Debate This: Making The Case For Funding Middle And High School Forensic Programs

There is nothing I believe in more strongly than forensics.

But before I can make my case for funding middle and high school forensic programs, I’m guessing most of you are scratching your heads over what I mean by “forensic programs.” What exactly is forensics?

For most people, images from an episode of “CSI” or a courtroom drama come to mind. Fingerprints, DNA tests, cotton swabs, rubber gloves – these are all commonly associated with the word “forensics.”

While that may be what it means to many people, that is not what it means that to me. Believe it or not, forensics has a second definition, an older definition rooted in the classical period of ancient Greece. According to the American Forensic Association, “the Greeks organized contests for speakers that developed and recognized the abilities their society felt central to democracy. These exercises acquired the title ‘forensics,’ derived from the Latin term for ensis and closely related to forum.”

A forensic would typically involve argumentation by presenting evidence in a public debate, thus the connection with modern criminal forensics, which is used as evidence in the courtroom.

Forensics is debate.

When I think of forensics, I think of the National Forensic League, which recently changed its name to the National Speech and Debate Association. The organization facilitates competitive speech and debate for middle and high school students across the country, boasting a membership of 120,000 students with 1.4 million alumni in nearly 90 years of existence.

Other organizations such as the National Catholic Forensic League and National Christian Forensics and Communications Association also have large memberships and rich histories. With a presence in thousands of schools across the country, many students can tell stories of the “debate nerds” they encountered in high school.

I was one of those debate nerds, and am a proud alumnus of the National Forensic League. Being with my high school’s speech and debate team changed my life. Without it, I probably would have dropped out of high school. Debate challenged me to be better, smarter than I was. Furthermore, I would not have made some of the incredible friends with whom I still keep in close contact – even two years after graduating. I cannot help but believe in the importance of extracurricular programs like speech and debate in middle and high schools.

Unfortunately, my high school’s speech and debate program, which has been in continuous existence since the 1970s, will not have a presence at my alma mater next year. The team’s coach retired from teaching last year, but returned to lead the team for one more year, hoping the school’s administrators would use the year as an opportunity to bring in a new faculty member willing to coach the team.

They did not. While my high school’s downsized debate squad traveled the state of Georgia to compete, the administration sat on its hands and did nothing.

Students at the 2012 NFL Southern Peach District national qualifying tournament.

Students at the 2012 NFL Southern Peach District national qualifying tournament.

This is not a situation unique to my high school – it’s a situation we are seeing across the country. High school speech and debate programs, along with many other extracurricular activities and athletic programs, are seeing their budgets gutted and resources decimated as a result of the prolonged economic recovery. In some cases, these activities are terminated altogether.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote in February 2011, “legislators and administrators are simply cutting on the basis of what’s politically easy and what vaguely seems expendable. In education, many administrators are quick to cut athletics, band, cheerleading, art and music because they have the vague impression that those are luxuries. In fact, they are exactly the programs that keep kids in school and build character.”

Brooks is correct, and I’ll take it a step farther. These extracurricular activities – speech and debate, particularly – are doing more to prepare students for the real world than the education being received in the classroom.

I’m not the only one who believes this. In a 1995 article for the English Journal titled “Forensics Can Change Lives,” Ella Shaw, then a 20-year teaching veteran and forensic coach, shared her belief that “(forensics) teaches students lessons about language and communication that cannot be taught in the confines of the language arts classroom.”

As Shaw explains, students in forensics are exposed to wide swaths of literature and research that other high school students would not otherwise encounter in the classroom environment. Being well read is something these students have to achieve in order to remain competitive in tournaments.

Now, many make the argument that these benefits are limited to honors and gifted students, as they are allegedly the only ones who can keep pace with the high-tempo speech and debate world.

This is blatantly false. National Speech and Debate Association President Don Crabtree addressed the issue in a letter he wrote in March 2012:

Time and time again, I have seen the National Forensic League provide an important “niche” for students as they search for an identity in high school. A number of these students have been “at risk” students who, because of their involvement in speech and debate, were able to achieve academic and social success in high school.

Brief as the statement was, it highlights what is probably the greatest feat of speech and debate programs across the country – empowering at-risk students.

The Emmy-nominated documentary “Resolved” sheds light on the realities of high school debate. Following two policy debate teams – one from a well funded, highly regarded program in Texas and the other from a cash-strapped school in the slums of Long Beach – the documentary highlights the struggles, victories and defeats in the lives of four debaters (two debate teams).

