The power of academic competitions for students who want to learn

04 Apr

During a Facebook conversation, an internet friend mentioned how nice it would be if there were academic competitions as popular as sports.

I replied that there are popular academic competitions for those students who are interested and who usually have supportive parents that value an academic education.

The public schools may not hold academic competitions with cheerleaders and bleachers full of shouting, screaming fans but there are competitions and they’re recognized and the winners are honored by the school districts and schools the students attend.

In fact, the media often reports the results.

Most if not all students in many public schools probably hear about the chance to compete in these competitions in home room where teachers read announcements or from science and math teachers. Most kids will soon forget what they heard but those kids who are called “school boys” or “school girls” often stop at the teacher’s desk to pick up the information. These kids are dedicated and hungry to cooperate and learn what the teacher teaches.

Here’s what I know. There’s the Science Olympiad; Academic Decathlon and The journalism Education Association (JEA) that conducts journalism competitions that includes competing in news, sports, feature, opinion, editorial cartoons, photography and page layout. The JEA calls them write-offs because they are timed competitions just like most sports and the judges are editors and reporters who work in the traditional media.

In fact, these academic competitions—although quieter and not as celebrated as a league title in one of the three major sports or even golf or tennis—are recognized and honored. The winners of these academic competitions are recognized at school board meetings where the children who win are called on stage to shake hands with the school board president and the superintendent of the school district. For families that value an education, entire families usually turn out and some dress as if they are attending the Academy Awards. Those school board meetings are usually packed with standing room only.

The United States Academic Decathlon was founded in 1968 in Orange County, California.

The Science Olympiad is an American elementary, middle, and high school team competition in which students compete in ‘events’ pertaining to various scientific disciplines, including earth science, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering. Over 6,700 teams from 50 U.S. states compete each year.

The Journalism Education Association was founded in 1924. When I was advisor/journalism teacher for a high school newspaper, I took a team every year to this competition.

When our daughter was in high school, we encourage her to make friends with students who competed in one or more of these academic competitions. We also encouraged her to go out for a sport. She joined Academic Decathlon where she picked up a gold medal in debate and Pole Vault where at 16 she was ranked in the top five in California for her sex and age.  She graduates from Stanford this year and already has a lucrative job offer.

What’s distrubing is that in every class our daughter took in high school, there were kids who did little or nothing and some who caused problems. No matter what her teachers did, they couldn’t get those kids to work or gain support from the parents of those children.

And when standardized tests are given, the same teachers could be judged as failures and face losing their jobs because the scores of the students who didn’t cooperate dragged the average down—the same teachers who taught our daughter who earned that gold medal in Academic Decathlon could lose their jobs and the public high school our daughter attended before she was accepted to Stanford could be closed and replaced by a private sector Charter school owned by a corporation that would profit off tax payers.

And if you think only kids from the best schools in wealthy communities compete in these academic competitions, you’d be wrong. The high school where I taught had more than 70% of its students on free and/or reduced lunch/breakfast. That means they lived in poverty, but there were still kids who competed in these academic competitions and won medals making the school proud. There were kids at that school who had supportive parents.


Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

His first novel was the award winning historical fiction My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. His second novel was the award winning thriller Running with the Enemy. His short story A Night at the “Well of Purity” was named a finalist of the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards. His wife is Anchee Min, the international, best-selling, award winning author of Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1992).

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One response to “The power of academic competitions for students who want to learn

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    April 5, 2014 at 20:08

    Reblogged this on Lloyd Lofthouse.


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