Outreach to Grow Speech and Debate

Jim Hanson

In Washington state, there are just over 115 high schools with active speech and debate programs (Hanson, 2017). Sadly, there are more than 900 high schools without active speech and debate programs (High-Schools.com, 2017). Nationwide, there are well over 22,000 public and private high schools (Educational Directories, 2011, but also see, 37,000, from US Department of Education, 2014) yet there are less than 3,500 speech and debate programs that belong to the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA, 2014). Obviously, some programs are not part of the NSDA and still participate actively but only 15 to 30% of high schools have active speech and debate programs.

The failure to offer speech and debate programs leaves students without the opportunities and growth that forensics offers. Those of us that are involved see it in students who come out of their shell, students who fervently research for the best evidence, students who put on amazing performances of their interpretation cuttings, and supportive administrators who are wowed by how well students present themselves. Among many articles on the benefits of forensics, Jack Rogers (2002) engaged in a longitudinal study and concluded that students involved in forensics showed higher social responsibility, greater cultural understanding, academic success, and ethical support for justice in society.

There are efforts to provide help to schools. It is mainly content information including textbooks, written activities for teaching, and especially materials with content for speech and debates such as evidence from Planet Debate, Victory Briefs, and my own West Coast Publishing. These are helpful but I am not aware of systemic efforts to provide in person help to coaches to start, manage, instruct, and build up their programs. There is some peer support in some regions but in other areas, overworked experienced coaches have left new coaches in the lurch. Even among schools with programs, many coaches are thrown into the role of speech and debate director without any training and with little support to succeed.

Working to increase the number of programs participating and opportunities for underserved students is a time intensive effort as I have found working with the Climb the Mountain Speech and Debate Foundation (Climb). Leading Climb has exposed me to the multitude of problems that coaches face - some of which I had not faced in my previous coaching experiences which were mostly at established and well supported programs. Some school administrators are not supportive especially with funding and in some cases are even hostile to the speech and debate program. Transportation can be a problem as well with some schools not providing vehicles, safety concerns about the use of the 15 passenger van, and onerous restrictions on who can and cannot drive. At some schools there is a financial barrier to participations. One barrier is the need to work during the weekend when a typical tournament would take place. At other schools, students have very diverse interests and are less likely to commit to participating regularly. At many schools, teachers who might be interested in running a program are overwhelmed with correcting papers, completing paperwork, and participating in meetings.

There is no simple solution to the difficulties but we can make progress toward the goal of increased participation. Climb has worked with over 600 students and coaches at existing and new programs. Based on these experiences, here are suggested actions that can make a difference:

1. Have people available in your area to help. Have a main contact person who can answer basic questions and then direct coaches and students to specific people who have expertise such as in policy-cx debate or in handling transportation issues. In my experience, new and even experienced coaches cannot find tournament schedules, invitations (some of which are not on the plethora of online registration systems), who the NSDA district leaders are, as well as the basic request of “how do I teach interp” and “I can teach the basics of public forum debate but what about for my experienced kids?”

2. Offer low cost clinics providing training to students and coaches particularly at the beginning of the year but also as new debate topics are announced. At these clinics, coaches should be provided with practical information on recruiting, traveling, working with students, choosing partners for teams, etc. Coaches and students can also benefit from observing and engaging in practice on speeches and current debate topics. Legal sharing of debate evidence, access to interpretation pieces, extemporaneous articles, etc. can be invaluable to coaches.

3. Offer more accessible tournaments. Shorter tournaments that do not take all of Friday, Saturday and Sunday can be a life saver for programs with overburdened coaches. Saturday afternoon or a 3 or 4 hour event in the evening can be great venues for some programs. Programs can also save a great deal of money by participating in online tournaments. While the technology is not perfect, it is entirely acceptable—with usually good audio and video—and the payoff is big. Online tournaments cannot replace the inperson physical closeness and community building, those should definitely continue, but I have been amazed and delighted by how much socializing happens in the online tournaments.

4. Engage in outreach to schools. While you can cold call, mail, and email— having a known contact is really the way to go. One of our Climb staff helped start small programs at seven schools by using teacher to teacher networks. I’ve seen the same happen in the Seattle middle school debate league where students and parents are clamoring for this opportunity. Further, these middle school kids are moving on to high schools including some high school that do not currently have programs. Working to get these students to begin programs at their high schools should be a priority.

5. Be open to a diversity of forensics offerings. There are believers in specific kinds of programs—ones that offer everything, ones that offer policy-cx debate only, ones that offer public forum and extemporaneous/impromptu speaking, others that offer individual events only. None is the uniform preferred approach. Each coach and each school has unique characteristics that will work with differing speech and debate events. In some schools, coaches would be best served creating more informal debating and speaking that matches with the time commitments of students. In other cases, the coach may have a strong theatre or literature background and so an emphasis on interpretation events will be best. Those working with these varied programs should listen and follow the lead of the coaches and students.

6. All of this requires time and money, resources in short supply in the speech and debate community. In my case, I am committed to the effort with my position with Climb but financially, it might not be sufficient for others. In other areas, recently retired coaches or former competitors that have time off, or former coaches whose children are now in college, might lead up the effort. Current coaches can also help out—but as I’ve noted, time is at a premium for these hardworking folks. Funding will still be a challenge. Climb has relied on donations and low cost fees for our clinics, camps, tutoring, and tournaments but available money has most definitely limited our ability to reach out and start more programs. Online donation campaigns can help. Reaching out to former speakers and debaters especially those in jobs with larger salaries can help. Writing grants could be fruitful as well.

Speech and debate is so valuable and we should be actively looking to make it more available. This article offers just a starting set of suggestions for building up programs. We have more work to do.


National Speech and Debate Association Mailing List (2014) as provided by the NSDA.

High-Schools.com. (2017). Based on numbers for 2012-13 (public) and 2011-12 (private). https://high-schools.com/directory/wa/

Hanson, J. (2017). List of High Schools as developed by continuous contact with high school coaches and the state forensics association.

Rogers, J. (2002). Longitudinal outcome assessment for forensics: does participation in intercollegiate, competitive forensics contribute to measurable differences in positive student outcomes? Contemporary Argumentation and Debate, 23, 1-27.

Educational Directories. (2011, July 7). EDI Price List and Planning Guide. http://www.ediusa.com/LabelBulletin2011.pdf#page=1&zoom=auto,-14,799

US Department of Education. (2014, June 18). High School Facts at a Glance. https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ovae/pi/hs/hsfacts.html?exp=0