During her career in newspapers and television, my wife, Linda, was a master at finding the hidden heart of what was going on. While editing stories and managing projects, she had a knack for seeing what was most surprising and interesting in the mass of facts before her. When she had a thought recently about my annual rankings of the nation's high schools, I listened carefully.
Many schools at the top of the latest Washington Post America's Most Challenging High Schools list are small and obscure. They have an obvious focus on academics, but Linda saw something else.
"I'll bet a lot of those schools don't have football teams," she said.
So I added a question to The Post's annual survey: "Do you have an 11-person football team?" To my astonishment, 67 of the top 100 schools, ranked by participation in college-level tests, said they do not field a team, denoting a shift in American high school culture, at least in those schools that challenge their students most.
Something significant is happening to the way Americans think about the all-important ninth through 12th grades. As our politics, tastes and leisure habits become more divided, high school is one of the few remaining experiences we share. Most of what we remember about government, literature, math and science, we learned in high school. It is where many of us first fell in love and first thought about what we wanted to do with our lives. Our alma maters' traditions often revolved around football, Friday afternoon rallies, schmoozing in the stands, yelling our lungs out and cruising the main streets after the game.
But for many of our highest-performing high schools, football is no longer part of the culture. Football is the most publicized and popular high school activity nationwide, but if the top academic schools in the nation are doing without it, should that be a model for everyone else?
Michael Block, co-founder of the high-ranking BASIS charter school network, said that "football would pose the greatest danger of diverting attention from our academic mission because it is so popular." He and his wife, Olga, created BASIS because they felt that American schools taught so little compared with what she experienced growing up in Czechoslovakia.
Linda and I like football. Her high school won a championship with future Beach Boys member Brian Wilson as a backup quarterback. My high school won a title with future Super Bowl champion Dick Vermeil as coach.
None of our children played football, but they took part in other sports that we think built character.
Research indicates that high school sports, including football, give students valuable time-management and leadership skills. Some people even say that schools need football to keep some students from dropping out, but I think that is a stereotype that ignores what can be done with just a few sports and better teaching.
Apparently, a growing number of parents are willing to forgo Friday night gridiron clashes if they can count on more rigorous learning. In the past three decades, the United States has had no significant gain in average math and reading achievement among 17-year-olds. That is what has led to a surge of magnet, charter and private schools demanding much more than average teenagers are used to.
The top 10 schools on my first national list, in 1998, had only one school without a football team, H-B Woodlawn in Arlington County. This year's top 10 has seven schools that do not have football teams.
I designed the list to identify the schools working hardest to challenge average students with Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Advanced International Certificate of Education courses and tests, good preparation for both college and the workplace. This is in contrast to the usual ranking of schools by test score averages, which is more of an indication of how affluent the parents are than of how good the school is.
That doesn't mean that having a football team precludes you from having a challenging school. The entire list has more than 2,000 great schools - the top 10 percent in the country. Eighty-two percent of them still have football. The non-football schools bunch up at the top of the list, but there are exceptions.
The No. 3 school, Corbett Charter, shares a team with the No. 13 Corbett School in their rural community east of Portland, Ore. The schools together have only about 400 students, The football team is not great, with a 2-8 record last fall.
"Our team celebrates touchdowns the way other people celebrate wins," said Bob Dunton, the charter school director. But imaginative Corbett educators have created a culture in which average students are used to both sports and serious studying. "Everyone feels like they are in the same boat," Dunton said. "Two AP classes for a ninth-grader is just normal."
The national trend, however, has more schools adopting the European and Asian models of few sports but lots of studying. People like me will miss the noise, color and suspense of a big game. But the classes are more strenuous, and often less boring. For many, that is a welcome change.