Sliding Scores

I don’t think standardized tests should be the be-all and end-all in terms of measuring an individual student’s knowledge or preparedness, but when the overall average scores on standardized tests start to reveal long-term trends, we might want to start paying attention.

boy-in-classroom-articleThat’s why the ACT’s announcement earlier this week about a significant slide in college readiness — based on testing of more than 1.9 million high school graduates, which amounts to more than half of the 2018 American high school graduates — should be a cause for concern.  According to the ACT, the “percentage of ACT-tested graduates who met or surpassed the ACT College Readiness Benchmark in math—suggesting they are ready to succeed in a first-year college algebra class—fell to its lowest level since 2004” and “students’ average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years—down to 20.5 (on a scale of 1 to 36), continuing a slide from 21.1 in 2012 to 20.7 last year.”  Readiness in English, reading ability, and science also declined.

Even worse, the ACT announced that “[a] growing percentage of students are falling at the bottom of the preparedness scale,” with 35 percent of 2018 graduates met none of the four ACT College Readiness Benchmarks — which means they are likely to struggle in math, reading, English, and science as they move on to college.

It’s hard to tell how well our public schools are doing at preparing kids for college, but falling average test scores are a pretty compelling indication that things aren’t moving in the right direction.  We should once again be taking a careful look at what our public schools are teaching, and how.  If we aren’t teaching our kids what they need to know to live productive lives, we’re failing them — and failing the country.  For years now, people have been talking about how the jobs of the future are going to exist in technology-related fields.  Who is going to fill those jobs and allow America to compete globally if our kids can’t read or do math and science?

The Wha? Of The Schwa

I was rolling along pretty well in school.  I had mastered the ability to sleep on a towel at nap time, and I colored inside the lines.  I had learned how to read, knew the alphabet (and the alphabet song), and got the connection between printed words and verbal speech.  I also understood the concept, at least, of counting and math.

And then, at some point, the schwa came along, and I kind of lost the golden thread.

schwaDoes anyone here remember the schwa — the inverted e that purportedly signified some kind of sound and that was supposed to help kids with reading, or pronunciation . . . or something?  More importantly, does anyone here remember being helped — as opposed to being completely flummoxed — by learning about the schwa?  Even now, the definition of the schwa comes across as the same needlessly confusing morass that it was when it was first introduced in grade school.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unstressed mid-central vowel (such as the usual sound of the first and last vowels of the English word America)” and “the symbol ə used for the schwa sound and less widely for a similarly articulated stressed vowel (as in cut).”  

There, does that help?

The schwa didn’t exist when I started school and first learned to read.  At that time, the emphasis was on recognizing different words, learning how to pronounce them, and then memorizing them.  It worked perfectly well, and you could feel your working vocabulary growing.  It wasn’t a big deal that letters could be pronounced in different ways, depending on the word — that was just another part of what you had to learn, the same way you had to learn the name of your town, the name of your school, or the name of your teacher.  You accepted the different pronunciations because that’s the way that language apparently worked.  It was just something else to memorize.

The schwa didn’t help, it only muddled things.  It wasn’t a letter of the alphabet, and it didn’t appear in the Weekly Reader or any of those compelling books about Dick, Jane, and Spot.  So why in the world was the teacher trying to get baffled students to understand the schwa?  Why couldn’t we just go back to learning more actual words, the way they were actually spelled?  I decided to ignore the stupid schwa and just learn more words, and it seemed to work out okay.

Interestingly, when our kids went to school, they didn’t seem to hear about the schwa at all.  It appears that, after years of battering perplexed students with it, it was consigned onto the educational scrap heap, along Esperanto and other failed concepts.  If the schwa is gone from American education, I’m glad.

Requiring A College Degree For Every Job

Recently Washington, D.C. became one of the first cities in the country to impose a licensing requirement that mandates that all child care workers — that is, people caring for infants and toddlers who aren’t yet in a pre-school or kindergarten program — must obtain college degrees.

The college degree requirement is part of an effort to address an “achievement gap” between children that apparently is evident as early as 18 months of age.  The concern is that most early child care workers are treated, and paid, like glorified babysitters, when they actually should be viewed as being more like teachers.  D.C. officials want to focus child care programs more on education and quality of care and “set our young children on a positive trajectory for learning and development.”

The new standard will require many existing child care workers in the District of Columbia, who hold only high school diplomas, to go back to college and obtain a degree — a daunting prospect for many because of the cost of going to college and the low pay that child care workers traditionally receive.  Studies show that a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education produces the lowest lifetime earnings of any college degree, which makes it likely that child care workers who do earn a degree won’t stay in the child care area and will instead move on to better-paying careers.  If those child care workers need to take out student loans to get that college degree, their financial issues will become even more acute.  And neither the District of Columbia, nor the parents of the kids being cared for, apparently have the resources to pay the workers more after they get that required college degree.

This seems to me like a self-inflicted problem.  Of course, making sure that young children enjoy stimulating environments, are introduced to the benefits of reading at an early age, experience interesting forms of play, and so forth is important — but it doesn’t require a college agree to make sure that happens.  People with high school diplomas who are adequately trained and monitored should be perfectly capable of helping children move onto that “positive trajectory for learning and development” through programs that can be set by the supervisors of the child care centers.

