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Susan Kirsch

Promoting Achievement in School through Sport (PASS): A Description and Evaluation Study

Susan Kirsch, Ph.D.
American Sports Institute

Paper presented at the roundtable "School Sports: Opportunities and Implications for Teaching and Learning" at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association Montreal, Canada

My 15-year old son bursts through the front door, drops his heavy backpack on the floor, slumps into the couch and declares, "School sucks." Along with many other parents, I witness this routine almost daily. Although his grade point average hovers around a 3.5, his enthusiasm for learning, as it occurs in the classroom and as he tackles homework, is at ground zero. His friends—intelligent, thoughtful, inquisitive kids—share his sentiments. We know he's among the lucky ones. He attends a safe public school with competent teachers, a variety of courses, and a reputation for qualifying students for the best colleges and universities.

Like many other students, however, his eyes light up when the subject turns to sports. Many people believe that participating in sports takes away from academic achievement. They call for a decrease in the emphasis on sports in our schools and cut funding for sports and physical education programs. However, if we examine the appropriate, positive aspects of sport culture, we discover that sport can play a significant role in educational reform.

PASS History and Background

In 1983, Dr. Joel Kirsch, a former high school and university instructor, teamed up with the San Francisco Giants as their sports psychologist. Using five years of research about what contributes to athletic success and an extensive study of the martial art of aikido, Kirsch batted .300 in improving players' on-field performance. In 1985, Kirsch returned to education with a commitment to harness the power of sport as a means to truly make a difference in society at large and in particular, to improve the individual lives of young people. As a former classroom teacher and a researcher at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL), I was eager to join him to create the American Sports Institute. We established ASI as a nonprofit organization with a mission to reunite body, mind, and spirit in order to fulfill the human potential.

We modeled ASI's mission on the ancient philosophy of the Greeks, founders of The Olympic Games. Prior to the 4th century B.C., Greek society was governed by the principle of areté. Areté can be defined as a constant striving for excellence in a balanced and unified manner that incorporates body, mind, and spirit. It was in the spirit of areté that Plato and Socrates participated in wrestling, as well as in philosophy, and that poetry recitals were a valued part of the early Olympic Games (Jaeger, 1965).

Current educational practices, however, often appeal to the disembodied brain, as if the physical domain were less important than the intellectual. However, through the ages the voices of a few pioneers can be heard calling for educational reform that integrates body, mind, and spirit. In 1892 William James delivered a series of talks to teachers at Cambridge in which he said, "I hope that here in America more and more the ideal of the well-trained and vigorous body will be maintained neck by neck with that of the well-trained and vigorous mind as the two coequal halves of the higher education for men and women alike." (James, 1958, p. 135). In 1968, social theorist George Leonard published Education and Ecstasy, in which he boldly challenges educators to return education to its ecstatic roots. A few years later Leonard wrote The Ultimate Athlete in which he holds out the exhilarating possibility of sport playing a role in transforming education. He claims, "We shall discover that the mind-body split constituted a major error in Western thought, one that must never be repeated. Athletics can return to their rightful place of honor in the arts and humanities. The physical-education department can stand at the center of the campus, the foundation stone of the entire educational enterprise." (Leonard, 1974, p. 19).

In Frames of Mind, Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner expands our definition of intelligence by identifying seven distinct modes of intelligence, including bodily-kinesthetic. Daniel Goleman also pushes our definition of what it means to be smart in Emotional Intelligence. The late A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was the commissioner of Major League Baseball and President of Yale, contended, "The Greeks saw physical training and games as a form of knowledge, meant to toughen the body in order to temper the soul, activities pure in themselves, immediate, obedient to the rules so that winning would be sweeter." (Simon, 1985, p. 131).

But for any of the theory about integrating body, mind, and spirit, what goes on in our classrooms often appears to be addressed to the imperial brain. Many of the problems facing society today—dropouts, drug abuse, teen pregnancy, violence, suicide, ill-prepared workers, etc.— stem from unhitching the brain from the body, the learner from the lesson, and the heart from life's challenges. ASI strives to connect achievement, relevance, and joy to the learning process by using the positive aspects of sport culture to improve education.

PASS Audience and Goals

The Promoting Achievement in School through Sport program is based on the belief that both sport and education can be mutually beneficial to enable students to succeed in all aspects of their lives (e.g., Griffin, 1991; Leonard, 1974). The PASS program is a daily, yearlong, credit-bearing elective course targeted for middle and high school boys and girls. While many PASS students have a love of sports and participate in individual sports or on varsity or recreational teams, this is not a prerequisite for signing up for the PASS class. Nor is the PASS class intended for an exclusive group of students considered "at-risk" because of struggles with academics, attendance, or attitude problems, although a portion of the class is often made up of these students. Students either register for the class or are recommended by their athletic director, coach, counselor, administrator, or teacher. The PASS class integrates sport with language arts, philosophy, psychology, physical education, and social studies. It involves parent/guardian participation gained through informational letters and three parent/guardian get-togethers.

