Avendano said. “Our style of debate is a breeding ground for activism.” [Twin Cities]

Debate as perspective enhancing. Many of the conference participants noted that they incorporate debate into their work because it is a useful tool to expose youth to the perspectives of other people. This is something that I personally find very valuable and I discuss it in more detail later in this essay.

Community debate. The background of most (perhaps all but me) of the attendees at the conference was in programming for youth, particularly disadvantaged youth, and not necessarily competitive academic debate.

Rather than seeing (and participating in) debate as an academic and competitive event, the attendees saw debate more as a method that can be used to assist youth with navigating difficult social issues and empowering them to address significant problems in their communities. This is where the idea of “Debate in the Neighborhood” comes from – the idea is that youth will use debate methods to tackle difficult problems in their communities that are of relevance to them.

Anecdotal evidence does suggest that these community debate methods have been effective.

A delegation from Hungary discussed how the students used debate methods to achieve some important changes related to curriculum in their school. The Hungarian Foundation for Democratic Youth which supports the program, published a manual for developing this type of activism-centered debate in the neighborhood programming. They believe that these programs can strengthen civil society in a way that will strengthen democracy.

Raluca Negulescu, the Executive Director for of the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities shared with me that the Center uses debate as an effective method to enhance understanding of issues affecting the Roma and to build support for Roma issues.

We also saw a video that students made about how they used debate to successfully argue for keeping a youth center open in their community.

As I am currently working on a grant to integrate community-style debating into competitive debate programming in the Dominican Republic, I found these experiences that people share to be very helpful. Not only is there a program that can be modeled, but there is anecdotal evidence that it is successful.

Competitive Academic Debating

As mentioned, the background of the conference participants was in youth organizing and community building, with many using debate as a method to support those objectives. As such, the organizations represented at the conference do not provide any support competitive academic debating.

What do I mean by competitive academic debating? In the United States, and in a growing number of countries and regions around the world, particularly Asia and the Middle East (and to a growing extent in Latin America), students have the opportunity to participate in competitive contest debating where they are assigned topics (usually before the debate but sometimes an hour before an individual debate (referred to as a “round”) and they enter debate tournaments to engage in debates over motions (also referred to as “resolutions”) against peers from other schools and organizations.  Louisiana State Debate Coach Troy Gibson explains, “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.”

In the US, debating is mostly organized around school-based teams, though in some other regions of the world it is organized by private clubs. The are for profit and non-profit clubs. Sometimes these clubs are necessary because there is minimal to no support at the school level for debate (Korea) or debate clubs are prohibited in some schools (Macedonia)).

In the debate tournaments, students will participate in a number of rounds of debating. In a standard tournament, there are 4-6 preliminary debates that all students participate in. After the preliminary debates, the top students (usually the top 16) advance to the elimination rounds. Students debate on individual teams of 2-3 competitors (there can be multiple teams representing an individual school or organization and there usually are), so when they advance to the elimination debates they advance with their partners.

There are a number of ways that students can receive awards. They are awarded for their success with their partner(s) – their 2-3 person teams. They are awarded based on their individual speaking (individual speaker awards are given). And they are awarded based on the overall success of their team or organization. The latter are referred to as sweepstakes awards.

The students are assigned many different topics to debate, though they are usually questions of public policy and ethics.  Recent resolutions (motions) in the US include:

The United States federal government should increase economic engagement with Cuba.

-NATO should strengthen its relationship with Ukraine in order to deter further Russian aggression.

-The benefits of domestic surveillance by the NSA outweigh the harms.

-This house supports stop and frisk laws

In China, students have debated:

-China should increase its use of nuclear power

-Economic growth should be prioritized over reductions in income inequality. 

Some additional resolutions/motions can be found here and here.

In most competitive debate events, students debate both sides of the motion.

The content of the motion is not what is most important. What is most important is that the motion is evenly balanced, that it is clear (lacking in ambiguity), and that it is possible for students to research and explore arguments on both sides. And I also think it is important that the topics engage students in issues of local, regional, and national concern. This gives them exposure to important issues beyond those in their immediate communities.

The most common age for students to debate is 14-18, though many elementary, middle, and university students compete.

