New Scientific Research Finds Academic Debate Programs in Low-Performing Schools Raise Graduation Rates and Improve College Readiness

May 12, 2011

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New Scientific Research Finds Academic Debate Programs in Low-Performing Schools Raise Graduation Rates and Improve College Readiness

Houston (Vocus) October 28, 2009

New scientific research indicates an Urban Debate League (UDL) similar to the Houston Urban Debate League (HUDL) is effective at raising student achievement in low-performing schools. UDLs are competitive policy debate programs targeting urban schools. They train and organize students, coached by their teachers, to engage in policy research, public speaking in time-pressured competitive settings, and argumentative advocacy.

The new research, just published in the Journal of Negro Education, is the most comprehensive study of a UDL to date, finding that urban debate participation helps students in low-performing schools raise their chances of graduation, literacy scores, and college-and career-readiness.

The study found that among African American male students, debaters were 70 percent more likely to graduate high school, three times less likely to drop out, 50 percent more likely to reach the ACT college-readiness benchmark for English, and 70 percent more likely to reach the ACT benchmark for reading than non-debaters, even after accounting for 8th grade achievement. The researchers’ next round of analysis of this data uses propensity score matching analysis to better account for self-selective participation and indicates debaters are on average three times more likely to graduate than students who did not debate.

This research was conducted by Dr. Briana Mezuk of Virginia Commonwealth University, in cooperation with the University of Michigan, the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, and the Chicago Debate Commission. It retrospectively examines ten years of the Chicago Debate League, a partnership between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Debate Commission.

The UDL’s partner, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), is launching a new website, the Urban Debate Evidence Center, to serve as a central source for research on urban debate ( The evidence center aims to gather in one location and disseminate quality evidence on the UDL approach that is methodologically rigorous and published in peer-reviewed journals. Educators and policy-makers will also be interested in a set of issue briefs and white paper drafted by NAUDL on the role of debate in addressing specific educational challenges such as turning around the lowest performing schools, improving graduation rates, preparing students for careers, and implementing the Common Core Standards (

About Houston Urban Debate League

The mission of HUDL is to build, support, and sustain programs in Houston’s public high schools to make policy debate an educational resource available to all students. HUDL began in 2008 when, on March 12, 2008, the Houston Independent School District (HISD) board unanimously approved funding a high school HUDL debate program to begin serving 15 high schools during the 2008-2009 academic year. With the support of HISD, HUDL is now in its second academic year, currently serving 30 high schools and over 500 students. To learn more about HUDL and/or to make a contribution, please visit:

For other questions about the Houston Urban Debate League, please contact Ron Bankston, President, HUDL Board of Directors at or (713) 425.7400.

For more information about the study, contact the NAUDL’s Chief Academic Officer Eric Tucker at (312) 771-1816.


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