There are four student goals embedded in the PASS curriculum: (1) to improve academic performance, (2) to develop character, confidence, and self-management skills, (3) to improve relationships with peers, teachers, and other adults, and (4) to develop skills in critical thinking, planning, problem solving, time management, and working in teams.

PASS is offered at a middle or high school after a certified teacher participates in a three-phase, 120-hour professional development training program offered by the American Sports Institute. The PASS Teacher Training Program provides teachers with instructional strategies to create student-centered and mastery-based learning. There are seven objectives. Teachers who participate: (1) learn how to present all aspects of the PASS program, (2) obtain first-hand experience of the curriculum and how to relate it to students' academic, physical, personal, and social success, (3) expand their repertoire of instructional strategies and learn innovative techniques to challenge, engage, and motivate students, (4) learn how to develop positive relationships with the students and their parents/guardians along with learning how to create a strong sense of camaraderie among the PASS class, (5) strengthen their leadership skills and ability to positively influence their peers, (6) enjoy the support of a collegial network of PASS educators and administrators, and (7) earn six semester units of professional development credit through Dominican College in San Rafael, CA.

The PASS Curriculum

The PASS curriculum is based on the premise that the principles and skills that propel a student to excel in sports can contribute to academic success. The principles and skills which the students study in the PASS class are identified as Fundamentals of Athletic Mastery (FAMs) and were identified and validated before, during, and after Kirsch's tenure as the sports psychologist with the San Francisco Giants. The eight FAMs include concentration, balance, relaxation, power, rhythm, flexibility, instinct, and attitude. These eight FAMs are the cornerstone of eight student objectives.

In both academic and physical pursuits, the students will improve their ability to: (1) Concentrate over a prolonged period of time, being able to focus on the task at hand and block out distractions and negative thoughts, (2) Balance their time, both in and outside of school, and be balanced when physically active, (3) Relax and stay in control when in class, taking tests, doing homework, and participating in physical activities, (4) Exert appropriate amounts of power without undue stress, (5) Establish rhythm by maintaining regular schedules and routines, (6) Be flexible in order to establish better relationships with teachers and classmates, be open to new ideas, and remain injury-free, (7) Trust and act on instinct in order to enhance test scores, creativity, decision making, and reactions, and (8) Develop an attitude consisting of patience, perseverance, and staying positive in order to see tasks through to completion (American Sports Institute, 1998, p. 5).

Students develop an individualized plan for improving their grades and physical performance. Besides participating in a rigorous goal-setting process, students develop strategies to reach their goals, using the FAMs and the philosophy of areté. They also learn monitoring and evaluation techniques to keep them on track toward reaching their goals.

PASS teachers, performing like coaches, guide the students through a rich variety of activities that incorporate the concept of areté. For example, in the PASS class students participate in a daily concentration practice designed to improve their ability to focus. They engage in daily physical activities that improve oxygen intake and increase alertness. On a daily basis they recognize and acknowledge one of their peers as the Athlete of the Day. In addition, daily and weekly routines challenge, inspire and reward all students. And there are many opportunities for reading, writing, reflecting, presenting, and discussing matters of importance that begin in the world of sport and the physical domain but extend to academic applications and to the daily dimensions of life.

Characteristics of Sport Culture and Implications for Teaching and Learning

Many people think that participating in sports takes away from academic achievement. They call for a decrease in the emphasis on sports, cut funding for sports program, remove physical education grades from determining overall grade point averages and reduce requirements for physical education. However, eight positive aspects of sport culture can play a significant role in effective and lasting educational reform: self-paced learning, mastery-based instruction, relevance, engagement, learning through coaching, public demonstration, team-oriented teaching, and character development (Kirsch, 1997).

1. Self-paced learning. Athletes develop skills at their own pace, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or how hard they work. If a coach rushes an athlete to play at a level that exceeds his or her skills, the athlete is primed for injury or failure. Students, too, develop at their own pace. In school, however, the teacher, district, or state sets the pace, based on the purely abstract notion that there is a concrete reality behind the term third grade. Often, regardless of ethnic background, native language, or other environmental factors, educators expect learners to operate with uniformity in the abstract world of grade levels. As in sports, students should be encouraged to give their best effort and be allowed to learn at their own pace.