In the US, most students attend at least 10 debate tournaments per year, and outside the US attendance at 4-6 tournaments is common. Some of the tournaments may have identical motions, providing students with the opportunity to develop arguments based on ideas developed in previous debate tournaments.

Integrating Competitive Academic Debate

While I think there are benefits to integrating DIN-style programming into competitive debate activities in the Dominican Republic, I also think there are benefits to providing training and support for youth in competitive debate events, both as part of DIN activities and perhaps separately.

I think that providing competitive debate training and competition opportunities for students would strengthen DIN in a number of ways.

First, debate tournaments provide students with many opportunities to practice speaking, argumentation, questioning of opponents, and learning about issues of the day. In every tournament, students will participate in at least four debates. In each debate, a student will normally deliver two speeches (a constructive and a rebuttal).   Given this format, each student will deliver eight speeches in every tournament and have the opportunity for those speeches (and the content of the speeches) to be critiqued by a trained judge. Development of these skills is  necessary for effective DIN advocacy.

Second, debate tournaments provide students with the opportunity to develop their skills and test out their arguments in front of a more limited audience (their peers and a single judge) before advancing them in a more public realm. Individuals who are learning to be public advocates but are a bit insecure in their young skill set and knowledge of the issues may find this opportunity to be invaluable.

There is considerable evidence that competitive debate develops confidence and supports student empowerment. Debate participants often experience debate as a form of personal empowerment. This includes feelings of personal efficacy, educational engagement, and political agency” (O’Donnell, 2010,p. 51). It gives students confidence they need to interact with peers and authority figures. As Cori Dauber explains, debate teaches students that “they ought not be intimidated by the rhetoric of expertise” surrounding policy issues. (Dauber 1989, 207). See also: Bauschard (2014).  Similar results have been observed amongst competitive debaters in China.

Nathaniel Haas, a Reno sophomore, said participating in debate has increased his confidence. “I’ve become a more confident person and more driven to accomplish goals because of the work ethic it teaches and requires,” said Haas, 15. “It teaches you to speak your mind, ask questions and engage.” (Reno Gazette, 2009).

Third, since debate requires students to debate both sides of the topic, students are forced to confront and understand the perspective of the other. Development of this type of empathy is important for individuals to accept the outcome of decisions regarding matters of importance to them and to be able to properly engage their opponent’s arguments (within a contest debate or outside in the community).

At least one study (Rogers 2002, 2005) indicates, there is evidence that debaters are more socially tolerant. This occurs because debaters have to develop arguments on both sides of the issue, leading students to develop empathy for the position of their opponent (Harrigan 2008; Muir 1993). Empirical research proves that debate involvement enhances beneficial argumentative skills, while reducing verbal aggression (Colbert 1993, 1994). Reflecting on the Open Society Institute’s lengthy experience, Breger reports that “debate teaches students to command attention with words, provides students with an alternate outlet for day-to-day conflicts, and gives them a tool with which they can combat physical aggression” (1998, 66–67).

Fourth, competitive debate presents the opportunity to attract more youth who may eventually be engaged in their community. Just as everyone may not want to participate in competitive debate, an exclusive focus on community activism debating will fail to attract those students who are interested in debating as a competitive outlet. It is competition that attracts many students to debate in the first place and keeps students focused and engaged in debate.

“Debate is a competitive activity,” said Kirkman, 28, a program coordinator for the league and a graduate of City College and Towson University. He is also a former debate league student. “Just like the football team, just like the basketball team, you have to commit to doing this at the highest level you can obtain.” [Baltimore Sun]

And competition makes debate fun:

Carlos Vasquez, a once-directionless 16-year-old student at Samuell High School in southeast Dallas, fell into debate by accident and never looked back. He’s now co-captain of the school’s debate squad. “Instead of going out and doing crazy teenager stuff, I became more interested in college,” he said. “I got away from all my bad influences.” Now, he said, he wants to be a lawyer. Debate, he said, gives him adrenaline and appeals to his competitive nature. “I like to learn,” he said. “Maybe all my life, I was just learning the wrong things.” [Dallas Morning News “I’ve never seen anything positive like this that was this much fun.” [Dallas Morning News]

Competitive debate opportunities should not be seen as form of debate that is inconsistent with more directly activist approaches to engaging the community.

