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March 13, 2009

coming of age in a winner-take-all society

These are some winning words from the National Spelling Bee, by year:

1932: knack
1940: therapy
1973: vouchsafe
1975: incisor
2001: succedaneum
2004: autochthonous

The tremendous increase in difficulty is sometimes taken as evidence of rising achievement (e.g., in Strauss and Howe's book, Millennials Rising.) But compare the national achievement rates in reading, as measured by the Federal Government's National Assessment of Education Progress:

High school reading scores are totally flat, and far from adequate in a competitive, 21st-century economy. (And these results reflect only youth who are still enrolled at age 17; one third drop out before graduating.)

This pattern seems to be a perfect example of what Robert H. Frank calls the "winner-takes-all" society. It only takes a few superb contestants to make an entertaining national Spelling Bee competition that's fit for TV. Given the rewards of winning, hundreds of thousands of American kids will enter, and the very best will rise to the top. The Spelling Bee process doesn't have any relevance to, or direct effect on, the remaining 99.999% of kids.

By itself, that's not a problem--in my opinion, awesome spelling achievement is a parlor trick that any computer can perform to perfection. But the same logic applies to more important competitions as well: admission to an engineering school, becoming a partner in a law firm, being drafted to the NBA, getting a seat in an orchestra, or making tenure at a good university. The few who make it to the top win bigger rewards than ever before, because the process of selection is increasingly efficient and the base of contestants is larger. The excellence of the winners is impressive. But the effects on the rest of the population are problematic, at best.

March 13, 2009 9:06 AM | category: education policy | Comments


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