2. Mastery-based learning. Athletes work on a skill continuously, enduring daily drills until a skill set becomes second nature, and then continue to practice every day after that. Students, however, are often pushed to go on to another lesson even though a question, test or demonstration shows they do not fully comprehend the subject matter. Mastery-based learning means that fewer subjects are covered, but are covered in-depth at a mastery level.

3. Relevance. Athletes are motivated to spend countless hours on the basics because they recognize their importance to success. Students, on the other hand, are often told they must learn something because it will be on the test, because they need it to fulfill a college entrance requirement, or because it's in the mandated curriculum. Students with high self-esteem will balk at seemingly meaningless or irrelevant work. As John Dewey, one of America's foremost educators, wrote, "Education is a process of living, not a preparation for the future."

4. Engagement. A coach does not enhance her athletes' skills by having them read a book, take a test and go on to the next chapter. The athlete learns by doing, by making mistakes and valuing the mistakes in the learning process. Teachers are often far too active and students far too passive in today's classrooms. Griffin (1997) credits PASS with linking learning to the demands of real life, using experiential, project-based, hands-on activities to fully engage students.

5. Learning through coaching. A coach demonstrates how to do something, explains why it should be done a certain way, and then has the athlete do it over and over, with the coach stepping in when necessary to correct, until the athlete can perform at a high standard. In many classrooms, however, the teacher lectures, assigns, tests and grades with the once-over treatment rather than constant practice and feedback. Nettles (1994) explains four coaching functions relevant to teachers: effective coaches teach, assess performance, structure the learning environment, and provide social support.

6. Public demonstration. In sports, assessment is a public affair. You compete in the game on Friday night with the whole world watching, and a picture and write-up appear in the school paper the next week. Public victory or failure adds to the positive tension and motivation for excellence. However, learning and academic competence is a private affair, often witnessed by only the teacher. Students should have frequent opportunities to display their knowledge and skill by showing, performing, or competing in front of their peers, parents or members of the community.

7. Team-oriented learning. Athletes know that the success of the team depends on everyone fulfilling his or her role. On the other hand, if one person doesn't do his job, the whole team suffers. From this perspective, athletes quickly learn, "You count! Your success is important to all of us!" In school, students get their own grades for their own benefit. Students need to be responsible for their own and their peers' performance, operating with the principle "United we stand, divided we fall—or fail."

8. Character development. Coaches know that the success of a team is directly related to the character of its players. Character keeps athletes vigilant in victory and strong in defeat. Schools typically focus on the subject matter—math, language arts, technology—rather than the subjects that really matter—the students. Character education, including self-control, tolerance, compassion, humility, and self-assertiveness, needs to be embedded in the fabric of education in order to assure the long-term value of education.

PASS's Impact and Results

PASS has been the subject of three evaluation studies. The American Sports Institute evaluated PASS's impact on the grades of PASS students and a control group. Crystal McClendon examined the impact of PASS on the academic achievement of African-American high school students, using resiliency theory as the conceptual framework for the study. The Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) conducted a third study. Barbara McCombs and Patricia Lauer studied PASS under the microscope of the Learner-Centered Model, jointly developed by McREL and the American Psychological Association (APA).

The American Sports Institute, working in collaboration with PASS teachers, has gathered and reported on five years of data comparing the grades of PASS students with a control group matched on the basis of gender, ethnicity and grade level (American Sports Institute, 1998). At the beginning of the school year and again at the end, grades for all subjects were collected for 680 PASS and 680 non-PASS students. PASS students have consistently outperformed their counterparts in the control group. A sampling of the findings:

  • Nine percent more PASS students than control group students improved their overall grade point average (GPA)
  • Twice as many PASS students as control group students increased their GPAs by a full grade point or more
  • On average, PASS students' grades increased by .07 of a grade point, while control group students' grade points dropped by .11 of a grade point, a difference of .18 of a grade point per student
  • For those students ineligible to participate in sports at the beginning of the school year, 13% more PASS students than control group students regained their eligibility by the end of the year.