In a compelling tale, the underdog team from Jordan High School in Long Beach goes on a crusade to challenge the framework of high school debate, a story that reveals the competitiveness and grit of the activity. While they did not advance to the Tournament of Champions, the case they presented still lingers in policy debate rounds across the country today.

Beyond that, as of result of the skills acquired from debating in high school, both of the competitors on the Long Beach team went on to college – something the two openly admit wouldn’t have been in their future otherwise. And I’m not talking about local community colleges: one went to Cal State Fullerton and the other to the University of Louisville. The documentary is a must-watch for anyone who questions the ability of speech and debate to reshape the lives of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

The extemp prep room at the 2011 NFL Speech and Debate Tournament in Dallas.

The extemp prep room at the 2011 NFL Speech and Debate Tournament in Dallas.

The benefits of participation in speech and debate are clear. Research has shown time and again students gain valuable analytical and organizational skills by competing, the kind of skills that cannot be developed in the classroom.

In a 2009 survey of forensic coaches across the country who teach, researchers James M. Wade and Leslie Wade Zorwick found that “the majority of respondents saw moderate or significant improvement in (student) engagement and participation (92.3%), increased skill development (88.6%), growth in content knowledge (84.2%), and academic performance (66.2%) following the inclusion of argumentation and debate into their class.”

Speech and debate programs positively affect the classroom environment and give students the skills they need to attend college. It’s as simple as that. There are very few other extracurricular activities that have the kind of research to support that claim.

While it might seem like an easy program to cut in a tight budgetary situation, speech and debate invariably changes a school. Abandoning these programs isolates students who would otherwise reap the benefits in their academic and personal lives. Truly forward-thinking schools will stand by their speech and debate programs while regressive schools hang them out to dry.

We live in an unfortunate times where budget cuts are necessary, but speech and debate should not be on the chopping block. There’s just too much at stake.

  • Luke McQuillen

    As someone who was part of the first speech team in my high school’s history and a current college competitor, I strongly concur with this article. Forensics had a life-changing effect on me.

  • Bill Swafford

    Not just the student, but the coach as well. I would not have stayed in education if it were not for the activities of Speech and Debate. Every year, I saw the lights go on in students that were otherwise at risk, not because they were not smart but because it provided an outlet for activities that they thought exciting and competitive in ways that no number or shapes of balls being kicked, thrown, dribbled, hit, passed, poked, shredded or clubbed could ever do. It is funny how athletic coaches always come into a program with the thought of it being a stepping stone to the next bigger program but Speech and Debate coaches come into a school (often with none existent programs or poorly funded) with the idea of how to make this work and grow. Most of us are dynasty builders. We instill our dreams into the minds of our student dreamers, encouraging those who seem to have little talent at all to achieve greatness and demanding those with much talent to not waste it. I have loved every minute, even though some of my students would question this, and I would not trade my experiences for all of the athletic trophies that remain on display in the main hall. It’s ok that our trophies fill a room only a few of us can see. We know what it took to get them, and we are ever so proud to add to their number. Bill Swafford, LCHS Speech and Debate Coach, GFCA Georgia 2012 Speech Coach of the Year, 2013 inductee to the Georgia Speech Coach Hall of Fame and soon to be recognized for excellence in coaching with his second coaching diamond in the National Speech and Debate Association (formerly the National Forensic League.)

  • NorCalGidget

    Having seen the same situation happen at my own high school, I completely agree. Though I participated in IE and not debate, my coach made sure to teach both programs. And it did “Change Lives.” I’ve seen underprivileged youth soar out of their horrible life situations and into a program that gave them courage and hope for their future. And best of all, they used their skills to earn their way to college and and are now working for great companies.

    And I did see the negative affects when it was taken away. One team member specifically told me forensics was the only reason he would stay clean and sober “I can’t be my best when I’m high.” The coach knew about his drug addiction and would help him along the way and check up on. But when the coach left and the program was canceled, the student was expelled, dropped out of high school (he just started his Jr. year) and is now a dealer on the streets. I see his name from time to time in police reports or on the news.

    Forensics opened a whole new world for me. I learned how to be confident. I was able to travel across the nation. But most importantly, it exposed me to new ideas, discussions, and people I would not have know without forensics.

    I have tried to bring back the program to my high school. Though our school district is “in favor” of elective classes and clubs (wood shop, agriculture, computer, etc.) forensics just doesn’t seem to make the cut.
    Thank you for your article, I will definitely be sharing it with my school district.

  • K.K.

    Debate, would be a great way to get children involved, I agree, this could be very beneficial to middle and high school students; I’m all for working with building funds for this program in our schools, how do I become a part of this iniatitive.