It’s a great picture, a larger-than-life professional athlete folded into a too-small chair among a group of mesmerized children. Whether the athletes show up at schools to encourage reading, healthy lifestyle habits, or with an even more specific message to deliver, being face-to-face with sports icons from their favorite teams are experiences most kids never forget. What else about these interactions sticks with the kids? How big of an impact can an athlete or group of athletes really have on a group of children?
The Boston Celtics, in conjunction with their Shamrock Foundation and the Pagliuca Family Foundation, implemented Step Your Game Up in partnership with Lawrence, MA school system. The program is incentive-based, designed to target at-risk middle school students who are in danger of failing. With both tangible and experiential rewards like logoed gear, tickets to Celtics games, and other team-related experiences, Step Your Game Up was designed to drive improvements in participants’ grades and attendance. Members of the Celtics’ basketball analytics team were also folded into the process in order to determine if there were quantifiable effects of the program in the students’ academic performance and attendance.
At the 2017 MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, the Celtics delivered a Competitive Advantage talk on Step Your Game Up and the positive effects such a program can have on public school education. The main takeaway from this presentation was that with a committed school system (to implement the program and accurately record students’ progress) and a fantastic funding partner, a small group of athletes can indeed have a measurable and significant positive impact on the lives of a large group of children.
The Step Your Game Up program was put together with classic DoE principles to ensure the ability to determine a relationship between the incentives and the students’ performance, and the magnitude of any impact. “At risk” students were identified through industry accepted guidelines; the students invited to participate, and their parents, had to opt-in and agree to the parameters of the program; intermediate data was recorded on the students’ academic performance (in mathematics and English language arts) and attendance; and conventional analysis of the data was applied.
At the end of the first grading period, the students most at risk for failing were identified and offered participation into the program. Their progress versus eligible at-risk students who did not opt-in was compared from the first grading period to the second, and again from the second grading period to the third. The results (seen in a chart from the MIT SSAC presentation) show that the participating students’ grades in ELA were 0.4 of a grade higher during period two and also 0.4 grade higher during the third grading period. In Math, the increases were smaller, 0.1 and 0.2, yet still significant for the participating students compared to the eligible students who were not part of Step Your Game Up. The impact on attendance was a positive, although not statistically significant difference between groups of students. In evaluating the data, the Celtics’ data scientists also looked at variables such as gender, race, and free/reduced lunch programs, and found that none of those variables showed statistically significant differences within the results.
At this writing, the program has been in place for less than three full cycles, so there are no metrics on long-term effects on the students’ grades, attendance, or other success parameters. However, as the Celtics’ team emphasized during their Sloan Conference presentation, because this was designed to target the most at-risk students (those getting D’s and F’s), the element of the program that requires the students to commit to something and follow through with it in a public/community setting likely also delivers a sense of confidence that will carry through well beyond the final marking period. In the short term, improving grades by a half a grade or so for hundreds of students is indeed a success, and ideally will allow each individual to reassess his or her potential as to what they can achieve in the classroom.
With Step Up Your Game Up as proof, along with the countless hospital visits, community center drop-ins, and volunteer hours athletes put in around the communities where they play, it is indeed possible to develop programs that inspire significant positive effects in the education and lives of large groups of students.