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Why 8 Kids Tying at the Scripps Spelling Bee is a Wonderful Thing

A couple of months ago eight participants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee were crowned co-champions. There had been ties before, but never eight of them. These eight spellers went through 20 rounds without making a mistake. Eventually, the organizers of the competition admitted they no longer had any words that were going to challenge these amazing competitors and declared it an eight-way tie.

I think there is a valuable lesson in this. We live in a “best culture” where we recognize the best in everything, even things where it is difficult to determine this—such as the best picture or the best athlete in a team sport. We celebrate the best and by doing so, give short shrift to individuals who have worked hard to get to the levels they are at. Isn’t is a pretty big accomplishment to receive a bronze medal at the Olympics? Hasn’t a team had a lot of success if they make it to the playoffs but do not win? Does one have to be the best in order to have accomplished something amazing?

I am a big proponent for academic competitions. I think everyone has their skills and strengths. Some of these are athletic in nature, some of them are academic. In a school environment where we are constantly acknowledging students for their athletic prowess with trophies in the entry hall, banners hanging in the gym, and even signs at the city limits when someone achieves state champions, why isn’t there more about academic achievements? The morning announcements are rife with sporting accomplishments and yet you do not hear as many of these referring to academics, the thing schools should be touting the most. After all, that is their major purpose for existing.

As much as possible I try to take students to academic competitions. Model United Nations, MATHCOUNTS, Invention Convention, Destination Imagination, Word Masters, and a slew of others. I want students to recognize that they have academic strengths by displaying them in a public forum and be honored for them. The thing that I always struggle with however is that at these competitions we must crown a single champion. There were times I would be sitting in the stands, beaming with pride at the awesome skit my Destination Imagination Team had produced, only to watch their excitement be crushed when they weren’t deemed 1st place finishers. I often thought, why do we need to narrow it down to one? Why can’t we honor all of those who did an excellent job? Same with the spelling bees I have judged. There are many worthy spellers, but due to a combination of luck and chance, only one wins.

This is what we teach our students though when we partake in class rankings and award a single valedictorian who had the highest GPA. It creates an unhealthy competition that pits students against one another rather than having them challenge themselves. I think class rankings are an outdated practice especially given that not all GPAs are created the same. It rewards people for taking those classes where they might get an easy A and punishes those students who take a more challenging class and might not receive highest marks. It’s a game that we have taught our children to play. They can hardly be held at fault for playing by the rules that schools have set out.

My suggestion is not to get rid of the competition, but rather to have people compete against themselves, not others. I am by no means suggesting that everyone gets a trophy, the opposite extreme of what our society has become. I am suggesting that you honor students for producing great academic work. When students graduate instead of singling out a single student or even having a top ten, have a recognition system for various levels of academic excellence. It would look something like this:

• Cum Laude – awarded to students with grade point average of 3.75 – 3.99 (Usually about 10% of seniors)

• Magna Cum Laude – awarded to students with grade point average of 4.00 – 4.19 (Usually about 9% of seniors)

• Summa Cum Laude – awarded to students with grade point average of 4.20 or higher (Usually about 9% of seniors)

This honors roughly the top 30% of students, students who worked hard and deserve recognition for this achievement. Because the criteria is made public before the school year even begins, it allows students to push themselves to achieve the needed GPA rather than trying to be higher than fellow students.

There are many districts across the United States that are abolishing the practice of class rankings because it has little if any practical benefit. It does not have much significance to college admissions offices. The use of an extrinsic motivation such as grades promotes a more superficial approach to learning, becoming more about the grade. This then diminishes student engagement. Research by educational psychologists also suggests that it leads students to prefer less-challenging tasks. The most important reason that class rank should be gotten rid of is because it isn’t a direct measure of student achievement.

The people running the spelling bee could have made the children continue another 20 rounds until a single champion was crowned. By doing this they would have been diminishing the accomplishments of those who had already made it through 20 rounds. Instead they chose to recognize the great achievement of these students. Schools need to take a page from this and begin to recognize students for their academic accomplishments rather than where they stack up against fellow students. Class rankings should be E-L-I-M-I-N-A-T-E-D.

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