Debate helps students become experts in critical reading, writing, and argumentation. The academic impact of Urban Debate Leagues is well documented, but deserves a few more words: these leagues create communities in which intellectual skills earn social esteem – in other terms, they make smart cool. In a debate, a deep understanding of text and argument makes the difference between victory and defeat. Critical reading, thoughtful speaking, and original research are skills that debaters spend countless hours of their own time mastering. In practices, tournaments, and late-night study sessions, students teach their peers about political arguments by decoding, interpreting, summarizing, and responding to difficult texts. A study of the Minnesota league showed that students with a year of debate under their belt improved over 60% more than non-debaters on a reading test; young people in a study cutting across six UDLs improved their GPA by 8-10% per year on average.
The wide range of students served by UDLs all have a significantly higher chance of going to college by virtue of participating in debate. The program offers explicit connections to universities: each team has a college student mentor that works with the coach to guide students; tournaments and trainings often take place on college campuses, with judges who are themselves professors and students; and most importantly, all students participate in intensive college access programs. Across all UDLs, 90% of students in debate graduate high school and 75% go on to attend a 4-year college or university. Many of these never imagined going to college before they began debating.
When they get to college, debaters are prepared to succeed. Young people who have found their critical voice through debating are armed with intellectual skills and self-confidence that sets them apart from most incoming freshmen. Even better, debate can help young people ease the financial burden of higher education: urban debaters have already received more than $4 million in college scholarships, many specifically granted by college debate teams.
Debate brings young people into an lifelong, national community of achievement
Bay Area students who debate will forge social ties that last throughout their lives. Most intense will be the relationship with their debate team, which builds school pride and group unity through competition with other high schools; also important will be the league, where students will become friends with a diverse group of minds that they would never have met without debate. But what is most unique about debate is the strong national community that young people join as they start traveling to tournaments. The national debate circuit puts students in contact with a diverse network of peers that only grows as they enter college. Many of those who debate in high school and college go on to become lawyers, policymakers, and academics; all of them maintain – and benefit from – the friends and contacts they make in debate. Urban debaters in the Bay Area will make connections across divides of race, culture, and class that gear them for a lifetime of accomplishment.
These connections know no physical boundary. Students in urban debate leagues regularly travel across state lines for tournaments, competing on even footing with students from elite private schools. Better yet, through fundraising efforts led by local advisory boards, hundreds of urban debaters every year attend rigorous summer debate institutes held on the campuses of top college debate squads, including Dartmouth, Michigan, and Northwestern.
LEADING WITH DEBATE FELLOWSHIP
Debate prepares young people for passionate, informed political participation
Students in Bay Area public schools have plenty of political opinions; the problem lies in connecting these opinions to hard evidence and rigorous proposals for change. Urban debate leagues solve this problem by creating a competitive game in which students succeed by crafting and advocating informed policy positions. To win a round of debate, young people have to convince a judge that their plan is better-researched and more effective than any alternative offered by their opponents. Nothing could be better preparation for advocacy in the real world. Indeed, urban debate leagues have repeatedly brought students in front of school boards, city councils, and state and national representatives to test their powers of argumentation on the problems of actual policymaking. In the Bay Area, as in the 23 other locations currently served by UDLs, debate will nurture a group of politically engaged young people with both the critical consciousness to analyze the problems of the current system and the rare skills to find new ways forward.