Landmark Urban Debate Study Published

Shows Significant, Measurable Gains in Academic Achievement

An unprecedented, peer reviewed study of the Chicago Debate League concludes that intense participation in interscholastic debate produces significant gains in several important measures of academic achievement.

Published in the Journal of Negro Education, the research was led by Dr. Briana Mezuk of the Department of Epidemiology at the Virginia Commonwealth University and conducted in conjunction with the University of Michigan, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and the Chicago Public Schools. It retrospectively examined ten years of data from urban debate participants in Chicago Public Schools.

Dr. Mezuk’s report found significant benefits of in-depth debate participation in such metrics as graduation rates, grade point average, college and career readiness, and secondary literacy. This is the first of several forthcoming papers which will advance the evidence base establishing the effectiveness of Urban Debate Leagues such as the kind pioneered by the CDL.

From Dr. Mezuk’s abstract:

“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.”

One of the more interesting results of Dr. Mezuk’s study is that she found debate participation was linked with gains in English and Reading, but not with with similar improvements in Science and Math. Those findings indicate that students benefit from the specific skills that debating builds such as English composition, understanding nonfiction texts, evaluating evidence, using arguments, and development of vocabulary. This finding may also help to refute the notion that higher levels of academic achievement among debaters may be explained as self-selection bias, since one would expect across-the-board academic gains if that were the case.