Priten Shah, a recently former competitive debater of mine who engaged heavily in competitive debating for four years of high school (summer camps, 10+ tournaments a year) started his own international NGO, Teach 2 Learn, that pairs student tutors with students to support the development of academic skills.

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He also founded two websites related to social change – and . He attributes his success not only in his college admissions (Harvard class of 2018) but also in his social entrepreneurship to debate.

One individual who has recently made a big impact on social change is Glenn Greenwald.

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Glenn, a former debated at George Washington University (I debated against him a couple of times) , is a long-time advocate of civil liberties protections from government surveillance broke the Edward Snowden story, which revealed massive US government spying not only on Americans but on countries and people around the world. In his book, Glenn writes about using reasoning skills to change the world:

And for the rest of us, Snowden’s decision inspirational effect is no less profound. Quite simply, he reminded us about the extraordinary ability of any human being to change the world. An ordinary person in all outward respects – raised by parents without particular wealth or power, working as an obscure employee of a giant corporation – he has, through a single act of conscience,  literally altered the course of history. Even the most committed activists are often tempted to succumb to defeatism. The prevailing institutions seem to powerful to challenge; orthodoxies feel too powerful to uproot; there are always many parties with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But it is human beings collectively, not a small number of elites working in secret, who can decide what kind of world we want to live in. Promoting the human capacity to reason and make decisions: that is the purpose of whistle-blowing, of activism, of political journalism [Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the Surveillance State, Kindle edition, p. 3656]

This type of reasoning and decision-making is exactly the skill set that competitive debate helps students to develop. Critical thinking skills are an essential precondition for effective engagement in productive democratic deliberation (Owen 2004). Austin Freeley and David Steinberg contend, “since classical times, debate has been one of the best methods of learning and applying the principles of critical thinking” (2005, 2). Other meta-studies (Allen et al (1999); Colbert (1987); Barfield (1989)) and testimonial research (Katsulas & Bauschard 2000) reach similar conclusions.

The Baltimore advocacy group Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle (LBS) was started by two former debaters who believe that solutions to Black problems should be led by Black people.

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The Baltimore Sun reported on LBS:

At first glance, Dayvon Love is easy to overlook. At 5 foot 9, he has average height and a slightly larger than average build. As he carefully takes in everything and everyone in a room, he might initially seem painfully shy. So when he finally speaks, his observations can hit you like a punch you had no idea was coming.

He says that in his experience as a teacher, most Baltimore City Public Schools students think that “The whole idea of a person who could be quite successful someplace else making an intentional effort to be there with them is unthinkable.”

On Baltimore’s business community: “Big business dominates the [political] scene in Baltimore in a way that is not only wildly obvious but in a way that is not even very sophisticated,” and that domination extends to “black elected officials wanting to be liked and respected by their white peers.”

But he reserves his most scathing critiques for the city’s nonprofit community, members of which he describes as “white leadership using black bodies for their own gain.”

While he is only 25, Mr. Love has been honing his rhetorical fighting style for a decade. Ten years ago, after slipping into a practice session for the Baltimore Urban Debate League team at Forest Park High School to keep warm before class started, he used debate to earn a scholarship to college, then gained national attention as half of the first African-American team to win the Cross Examination Debate Association collegiate championship. In 2010, he cofounded Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a youth-led think tank and advocacy group, and one of many organizations that pressured the state of Maryland to scrap its plans to build a juvenile jail downtown. He even ran for City Council.

Mr. Love and his compatriots in LBS have a potent mix of political assets: passion; fearlessness; a keen eye for injustice; and the credibility of knowing one of the city’s most important institutions, its public schools, firsthand. Although Mr. Love lost his 2011 City Council race, his LBS-backed campaign gave the group an inside look at Baltimore politics. And the state’s youth jail decision is an indisputable win.

Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle believes that any group or campaign that sets out to fix policies that harm predominantly African-American communities must be led by African-Americans — period. In Baltimore, that covers a bevy of issues, including affordable housing, economic development, education and criminal justice reform. Mr. Love acknowledges that many of the whites he says are profiting from black suffering are doing so unintentionally, but he insists they are furthering the racial inequities set in place long before they were born. To end this cycle, he argues, African-Americans must control their own social policy agenda and any resources that support it. So as LBS works to upend the power structure in Baltimore, the question is: How far can a young, black radical go in this town? “In terms of stopping this jail, none of this would have happened without Dayvon, Adam [Jackson, LBS CEO], and others leading young people to say no,” says WEAA radio host Marc Steiner. Mr. Steiner has had conversations with LBS organizers on and off the air for several years now. When asked if he thought Mr. Love’s radical politics could be an obstacle to achieving the type of changes he and his LBS colleagues are advocating, he said no.

“In every generation, it’s been young people who have pushed the envelope,” says Heber Brown III, an African-American activist, commentator, and pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church, where Mr. Love is a member. And he agrees with LBS’ stance. “My experience is that some white people don’t want to be part [of a struggle] unless they’re in control,” says Mr. Brown. “Somebody has to anchor the left,” and not simply within Baltimore, says Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus of political science at the Johns Hopkins University. “Many changes can only come from state government,” he warns. This is especially true in two areas where LBS has been active: education and juvenile justice. “[Annapolis] is going to be much less friendly territory in which to operate because most legislators don’t come from communities with an African-American majority … but the state isn’t going to make the kinds of changes [Mr. Love] is demanding unless they hear about them and know he has a constituency.”

“Our ultimate goal is to be able to manifest power,” says Mr. Love, and to do so from the ground up by mobilizing people who feel disenfranchised. In 2011 LBS established a political action committee to help candidates whose politics align with their own, and Mr. Love cites his work as a debate coach and teacher as part of this larger effort to educate and empower marginalized communities. He knows it won’t be easy for LBS to push its way through the city’s political establishment. “It’ll take a tremendous amount of work,” he says, but he’s seen tougher odds. “[My college debate coach] was explaining how big us winning nationals was. The way he put it was that he watched us do the impossible, and because of that he was willing to support anything that we did. So that gives us the drive. [Even though] it’s highly unlikely to succeed, we’ve done things in the past that took an incredible amount of work to get done.”

Fifth, supporting student engagement with researchable public policy style topics helps the students move beyond the articulation individual personal perspectives to marshaling evidence that can be used for substantial policy engagement and to support more widespread change. Eventually, advocates who wish to effectively engage their community must be able to present evidence and defend arguments that are representative of more than their own individual perspective if they are going to persuade others and move the debate beyond what is best for individual advocates. Individual advocacy is important, but it must eventually be integrated with more widespread policy advocacy.

Sixth, competitive debate opportunities provide students with multiple opportunities (multiple tournaments, rounds of debate within each tournament) to hone additional skills that will benefit them in their DIN exchanges.

Debate provides leadership training. Debate is a “premier training ground for..future leaders” (O’Donnell, 1998). In the US, many former debaters occupy strong leadership roles in society. These include Thomas Goldstein, cofounder of SCOTUSBLOG and a litigator who has argued over 20 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court; Neal Katyal, the deputy solicitor general of the United States; John F. Kennedy Jr., and numerous U.S. senators and representatives.

Debate supports argumentation skills development. Argumentation is one of the important skills for maintaining a strong democratic society. Legislators make arguments to advocate policy changes. Politicians make arguments for why they should be elected. Argumentation is the lifeblood of a free society. Through debate, students learn how to construct valid arguments and are taught that sound reasoning and that appropriate evidence must support claims.

Debate supports oral communication and advocacy. Oral communication, including the persuasion of legislators, judges, executive branches officials, and the public at large is the lifeblood of democracy. Debaters consistently rank improved oral communication skills as one of the top benefits of participation in debate (Huston, 1985; Lybbert, 1985; Matlon and Keele, 1984; Oliver, 1985; Williams, McGee, and Worth, 2001).

Competitive academic debate offers significant opportunities to strengthen debate in the neighborhood initiatives by providing students with multiple live-fire training opportunities to develop advocacy and thinking skills in a relatively safe environment where they will engage important public policy questions (local, regional, and/or national) from both sides. The competitive framework has the added benefit of attracting kids who are motivated by the possibility of competitive success.

