Why Debate?

Urban youth with great talent, creativity, and potential often go unchallenged and unrecognized in Detroit area schools. When the classroom doesn’t engage them, students respond by dropping out, behaving disruptively, or giving up on themselves.  Consequently, too many grow up without the skills they need to succeed in college and compete in today’s economy.

Competitive academic debate offers a powerful means of engaging students in their own education and reversing these negative trends. Debaters come from across the academic spectrum, including those who do not attend school regularly or are not thriving in the traditional classroom.

Debate appeals to these students as a fun, competitive, and student-centered way to encounter academic subjects. For many, debate tournaments are a rare opportunity to connect intellectually with their peers and to have their ideas about important issues considered seriously by adults.


Honing skills for Academic Achievement… On average, our Detroit UDL participants spend approximately 120 hours in debate during the school year.  At least 60 of those hours are spent in debate competitions on Friday and Saturday nights.  When they are not competing, students review argument strategies, conduct research,  run speaking drills, and learn how to work closely and share the responsibility of a two-person debate team. Much of the research debaters do revolves around current events, laws and policies; and this requires digesting real-world research from a myriad of collegiate-level resources.  Students don’t only learn how to present arguments and work under pressure, they learn how to identify credible sources and how the intricacies of definitions can change the meaning (or implied meaning) of a policy or law. They learn how to effectively argue both sides of complex issues, regardless of their personal feelings. They learn how to listen for flaws in the opposition’s arguments or thinking, and how to address those flaws in a respectful way. The skills students learn in debate are of such importance, they arguably go beyond what is measurable on a reading test–although studies have been done to measure the effects of debate on academic outcomes.  Our partner, the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL)  cites those studies at length here. To review the most recently published research, click here.

According to our Board Chair, Ron McNeil, “When I talk to people about why they debate, they don’t talk to me about their test scores or how debate helped their reading ability.  Every debater I’ve met, from aged 14 to 80, has told me that debate changed their lives.  That’s how powerful this activity is.  It’s much more than a test score.”

Building a Bridge to College. Detroit Public Schools (DPS)  dropout rate was 62% while the Detroit Urban Debate League had a 100% graduation rate. Also, DPS college matriculation rate was 32.5% whereas the Detroit UDL matriculation rate was 100%. A recent Bill and Melinda Gates foundation study documents that 47% of students who drop out said they were bored in class, 69% were not motivated to work hard, 66% would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them, and 88% had passing grades when they dropped out.

Eliminating Non-Academic Barriers to Success. Debate equips students to resolve conflict appropriately and offers an individualized, empowering, and student-centered learning model that engages students who may not be thriving in a traditional classroom. It fosters relationships between students and their teachers and among students who have the common goal of succeeding academically. Many debaters view their team as their family and receive some of the emotional support they are not getting elsewhere. Instead of turning to gangs for a developed sense of identity, students turn to their debate families and their school. Simply put, debate gives our students many reasons to keep coming to school.

Developing Leaders. According to a survey by the National Forensics League, 64% of U.S. Congress members competed in debate or speech in high school.  Debaters are disproportionately represented in leadership ranks in law, business, and the academy. With high expectations, expanded horizons, and advanced skills, urban debaters are equipped to improve their schools, strengthen their communities, and ultimately make a contribution to the nation’s leadership.

Cultivating Citizens. Debate engages students in politics and community issues. Debaters develop powerful, accomplished voices and grow accustomed to professionals treating their public policy ideas seriously. According to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, urban debaters “learn about political issues in the here-and-now; they investigate and prepare information about topics that are important to the world they live in today. Preparing to debate requires collecting information from various sources, analyzing and organizing the information, and articulating a point of view.”

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