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Study: Outcomes of Students in Policy Debate Programs Linked to ELA Improvements and Postsecondary Enrollment

Participating in policy debate programs in grade school is associated with improvements in English language arts (ELA) and better odds of graduating and going to college, according to findings from a new study in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis.Dr. Beth SchuelerDr. Beth SchuelerUniversity of Virginia

Policy debate is a competitive activity in which students engage in structured argumentation about public policy issues, often requiring in-depth learning about policy areas. Such debate programs are usually disproportionately found in private and high-income public schools, but nonprofit Boston Debate League serves a student population mostly made up of low income and students of color.

The studypublished by the American Educational Research Association (AERA) – examined data of students in Boston Public Schools during the 2007–08 to 2017–18 school years, of which 3,515 took part in the Boston Debate League.

Researchers found that students in policy debate programs during their middle and high school years saw improvements in ELA achievement and increases in the likelihood of graduating and enrolling in four-year colleges and universities.

“We found that debate was linked to improvements not only in overall ELA achievement but specifically in those ELA competencies requiring critical thinking skills,” said study co-author Dr. Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. “The impact was almost entirely concentrated among reading subskills that involve more analysis and argumentation.”

The largest ELA gains were for the lowest performing students, indicating that the activity does not need to be exclusive to high-achieving students. Researchers have found few practices this effective for secondary school students, especially for student literacy, the study authors noted.

“These results provide policymakers a rare promising program for reducing inequality in reading achievement, analytical thinking skills, and educational attainment among middle and high school students,” said study co-author Katherine Larned, a doctoral student in Harvard University’s education policy and program evaluation program. “Debate programs are cost-effective relative to other high-profile interventions and therefore have great potential for scalability.”








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