The National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL, more below) articulates this vision in the following slide:

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Competitive debate also boosts the academic achievement of participants.  In a study of urban debate league participants to those of academically similarly situated peers, Brianna Mezuk reports:

Key findings showed that debaters were more likely to graduate, more likely to meet ACT college-readiness benchmarks, and had greater gains in cumulative grade point average (GPA) over the course of high school relative to comparable peers. This is the largest evaluation study of a debate program on achievement, and these findings suggest that debate programs may offer a means to extend learning time and promote engagement with scholastic materials in a manner that translates into academic performance.

In another study, Mezuk demonstrates a correlation between frequency of participation and improved academic outcomes (gated, subscription required).

This study examines whether participating in competitive policy debate influences high school completion, academic achievement, and college-readiness for African American male students. The analysis examines data from the Chicago Debate League over a 10-year period from 1997 to 2006. Debate participants were 70% more likely to graduate and three-times less likely to drop out as those who did not participate, even after accounting for 8th grade test scores and GPA. Debater participants were more likely to score at or above the ACT benchmarks for college-readiness in English and Reading, but not in Science or Mathematics, than those who did not participate. While peripheral participation in debate had little impact on academic outcomes, more intense involvement significantly influenced scholastic achievement for young African American students in this urban setting.

A study of Houston debate league participants reached similar conclusions:

Overall, the current evaluation resulted in three main findings: (a) higher performing students may be more likely to participate in competitive policy debate; (b) after accounting for this potential selection bias, HUDL participants were more likely to have higher attendance rates, higher core course grades, and fewer disciplinary incidents than those who did not participate in debate; (c) intensity of participation in debate activities has an influence on these associations, such that students who participated in more rounds of debate had higher attendance rates, higher core course grades, and fewer disciplinary actions than those students with only marginal round participation.

Additional resources on the value of competitive debate are available here.

Addressing Concerns

Although many people at the conference where not working on projects that focused on competitive academic debate, most were familiar with it. Many expressed concerns related to developing competitive debate opportunities for their students (though some said it was simply outside the scope of their work).

In this section, I will address each of the concerns individually, but based on my conversations at the conference I would say that the one thing that most of the concerns had in common was an expression of the idea that competitive debate was not best for the students they work with. These participants saw competitive debate as something practiced largely by privileged (and also usually white and male) students who had outstanding educational backgrounds and opportunities. The see the groups of youth that they work with as disadvantaged and think that these youth as unlikely to be interested or successful in such a competitive academic environment.

While the concerns are obviously real (who am I to say they are not?), I think that they can be overcome and I think that there is considerable evidence from the United States that proves that point.

It is certainly the case that not all students are interested in debating all topics. Within the US, there is different interest in different topics by different genders, different races, and students of different social classes. These concerns certainly do not bifurcate clearly across these lines, but there are at least claimed differences amongst groups (though no formal research has been done).

One easy way to address this concern is to carefully consider what topics are chosen for particular debate tournaments. At the very least, tournament organizers should select a variety of topics that are likely to be of interest to different groups of students.

But even with this consideration in mind, it is important to expand student horizons (particularly amongst those who hope to be activists) beyond their immediate communities and needs. This is part of the benefit of engaging them in topics where they cannot directly be meaningful activists (foreign policy decision-making, for example).

Students are certainly interested in engaging in topics beyond those that are immediately most relevant to them. Every year thousands of students from urban debate leagues debate public-policy centered resolutions that are focused on local, regional, and national issues. Although many debaters are challenging the relevance of these resolutions for certain populations (see above), the overwhelming majority of students of all backgrounds are debating these policy-oriented resolutions.

Often, the knowledge that is apparently “outside” ones immediate sphere can become valuable in it. In an article originally published in Forbes magazine, James Crotty reported on students from inner city Chicago who participated in debates on financial issues, noted that “(T)here’s a tremendous opportunity here for these students – many of whom come from homes where policy discussions do not naturally occur around the dinner table — to take what they’ve learned about financial literacy from outside the classroom and help themselves and their families for the rest of their lives.”

