“Have sports teams brought down America’s schools?” a post on the New Yorker blog asked Friday.

The author of the essay, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert, lamented that her twin 14-year-old sons had daily two-hour soccer practices for two weeks before school began. If math teachers insisted on a similar regimen of summer math drills, they’d never get away with it, she asserted.

I agree that our infatuation with high school sports is getting out of hand. Our little gladiators now are expected to develop themselves year-round—to lift weights in the offseason and play on travel squads through the summer. This can crowd out other extracurriculars: It can make it hard for an athlete to play an instrument, or give acting a try, or volunteer. Or, in the summer, to daydream.

But Kolbert’s complaint wasn’t that
She wondered what it would be like if the time lavished on sports was instead spent on academics.

She pointed to the mediocre performance of U.S. students on international tests, pointing out that in 2009, U.S. students ranked 31st in math and 17th in reading out of 74 countries in exams conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment. When new PISA results are announced in December, “American high-school students will once again display their limited skills in math and reading,” Kolbert predicted.

“American kids’ performance on the field shows just how well they can do when expectations are high and they put their minds to it,” she wrote. “It’s too bad that their test scores show the same thing.”

There’s little evidence, however, that an overemphasis on sports dragged down America’s scores on PISA—and substantial evidence that our scores were hurt by the usual culprits: poverty and segregation.

In those 2009 PISA results, the composite U.S. reading score was 500, which, as Kolbert noted, ranked 17th internationally. [TK OUT OF HOW MANY?]

U.S. schools with few low-income students (students eligible for free or reduced price lunch because their families are within 185 percent of the poverty line) —

less than 10 percent of the students were low-income, the composite reading literacy score was 551—second highest in the world to Shanghai-China. In schools with between 10 percent and 25 percent low-income students, the composite was 527—fifth in the world. But in schools with 75 percent or more low-income students, the composite was 446—45th globally out of 66 nations with composite reading scores.

In February, a federal advisory committee, the Equity and Excellence Commission, reported that

“While some young Americans—most of them white and affluent—are getting a truly world-class education, those who attend students in high-poverty neighborhoods are getting an education that more closely approximates school in developing nations.”

Chicago’s top academic high schools—among them Whitney Young, Payton, and Lane Tech…

Affluent New Trier in Winnetka sparkles on the SAT and on the…

, and again will be outscored “by students in places like South Korea, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan.”

This is a result, Kolbert suggests, of Americans lavishing too much time and money on sports and not enough on academics.

Sports and academics aren’t the only choices, and activities that we can score shouldn’t be all that we revere.