Contributing to debate

Contributing to debate

Public school debate teams give students more than just a good argument

Microphilanthropy is an occasional feature that calls attention to small acts of generosity that people do for the benefit of others and highlights little-known needs that could benefit from generosity, even on a small scale.

IF YOU WENT to a high school with reasonable resources, there was almost certainly a debate team. It’s possible the participants were a bit geeky but they were also smart, intense, and as committed to the competition as any varsity athlete. What set them apart is that even more than athletes, almost all of them went to college, graduated, and disproportionately launched successful careers. High quality schools have long seen competitive debate as a path for students to develop discipline, intellectual rigor, and effective communication skills. Young people who do debate often retain a lifelong appreciation for the experience.

Ten years ago, a small handful of ex-debaters, by then in their own successful careers in Boston, were distressed to learn that the city’s public school system had virtually no debate opportunities for its high school and middle school students. Boston youngsters were left without access to an extracurricular path that served suburban students well. In response, the former debaters founded a nonprofit organization, the Boston Debate League, with the mission of giving urban students access to a valuable resource.

Initially, a handful of volunteers persuaded approximately 25 students to participate in after-school debate activities. The program attracted the attention of former superintendent Carol Johnson, who attended a tournament and was impressed to see Boston Public School kids engaged in intense competitive intellectual argument on a Saturday afternoon. With her encouragement, the debate program grew quickly. The league is now available in 20 high schools and 16 middle schools with a goal of expanding to a total of 75 schools by 2021. The Boston Debate League has 16 employees and serves 4,000 students with the help of 800 volunteers. The Boston Public Schools fund 20 percent of the cost but 80 percent must come from donations.

The growing enthusiasm for encouraging Boston youth to engage in debate stems from strong outcomes among students taking part. Participants are three times more likely than the typical Boston student to graduate from high school; 89 percent more likely to attend college; and 80 percent more likely to graduate from college. Even students who don’t chose to participate in formal debate are benefitting from lessons in “Evidence Based Argumentation” that are now part of the curriculum in 10 schools where teachers recognize the value in urban kids learning new ways to resolve disputes. Mike Wasserman, the Boston Debate League’s executive director, says students “are building their confidence, expanding their understanding of real-world issues, developing and strengthening their critical thinking and analytical skills, and helping build a supportive academic community.”

The formal debate structure requires that participating students prepare to argue either side of a proposition using carefully researched evidence and arguments. The propositions often involve public policy questions, which may explain why two out of three members of Congress (and lots of other politicians) are former debaters.

The Boston students who join the debate program practice after school and many of them participate in six major tournaments a year sponsored by the Boston Debate League. Formal debates involving hundreds of kids earnestly arguing in a structured format require lots of judges. Volunteers fill that role after they participate in a one-time, 45-minute training session covering the ground rules. Depending on whether the debaters are from middle school or high school, the tournaments occur on Friday afternoons or Saturdays. Judges are assigned tours of approximately four hours to listen to and score a portion of the many teams participating in the tournaments. It’s exciting for the kids and for the judges.

Meet the Author

Edward M Murphy

Guest Contributor

About Edward M Murphy

Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.

About Edward M Murphy

Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He recently retired as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.

To sustain the program and continue its expansion into more schools, the Boston Debate League needs two things: donations of money and the time of volunteers. If you can make a tax-deductible contribution or if you can spend time serving as a debate judge, check out the League’s web site at
www.bostondebate.org or contact Alicia Adamson at 857-239-9549. The Boston Debate League is located at 54 Canal St, 4th Floor, Boston, MA 02114.