And many of the issues discussed in debates end up becoming topics in the classroom where prior exposure benefits the students

For example, Nims said debate required him to do research on alternative energy last school year. Then the subject came up in science class, and he knew it well. Kelli Brill, a 16-year-old junior, agreed. “When we talk about abstract concepts, such as patriarchy and socialism, we’ll learn the beginning of these types of (movements) and when you talk about it in class, it refers back to debate,” Brill said.> (Reno Gazette Journal)

Others at the conference expressed concern that students in the disadvantaged populations that they work with will not be interested in such competitive academic contest debating. I wasn’t sure exactly why they felt this way, but there is evidence that students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not perform academically as well as privileged students, especially low SES students who are also members of minority classes that are frequently discriminated against.

While I cannot speak to how the disadvantages of underprivileged European youth compare to those of underprivileged US youth, I can say that in the US that students from less privileged backgrounds are eager participants in competitive contest debate.

In the US, the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL) was formed to advance the cause of debate activity for disadvantaged youth, primarily those in the countries inner cities. This year, more than 7,000 students participated in debate programs supported by NAUD. Eighty-six percent of urban debaters are students of color and 76% are from low-income families.

NAUDL is able to capture the interest of non-traditional debaters by “ignit(ing) their passion for learning” by “teaching them how to think, communicate, and collaborate, and by giving them frequent opportunities to practice and receive positive feedback and support”

And by igniting the passion for learning, competitive debate reverses the negative academic trajectories of the students. Gibson explains, “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.”

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained the impact of debate on motivating students:

Arne Duncan

In America, education is the great equalizer. And in our urban high schools, competitive debate is one of the great equalizers of educational opportunity. Urban debate leagues help ensure that teens in the inner-city get the same exposure to academic rigor as teens in wealthy suburban schools—where competitive debate teams have long been a fixture. Urban debate teams make it cool to be smart and work hard in the inner-city. And they are a fantastic outlet for harnessing the competitive instincts of young teens—and channeling them into building the skills they need to succeed in a knowledge-based, global economy.Like other competitive sports, debate teams make school more engaging and challenging. They give kids a reason to be excited about coming to school. But beyond the data, the most telling testaments of the power of competitive debate to change students’ lives come from students themselves. Benicio Ramalho, who graduated from Emmett Conrad High School in Dallas, was tardy for school so much as a junior that he actually had to go to truancy court and got fined $175. But after he got introduced to debate, he started arriving early at school to get involved in the morning practice for the team. In debate, he learned how to work with people he barely knew. He learned how to have confidence in his ideas—and present them in a logical fashion. He learned how to get work done under pressure—and how to logically evaluate everything presented to you, even in an unfamiliar situation. He learned how to keep his cool. Anthony Salazar, another student from Dallas, had little interest in school. He admits he couldn’t have cared less about his grades. But then he, too, got involved in competitive debate. And debate opened his eyes to all sorts of issues that had never crossed his mind. Each year at the end of school, Anthony felt like he had acquired expertise on whatever resolution was accepted for debate that year. Suddenly, writing English papers was easy. Math no longer dragged down his GPA.

Other conference participants that I spoke to expressed the notion that their students “couldn’t” debate. There was a hint that the students lacked the appropriate academic skills to debate competitive, which I took to mean that since they are likely starting with relatively inferior academic skills that they wouldn’t be able to compete (read “win”) when debating against their more skilled opponents.

First, as I just discussed, debate works to increase productive student involvement in academics, contributing to the development of skills that students need to succeed in the classroom. As students academic skills are strengthened, they will become more capable of competing against students with superior academic skills.

Second, any new competitive program should begin by having debaters with similar debate and academic skills compete against one another. This creates an immediately level playing field that works to encourage students to stay involved with debate. If the first tournament competitors consist of students who are all in academically difficult situations, many students in those situations will emerge as winners.

Debate leagues should eventually aim to integrate all students so that students of all backgrounds have the opportunity to debate against one another, as this is one of the great benefits of interscholastic debate competition. Urban debate leagues in at least Baltimore, Detroit, and New York have all produced debating teams that have successfully competitively integrated with local, regional, and national competitors from the very best schools and leagues in the United States.  This year, students from New York reached the finals of the Harvard tournament and students from Detroit reached the finals of the Cal Berkeley tournament, two of the most competitive debate tournaments in the United States.

