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Policy debate in high school

Updated on February 20, 2013

A great activity for high school students!

Doing Policy Debate in High School

One of the most education enhancing activities a high school student can participate in is debate. Many schools have a debate team and compete at tournaments over the course of the school year. In high school these days there are three primary types of debate – Public Forum, Lincoln-Douglas, and Policy. I have coached all three types and can assure you that if your child joins their schools’ debate team, they will excel in school and in life. There are many benefits, both educational, and self-enhancing, that come from being a debater. They include being more comfortable speaking in front of others, learning to think quickly on your feet, a greater level of self esteem and confidence, strong development of their minds and ability to think, analyze, and make mental assessments. High school students who do debate learn to have fun using their minds. If they do well in the competitions, then it can even guide their life choices of what to be and do as an adult. This article focuses on policy debate. See other HUBS about Public Forum and Lincoln-Douglas.

Policy Debate

Policy debate is the most intense of the three forms of debate. It takes a strong commitment to do well because it demands a lot of time and energy investment. Policy is two person versus two person debate. The debate has a format, time constraints, as follows:

First Affirmative Constructive (1AC): 8 minutes

Cross examination of 1AC: 3 minutes

First Negative Constructive (1NC): 8 minutes

Cross examination of 1NC: 3 minutes

Second Affirmative Constructive: 8 minutes

Cross examination of 2AC: 3 minutes

Second Negative Constructive (2NC): 8 minutes

Cross examination of 2NC: 3 minutes

First Negative Rebuttal: 5 minutes

First Affirmative Rebuttal: 5 minutes

Second Negative Rebuttal: 5 minutes

Second Affirmative Rebuttal: 5 minutes

Each team is allotted 8 minutes of preparation time to use any time during the debate. Policy debate is called “Policy” because the affirmative generally articulates a particular public policy that the US federal government could adopt. The policy suggested by the affirmative must be an example of the overarching resolution. For example, the current resolution for the 2012-2013 school year is:

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment in the United States.

An example of a policy option that the affirmative might present would be to build a high speed rail system in the United States. High speed rail is a form of transportation that could be invested in by the federal government.

The negative’s job is to prove that this policy idea is a bad one, or harmful in some way, or not necessary.

Typically at tournaments, there are six debates, with each team that competes debating 3 times on the affirmative, and 3 times on the negative.

Policy debate is about evidence. These days free evidence is available online. Two websites have good evidence for free:



During the debate, debaters quote from experts or news sources to prove their points. Arguments about evidence are often made including such things as quality of evidence, citations, dates, and the analysis that the evidence makes. Without evidence you can only make analytical arguments which alone make it harder to win the debate. In the past, policy debaters used to carry around large tubs of paper evidence. At times as much as 4 large tubs of paper evidence so that they are ready for any possible argument. Nowadays students use laptops and downloaded evidence and read off their laptop. In order to exchange evidence during a round, they ‘flash’ the evidence to the other teams’ laptops. Flash means using a USB drive and transferring the evidence. They do this because it is required in policy debate to share your evidence with the other side so that the other side has an opportunity to argue against it after reading it and to foster a better educational environment.

Typically this debate style is also known for speed in talking. The debaters speak as fast as possible in order to get as many arguments in as possible during the time constraints of the speech. The belief is that the more arguments one makes, the more likely that the other team won’t have time to respond. If one team fails to respond to a particular argument, then they could lose the round for not responding in time. This could be seen as a “race to the bottom”. That means that even though some members of the debate community frown on the speed talking, if one team starts to go faster then the other team feels like they also have to go faster in order not to drop/fail to respond to the other side’s arguments. A dropped argument is a big deal in policy debate and can lose you the round. Thus, policy debaters are known for “spreading” – going faster than anyone even can understand unless accustomed to this style of debate.

Policy debaters tend to learn a lot about the topics they debate. The topics are always about public policies, domestic or foreign, that the US federal government can or should do. For example, a debate team that argues for high speed rail learns everything there is to know about high speed rail in the United States. This includes some things which nobody would normally think about such as terrorism. The argument the negative might make, which the affirmative hears over and over and has to be prepared to debate, is that if the US built a high speed rail network, it could be a target for terrorists. And, on the negative side, the debaters have to be ready to debate any number of possible policy ideas. This year’s resolution has about 20 + different affirmative policy options. The negative has to be ready and knowledgeable about all of those options. Thus the debaters learn pretty much everything there is to know about transportation infrastructure investment in the United States. And, the Resolution changes year to year. So a high school student who started policy debate in their freshman year would debate four resolutions.

Policy debate is an option in certain colleges and universities as well. Competition on the college circuit is far more intense and competitive than high school debate. But the learning experience and education is invaluable. I myself found that I learnt more from debate than school and that school assignments became easy as a result of debate.

I encourage you or your high school students to try debate. If they are into it, encourage them to attend summer debate camps where they will improve dramatically and do well in the activity during the year.


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