Q & A: 'Commissioner' Describes Sports-Like Academic Competition

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In an effort to motivate students to achieve academically, and to bring high achievers the same type of recognition athletes typically receive, former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and Donna Elmquist, a founding partner of Mr. Bell's Salt Lake City-based consulting firm, have formed the National Academic League.

Modeled after athletic competitions, the new league, which consists of eight junior high school teams from cities across the country, is designed to allow student scholars a venue in which to excel to the acclaim of their peers.

Regional competition between the teams already is under way, and the first national championship is scheduled to be played in May.

The playoffs also will be the subject of a national videoconference for competing schools.

Ms. Elmquist, the newly appointed commissioner of the N.A.L., discussed the goals of the league with Staff Writer Peter West.

Q. Where did the idea come from to found the N.A.L.?

A. Dr. Bell and I wrote a book together called How To Shape Up Our Nation's Schools, which we published in 1991. And in that book, we lamented the fact that we don't motivate our students in the ways that we should.

Then we said, "Look at what we do for athletes in the schools. Let's rip a page out of that book, which they do so well, and copy it.''

An excerpt of that book was published in a local business magazine here and [officials of] the local Pepsi Cola company said, "We'd like to do that,'' and we said "O.K.''

We went to the Granite school district [in Salt Lake City], and they said they were interested.

We started out with nothing. We went home from that meeting and decided that I would be the [N.A.L.] commissioner.

So I started talking to every man I could think of who knew anything about athletics . . . and, as an educator, I wanted it to be academically sound. I wanted the kids to problem-solve, to work as a team, to develop critical-thinking skills, and to learn how to present [information].

So I conceptualized "quarters'' along those lines. The rule book started out as about six pages long; now it's about 40 pages.

Q. How long did this all take?

A. The local league here was founded last year. We tried in eight junior high schools, and we were getting calls from all over the nation, so we decided to expand.

But our plan is to expand slowly, so that we do it well.

We also thought we should start with the core subject areas of math, science, language arts, and social studies.

Q. What age group does the league aim to involve and what are the eligility requirements?

A. We are aiming at the junior high school population. It's a level where we often lose these kids.

[As far as requirements go,] there really are none . . . except enthusiasm.

Q. Can you describe how a regulation match plays out?

A. There are five players and five back-up players on each team.

The game itself [consists of] four 12-minute quarters. We have timeouts, kids can foul out, we have technicals, all of that.

The first two quarters focus on the individual students, and they [include] short, quick answers. The strategy is to keep possession of a questioning sequence.

The second quarter is a speed round . . . sort of like a "Jeopardy'' session.

The third quarter we call the problem-solving quarter. The [players] are sent to a separate room where they have a few materials. They're all real-world types of problems. They have three to five minutes to come up with an answer.

The fourth quarter is called the team-speed quarter . . . [and features] a team of kids huddling together on the stage. The purpose is to . . . make them work together as a team, which junior high school kids are not good at. At least at first.

Q. And the regional winners will play in a national final, isn't that right?

A. That's what really distinguishes these games from other [academic competitions]. The teams play regularly scheduled local games, just like an athletic team.

I mean, how interested could we get people in one football game a year?

We end up with eight championship teams across the country, who then compete for the national title.

Q. Isn't it possible that such a format will trivialize academic pursuits?

A. I don't think so, from talking to the principals of the schools.

And we hear comments [from students] like, "I've learned more in one year than I have in three years'' and "I'm finally recognized in school.''

I think we've created a new niche for students who are good at academics.

People who haven't participated in sports are at a detriment in this society. And I say that from my [personal] experience. . . .

At the regional matches, they may have cheerleaders, they may have halftime entertainment, but the focus is on "Look at our scholars.''

Vol. 12, Issue 24

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