And the US National Speech and Debate Organization (NSDA, formerly NFL) now offers free memberships to all urban debate league students as a way to support both instruction and integration of the students.  NSDA has also made it possible for students in those leagues to qualify to the NSDA tournament through their own qualifying approaches.

Third, there is evidence from the US that students from socioeconomically and academically disadvantaged backgrounds can succeed at the highest levels of debate and against the most privileged students from the wealthiest schools. Just this year, Rayvon Dean from University Prep in Detroit, a charter school that opened its doors in 2007 to help the disadvantaged youth Detroit, was the best speaker at the Tournament of Champions (TOC) in Lexington, KY. The TOC is probably the most elite debate tournament in the US, inviting only the top 72 two-person teams in the nation (out of thousands) to compete. Many of these students attend the most well-resourced public and private schools, but this year Rayvon beat them all out.

In an article about the Detroit Urban Debate League, Rayvon noted, “The DUDL allowed me to interact with people that the average 16 year old can’t. Moreover, it shows that students in urban areas are able to engage in educational events even though they go to urban schools,” said Dean.” [Carlton].

You can view his powerful speech at the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues national championships here.

Dayvon will attend Wake Forest University this fall. Other urban debate league students have been admitted to, and recruited by Emory, Dartmouth, Harvard, Northwestern, Oklahoma, and many other leading universities. Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas (USA) recently established debate scholarships for urban debate league students.

Debaters who have participated in competitive urban debate league programming have also been successful on the university level. Last year, the winners of the two major national debate tournaments in the US (National Debate Tournament (NDT) and Cross Examination Debate Tournament (CEDA) were both urban debate league students. This year’s CEDA winning team was also comprised of urban debate league students.

The top individual speaker at the NDT this year was an urban debate league student from California who was homeless most his junior year of high school and originally attended a summer debate camp because it offered free food.

Another conference participate expressed his concern that debate was too combative, too adversarial. This is a common criticism of debate and I think it is a fair criticism if one’s model of debate is simply to assume that debate is, “you say ‘yes’ and I say ‘no.’” It doesn’t appear that this model will accomplish anything productive and the drive to win just creates an incentive for one side to continue to clash with the other.

The problem I see with this criticism is that I don’t think the process of debate that it criticizes is really the debate process that actually occurs, or at least should occur when debate competitions are properly structured.

First, as debaters move into rebuttals, especially into the final rebuttals, they must focus their mental energy on synthesizing the arguments in a way that demonstrates that their side wins. An effective synthesis requires an understanding that your opponent is winning some arguments and then explain how those arguments can fit within your arguments (synthesis) and/or how your arguments are still more important than your opponent’s. Done well, debate is really dialogic – thesis, anti-thesis, and synthesis.

Second, as discussed, debate exposes students to other perspectives, encouraging them to change their minds on issues. Even though young people have an individual incentive to argue a point in a particular way to win a given debate, they may still come to understand that their opponent is actually right, and that is what matters in the end, not who won or lost the debate.

Third, the important thing is what the debaters learn – the skills they develop – through the process of debate.

The final concern that I heard expressed about competitive academic debating was that it is resource intensive and that many of the students they work with from disadvantaged communities lack the resources to succeed.

It is certainly the case that debate is resource intensive. In the states, and elsewhere, parents and schools invest significant resources in academic debate that gives students a competitive advantage. Students and schools in lower SES communities do not have these resources. Without them, in the words of Dr. Metz, these students have a higher step to climb and competitive debate (and really any form of debate) will only work for students if they are provided with the resources through grants and donations to make debate happen, but there is strong evidence that the step will work.

“The odds are stacked against these students … but debate changes those odds,” said Nicole Serrano, executive director of the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance. Involvement in urban debate makes students 70 percent more likely to graduate from high school, according to a recent study by Briana Mezuk at Virginia Commonwealth University. Budner  (DUDL co-founder) said the students also become more likely to attend and graduate from college. “Students who weren’t even going to graduate from high school are now going to Ivy League and other top schools,” he said.

