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Why It Matters

Amplifying Voices and Developing Skills to Succeed

The Power of Debate

While once a more prevalent offering, by the turn of the millennium — due to budget constraints and other pressing priorities, debate programs often found themselves on the chopping block in public city schools. As such, competitive debate became an almost exclusive activity of private, preparatory and suburban public schools, with its benefits serving only the most privileged students in society.

For nearly two decades, NAUDL has worked to ensure tens of thousands of students in America’s most underserved districts have access to the pivotal skills, and the inclusive, lifelong community, debate develops.  We understand that results matter and we have positioned ourselves at the forefront of urban debate research. Over the last several years, we have worked with leading academic researchers to show the important connection of urban debate participation to significant outcomes in critical skills and thinking, communication and collaboration, as well as academic success and college readiness.

Theory of Change

Today, NAUDL works with 20 partner leagues in 20 cities (the Urban Debate Network) to establish, partner and support debate programs in city school districts across the country. Together, our league partners have a combined reach of 10,000 students annually, bringing the “power of debate” to a new generation of youth.

Research shows that, as compared to direct peers:

  • For each semester that a student debates, their individual grades improve
  • Urban debaters are more likely to test as college-ready in English, Reading, Math, and Science
  • Urban debaters have both a higher high school graduation rate
  • Urban debaters have a higher rate of college enrollment
  • Urban debaters are more likely to attend a four-year college

Proven Studies on the Relationship of Policy Debate and Academic Achievement 

The Brookings Institute, 2024

Many High Schools Across the United States Offer Limited Civics-Focused Extracurricular Activities

Researchers Melissa Kay Diliberti and Stephani L. Wrabel (Pardee RAND Graduate School) build on prior efforts to examine the prevalence of 10 proven practices in effective civic learning. In their research, they focus on extracurricular activities (proven practice #4)— a practice that has gotten some but limited prior attention. Extracurricular activities potentially encompass both formal and informal activities, may or may not be student-led, and might take place within or outside of the school day. They focus on activities that have an explicit emphasis on civics such as debate teams, student government, and Model United Nations (UN). Not only can these activities offer students a chance to further build civic knowledge, they can also encourage teamwork and help students learn to overcome challenges.

Click to read the full Diliberti and Wrabel research post

Annenberg Institute at Boston University, 2023

Interscholastic Policy Debate Promotes Critical Thinking and College-going: Evidence From Boston Public Schools

Researchers Beth E. Schueler (University of Virginia) and Katherine E. Larned (Harvard University) show few interventions reduce inequality in reading achievement, let alone higher order thinking skills, among adolescents than debate. “We study ‘policy debate’ — an extracurricular activity focused on improving middle and high schoolers’ critical thinking, argumentation, and policy analysis skills — in Boston schools serving large concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students of color. Student fixed effects estimates show debate had positive impacts on ELA test scores of 0.13 SD, equivalent to 68% of a full year of average 9th grade learning. Gains were concentrated on analytical more than rote subskills. We find no harm to math, attendance, or disciplinary records, and evidence of positive effects on high school graduation and postsecondary enrollment. Impacts were largest among students who were lowest achieving prior to joining debate.”

Click to view full Schueler and Larned paper

University of Michigan, 2021

Debate participation and Academic Achievement Among High School Students in the Houston Independent School District: 2012 – 2015

Researchers at the University of Michigan (Mezuk and Ko), in partnership with NAUDL and the Houston Urban Debate League, published results of a significant peer-reviewed study examining the relationship between debate participation and academic outcomes in the Houston Independent School District. The study represents the largest investigation of its kind to date and findings suggest that competitive debate is associated with better academic outcomes (GPA and SAT scores) and college-readiness for students.

Click to view full our roll-out of the Mezuk and Ko paper

To view more NAUDL-commissioned research studies and other articles on the proven outcomes of debate, visit our Research Archives

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