Crystal McClendon, in partial fulfillment of a doctorate from the University of Maryland and with funding from the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), studied the PASS program using three major sets of analyses (McClendon, 1998). First, she examined the impact of PASS on PASS students' grades and attendance. Second, she compared PASS students' performance and attendance with that of the performance of an ethnically-matched control group. Third, she compared African-American PASS students with (a) other PASS participants and (b) African-American students in the control group. In addition, she compared PASS and non-PASS classrooms. For the total sample (N'900), she discovered:

  • No significant differences between PASS students' pre and post-test grade point averages (GPA)
  • Post-test GPAs of PASS students were significantly higher than those of the control students
  • Post hoc analyses revealed African-American students' GPAs were significantlylower than other race-ethnicities at both pre and post times
  • African-American students enrolled in the PASS program had significantly higher post GPAs than African Americans who were in the control group
  • Females' GPAs were significantly higher at both pre and post times as compared with the males in the total sample
  • There were no significant differences in the attendance and tardiness data analyzed for PASS and control groups
  • Self-reported student evaluations revealed that PASS students maintained positive perceptions about the PASS program
  • PASS classrooms showed more evidence of authentic instruction, in comparison to non-PASS classrooms, using the Madison framework for authentic instruction (Newmann, 1993).

Barbara McCombs and Patricia Lauer, researchers at the Mid-continent Regional Educational Laboratory (McREL) also conducted and reported on a study of the impact of PASS during the 1997-98 school year (McCombs & Lauer, 1998). In 1990 McREL teamed up with the American Psychological Association's (APA) Task Force on Psychology in Education. Their work resulted in defining 12 general principles related to learning and learners (McCombs, 1998). The principles are categorized into domains that that have been identified in the research as impacting different aspects of learning. The domains cover (1) intellectual aspects of learning, (2) motivational and affective influences, (3) individual differences in intellectual, social, emotional, and physical development areas, (4) influences of the individual's own self-assessments, and (5) differences in family background, culture, and other contexts that influence learning. The 12 principles, areté-like in their breadth, apply to all learners—young and old, since as complex human beings, all learners approach learning situations with fundamental qualities in common.

The definition of learner-centered has evolved to mean: the perspective that couples a focus on individual learners—their heredity, experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities, and needs—with a focus on learning—the best available knowledge about learning and how it occurs and about teaching practices that are most effective in promoting the highest levels of motivation, learning, and achievement for all learners (McCombs & Whisler, 1997, p. 9).

The research question of interest to both ASI and McREL was "How learner-centered are PASS teachers, as measured by a set of teacher and student self-assessment surveys?" Two male and two female high school teachers, veterans of teaching PASS and balanced between urban and suburban Chicago-area schools, volunteered to participate in the study. The findings are summarized as follows:

  • PASS meets the criteria for a learner-centered program
  • PASS students report high levels of motivation and their achievement is at high levels
  • PASS addresses the needs of the whole learner—intellectual, motivational, and otherneeds such as students' physical and social needs
  • PASS can become a model for defining those qualities of total school reform that are needed to both engage students and help them achieve high academic standards.

The study concludes, "The sound, research-based practices that are part of the PASS program were demonstrated to pay off for students and teachers alike, thus making it a model for total school reform." (McCombs, 1998, p. 5).

Areas of Further Research

PASS has demonstrated significant success in both student achievement and professional development training for teachers. However, many areas of additional research are called for. Success of the PASS program should be measured on more variables than GPAs and learner-centered efficacy. For example, PASS should be assessed on a number of variables and with a variety ofmethods:

  • Testimonies and anecdotal reports from both teachers and students
  • Pre- and post-curriculum interviews with PASS students
  • Additional analysis on the impact of PASS, examining variables such as gender, ethnicity, grade level, and types and number of sports played
  • Assessment to determine whether the FAMs translate into the desired behavioral outcomes
  • Assessment to measure the long-term impact of PASS, beyond the year in the program, to determine graduation rates, college acceptance, employability, maintained GPAs
  • PASS's impact on personal goals, philosophy, character development, and relationships with others
  • PASS's impact on teacher professional development and the impact on the whole school.


I expect my son and many other children will continue to drag home, question the relevance of school, object to hours and hours of homework they view as meaningless, and feel disheartened by the stress of school. Levit, Selman and Richmond (1992) contend that programs that emphasize teaching facts alone have not worked because the information kids receive is not translated into action. They say that while it is important to emphasize knowledge, technology, and social skills, it is the system of meanings and values that motivate an individual to engage in or avoid risky behavior.

Sport, by its very nature, has the possibilities of tapping into a student's personal meaning system more than many conventional programs. PASS is unique in underscoring personal meaning to help students succeed in all areas of their lives. We have only scratched the surface of sport's potential to lead the way to total and meaningful educational reform.


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Griffin, Robert. (1997). "The PASS Program: Teaching Engagement Skills," KDP Record, Summer.

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Newmann, F. M. (1996). Authentic Achievement: Restructuring Schools for Intellectual Quality. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Simon, Robert. (1985). Sports and Social Values. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

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