Combining Activist Approaches with Competitive Debate

This essay has presented DIN and competitive debate approaches as different debate methods that both have tremendous value for youth. Although the approaches can be considered separately, the ultimate goal is to combine elements of both approaches into each other.

If you remember back from the beginning of this essay, Natala injected elements of a community debating approach — primary research with residents impacted by the building of a highway —  into her debates about public policy, even going as far as to argue that she was presenting the best type of evidence.

Meta debate — debates about debate — that involve student and coach self-reflexivity on current norms and practices that govern debate really constitute a form of DIN in the neighborhood within the competitive sphere. Just as students in Hungary organized debates with teachers and other school administrators to improve curriculum in their own schools, debaters in the United States have been participating in debates about how to improve the curriculum of debate. Adding DIN-style exchanges inside the competitive format boosts the reflexivity of the format in a way that fulfills one of the goals of student empowerment outlined by Dr. Metz.

Integrating DIN-style approaches directly into contest debating approaches (and offering them as compliments) also works to insure that the students do not use the skills in “insular” ways and they instead are used to develop an “outward, activist turn” that will contribute to the growth of society (Mitchell, 1998).

And, community-based DIN approaches can benefit from adding competitive elements that will further motivate the students, attract additional students, and encourage to push the bounds of evidence and research beyond their own lived experiences. Through high quality empirical research, these competitive approaches have also been shown to improve academic outcomes.

Ultimately, effective public policy advocacy in the real world involves a synergy of DIN and competitive debate approaches and skills, and practitioners and supporters should work to develop models that combine both approaches.

Moving Ahead

The participants in the IDEA Netherlands DIN Exchange were focused on improving the livelihoods of disadvantaged youth through community-focused efforts that included debate as a method. Some of these methods included using debate techniques as a form of community activism, but none of them included developing contest debating opportunities to support their ends.

As a long time contest debate coach, I believe that developing contest debate opportunities for the students could motivate additional youth to engage and stay engaged in debate, provide substantial training for students engaged in community debating initiatives, strengthen the development of a number of other related skills, and improve academic outcomes. Although providing socioeconomically disadvantaged students with opportunities to debate competitively will necessarily involve investing outside resources, available evidence indicates that the investment is worth it and that the students will succeed in these environments.

Experience also demonstrates that as debate develops to include more SES students that the debate community has the capacity to adapt make the debate experience meaningful for more people. In this way, competitive contest debating not only helps to lessen the step from youth to adulthood that Dr. Metz suggests, but that it also has the potential to empower students in a way that she suggests will ultimately give them the skills and confidence needed to seek improvements in their own public sphere, including their own debating communities. While this latter form of empowerment will certainly generate controversy, and it has caused substantial conflict within the US debate community, such dissensus is an inevitable outcome of high quality empowerment training.  And it is an outcome that the competitive model of debate has successfully produced in the United States.

Based on the success of the contest model in the US, I encourage IDEA NL to increase its support for contest debating in Europe. As a leading debate organization not only in the Netherlands but throughout Eastern Europe, IDEA NL is well situated to support the development of contest debating opportunities for the students. Not only does it have a network of trainers at its disposal, but it has proven successful in raising the resources necessary for the development of these types of projects. Moreover, it already has strong connections with Debate in the Neighborhood initiatives that dovetail well with contest debating opportunities.

Development of both community-based and competition-based debating opportunities will give students the skills that they need to emerge as leaders and strengthen their own communities, which is necessary to sustain democratization.

Ultimately, debate, and the value of debate, will be the strongest when DIN and competitive debate approaches are combined in a way that can most effectively empower advocates to become agents of social change.  IDEA NL can facilitate this development both by investing in the two models and by looking for ways to combine that two approaches in ways that will stimulate the best community activism amongst youth.

With this goal in mind, I will conclude this article the say way that James Crotty concluded his Forbes article:

As the late great Bronx High School of Science (competitive academic) debate coach, Richard B. Sodikow .. said in an interview on the Master Debaters DVD, debate “is a wonderful equalizer. And for the teaching of democracy, there is nothing better.”


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