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Jan. 29, 2004 | 4:49 PM ETSPELLBOUND, OUTBOUND, AND SCHOOLBOUNDIn my last post about the Spelling Bee documentary, Spellbound, I noted that smart kids often feel isolated, and that even though it's cooler to be a geek than it used to be, smartness and hard work aren't especially valued in middle school and high school.  You can certainly see that in Spellbound.  You might also notice that many of the spelling finalists are from immigrant families.  Two, in fact, are from India, where smartness and hard work are very highly valued indeed.  (Perhaps too highly, or at least too harshly -- one contestant's father remarks that you don't get second chances in India.)But I couldn't help thinking about that as I read Dan Pink's cover story in this month's Wired about outsourcing.  The Wired cover features an Indian woman as "the new face of the silicon age," and the piece makes clear that Americans need to be focusing more on valuing smartness and hard work.  As a sidebar piece by Chris Anderson puts it, India represents a "practically infinite pool of smart, educated, English-speaking people eager to work."  And behind India, there's China.So what's going on in America?  Nothing that should frighten the Indians too much.  Oh, there's some talk of legislation to limit outsourcing, but that won't work -- and, if it does, will simply constitute a cure worse than the disease.  Or, we could be working to make our education system more challenging and effective, encouraging our kids to work harder, and develop their intelligence.We're certainly not doing that.  In Nashville, schools have stopped posting the honor roll.  In other schools, cheating is routinely winked at, to the point where a speaker on academic dishonesty reports that she was practically laughed off the stage:I explored causation for my failure. The motivational speaker, the negative attitude of some administrators, and the general setting of hundreds of juniors and seniors in one room contributed to the debacle.
But, they laughed, booed and ignored me because they know ethics don't matter. Last year several students at this school cheated on a math final. When the instructor proposed a penalty, the parents protested mightily. No action was taken against the students.
The school has a culture of looking the other way. These students know that you can cheat and get away with it. My message was laughable, given their life and academic experiences. They also know their parents are a safety net. Administrators back down on penalties. The honest students can't figure out why they should care when no one else does.Then there's Marquis Harris, who was denied a teaching job because school officials said he was too smart:Recently, I interviewed with a school in one of the metro Atlanta counties, only to receive an e-mail from the principal stating, "Though your qualifications are quite impressive, I regret to inform you that we have selected another candidate. It was felt that your demeanor and therefore presence in the classroom would serve as an unrealistic expectation as to what high school students could strive to achieve or become. However, it is highly recommended that you seek employment at the collegiate level; there your intellectual comportment would be greatly appreciated. Good luck."In other words, the school administrators don't want their students to aim high.  We're not going to hold our own against the Indians, the Chinese, and the rest of the world that way.The educational system is broken.  It's been broken for so long that it's easy to tune out stories like this, but in fact, the damage that is being done is significant, and as America's lead over the rest of the world erodes, ignoring that damage is getting far more costly.  It's time that the subject gets more attention -- and, even more importantly, action.There are a lot of educational bloggers who cover these kinds of topics in a lot more depth than I can.  Joanne Jacobs (from whose blog these examples come) and Kimberly Swygert are two good examples, and their blogs have links to many more.  You should also look at Erin O'Connor's blog, Critical Mass, which does the same thing for higher education.This stuff matters.  America is richer than the rest of the world because we have smart people who work hard, under a system that encourages them to do so by letting them keep (most of) the fruits of their labor.  But America's wealth isn't a birthright.  Like our freedom, it has to be earned by each successive generation.  It can't be protected by legislation, it can only be protected by hard work. Part of that hard work lies in educating the next generation.  It's pretty clear that we're dropping the ball in that department.  Instead of worrying about outsourcing, maybe we should be worrying about that.
Jan. 28, 2004 | 11:05 AM ETSPELLBOUNDNo, I'm not talking about the pundits and political junkies who have been hanging on the New Hampshire Primary story, and who will now move on to South Carolina and other contests.  Today I'm talking about a terrific documentary I saw on DVD called, you guessed it, Spellbound.  The film got a lot of good reviews when it came out (here's David Edelstein's review in Slate.) but I didn't get to see it until Tuesday, when I was sitting home with my sick 8-year-old daughter.  We watched it in front of the fireplace while snow flurried outside, and both found it enthralling.I was in the National Spelling Bee some years ago, which made the film especially on-point to me.  But my daughter, who didn't make it past 3rd-grade alternate, and who has no great ambitions to follow in my footsteps, liked it just as much.  There's nothing technically sophisticated about the film -- no arty shots, no fancy effects, nothing showy at all.  The audio is fine, but it sounds like a documentary filmed on-the-fly, not like a feature film.  And while nobody in the film is ugly, there's nobody who looks like Jennifer Aniston, either.  It just tells a great story, and makes you realize just how many smart kids there are out there, trying to figure out what they're good at, and trying to do well.  Though the eight competitors spotlighted in the film are different in all sorts of ways -- rich and poor, native and immigrant, boys and girls -- they're more alike in this sense than they are different.One thing that rang true to me:  A scene in which one contestant's mother observes that back home, with few smart kids in her class, her daughter is a geek.  Here, among the contestants, she's just one of the crowd.  I remember feeling that way myself -- and it was a lot less cool to be a geek in the 1970s than it is now.  The world is full of this kind of competition:  the Spelling Bee is the most famous, but there are contests in math, history, science, and much more.  For a lot of smart kids, they provide confidence and validation that are hard to come by in the day-to-day environment of middle school and high school, where academic skills are seldom on top of the heap in terms of recognition.And that's another thing that struck me:  It is a cliche to say that all the contestants in a national competition like the Spelling Bee are winners, but it's true.  Watching these kids, I knew that they would all do fine in life.  The qualities of focus, discipline, perseverance, and coolness under pressure that such contests require aren't the stuff of many movies about adolescents.  But they serve people well later in life, as I'm sure these kids will discover.  It's nice to see a film that makes that point, too.
• Jan. 26, 2004 | 10:04 AM ETFOR POLITICAL JUNKIESIowa is over.  New Hampshire is nearly done.  The Next Big Thing will be the South Carolina primaries, coverage of which you can find at Jeff Quinton's Weblog.  Another South Carolina political blogger is Wyeth Ruthven, who's rather to the left of Quinton.  Arguing With Signposts is a South Carolina political weblog by a displaced Texan, and Carolina talk show host Michael Graham is likely to have some observations. Some major South Carolina newspapers include the Charleston Post and Courier, and The State.  They're not covering the primary very heavily yet (nobody really is, except for obsessed political bloggers) but that'll change soon.Hotshot multi-person newsblog The Command Post has a special election coverage section that will no doubt cover the subject at some length.  You should also look at Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, and political professional Jack O'Toole, who has interesting insights on all sorts of fronts.The voters of New Hampshire haven't spoken yet, but it seems likely that, whatever they say, the contest for the Democratic nomination won't be nailed down when they're done.  In the meantime, I'll leave you with this Quote of the Day found via Political Wire:"I know where they are now. They got head colds. They've been up and down on airplanes... these guys are exhausted coming out of the gate."
- President Bush, quoted by Washington Whispers
, expressing sypathy for the Democratic presidential candidates.It's easy to make fun of the candidates -- in fact, it's almost irresistible -- but as they go through this process it's worth noting that most of us would crack under the strain and say something stupid long before they do.


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