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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Nonfiction Athletics

I’m On the Road Again, And These Visits Introduced Me to the Academic Decathalon

I’m speaking in California next week, and one of my hosts is a bit overwhelmed. That is because Larry is also coach of his school’s Academic Decathalon team — and they are the reigning national champs. www.academicdecathlon.org/news_releases/CAD%20NR09%2001%20_2_.pdf The interesting thing about this competition is that, by rule, the team must include students with three different tiers of grade point averages. This is not a competition only for the selected brainiacs. One third of each team must be kids we are struggling. From what I hear, the kids work extremely hard, so clearly the idea is to motivate the students who are having trouble, to inspire them to catch up and keep up. That reminds me of how IB can work, www.ibo.org/ The sense in which the very difficulty of the diploma program can create a culture of academic challenge within a school. 

I can imagne that high stakes academic contests and standards can create problems of their own. Kids feel overwhelmed and squeezed. Surely there is a hierarchy within schools, and kids who need to work, or who have heavy home responsibilities, or who have unstable homes may simply not be able to devote the time needed to keep up. By temperament, some kids may do better left to find their own creative path rather than laboring to impress a judge. And there is a larger cultural moment here that we do need to question. Anyone who watches ESPN knows that the sports networks are now focusing on high school. Experts now ring their hands over who is the best sixth grade basketball player in the country. When one of those prospects picks a high school, it is national news. High school football and basketball is broadcast on national TV. ESPN now publishes Rise, sports.espn.go.com/highschool/rise/index. In other words, we have professionalized, and pressurized, children. We have made sports a commodity, even at those very young ages.

The danger, then, is that academics can turn into one more form of commodified childhood — we package up our children so that we can publicize them. They lose childhood, we gain products. That is the danger in academics as contest. The opportunity is that we show kids that their brains, guts, and effort matter — whether they spend their free time practicing dribbling or practicing writing. 

What is your experience — do schools you know enter academic contests, how does that work out within the school?