More and more, we seem to be requiring college degrees for jobs because it sounds good, and a college degree can be seen as a kind of general surrogate for all kinds of skills — when in reality not every job actually requires a college degree.  This trend pushes more people into college, allows colleges to continuously increase their tuition, puts pressure on wages, and has all kinds of other effects.  We need to recognize that not everyone needs to go to college, and not every job requires college.

 

A Deserving Winner, And A Nobel Cause

This morning the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to its youngest winner ever — Malala Yousafzai, a 17-year-old woman from Pakistan.  She and Kailash Satyarthi of India received the Prize for their work to advance the rights of children and promote universal schooling.

Many selections of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have been controversial — often they are criticized as highly politicized attempts to direct public discourse, rather than recognize true achievements in promoting peace — and even this award had an apparent political message.  The Committee Chairman said: “The Nobel Committee regards it as an important point for a Hindu and a Muslim, an Indian and a Pakistani, to join in a common struggle for education and against extremism.”

Regardless of the political overtones, this time the Committee made a very worthy choice.  Yousafzai’s compelling personal story, and her courageous crusade for education, have been an inspiration to millions across the world.   Ever since she overcame being shot for resisting Taliban edicts that barred girls from going to school and bravely continued to advocate — peacefully — for the advancement and schooling of girls, Yousafzai has been a living example of everything the Nobel Peace Prize is supposed to represent.

There is something important in the fact that Yousafzai is the youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, too.  A 15-year-old girl who is threatened, bullied, and then shot by religious extremists would seem to be powerless, but Yousafzai proved that perceptions of power can be wrong.  Individuals, young and old, can make a difference.

Should We Show The Door To Common Core?

These days you hear a lot about “Common Core” — a set of national math and reading standards that have been adopted in more than 40 states and are supported by the Obama Administration.  One recent article described a “populist uprising” against the standards.  In Louisiana, the state board of education and Governor Bobby Jindal are suing each other about whether that state can nullify its agreement to participate in Common Core.  This week, in Ohio, House Republicans have introduced a bill to replace Common Core standards, which could set up a clash with Governor John Kasich, who has supported the Common Core initiative.

The stated goal of Common Core is to develop critical thinking and better ready students for college and careers and — as its name indicates — establish a common set of standards between states.  Supporters say the Common Core approach to learning about math and reading are better, and in any event it would be foolish to retreat from the standards after the participating states have spent years developing and implementing them.  Common Core opponents object to “federalization” of education and raise questions about costs.

Richard and Russell are long past learning math and reading, so I don’t have a dog in this fight.  I’m not automatically opposed to trying new approaches or promoting standards that ensure that kids learn the basics; I remember taking “The Iowa Test of Basic Skills” when I was in grade school in the ’60s.  At the same time, I’m often skeptical at claims that new approaches are better, particularly when it comes to subjects that have been taught for centuries.

With respect to Common Core, I’m more interested in the human element in these changes — which, I think, often get overlooked when huge national forces and politics enter the process.  I became aware of that human element when I had lunch several weeks ago with two colleagues who have youngsters in grade school.  Neither is a Republican or a reflexive opponent of “federalizing” standards, but both had serious concerns about Common Core.  One related a story in which she sat down with her daughter to look at her math homework, which involved addition and subtraction problems.  When the mother started to use the familiar right to left process, “carrying” numbers from column to column, the daughter said:  “Mom, we don’t do it that way!”  The Mom was embarrassed, and wondered why we are making this kind of change.  NPR recently carried a report that raised that same issue of disconnect between parents and their kids that Common Core presents.

I think parental involvement helps to encourage kids to work hard in school, and homework assistance can also be one way of strengthening the parent-child bond.  Those of us who learned the “carry” method have somehow managed to balance checkbooks, perform the basic math skills needed to function in modern society, and contribute to the economy.  Why change the basic approach to addition and subtraction in a way that shuts parents out of the homework process even in the very early grades, and suggests to young children that their parents are old-fashioned and out of it?  Isn’t it at least possible that there is an ultimate social cost in such a change that outweighs whatever incremental learning benefit the new approach is supposed to realize?

Learning, And Remembering

What is a better way to learn from a presentation, and remember its contents:  writing notes by hand on a piece of paper, or taking notes on a laptop?  Taking notes by hand is more cumbersome, whereas adept typists can use laptops to take notes at close to a word-for-word transcription level — but does that make laptops better for comprehension and retention?

Recent research concludes that taking notes by hand enhances learning.  Why?  Researchers think that because writing is much slower than typing, students hoping to capture content must filter, summarize, and focus on the key points as they take notes, and those additional mental steps in the process have the effect of better engraving the content into their memories.  Students taking notes on a laptop, in contrast, try to take down everything the speaker says, as if they are just another cog in a recording device, and therefore the words don’t have as much impact. 

IMG_2446Interestingly, the study showed that the comprehension advantage is reflected not only on tests given immediately after the learning experience, but also on tests taken weeks later.  The theory is that students who review their own handwritten notes are given more effective memory cues than students who simply review the verbatim transcription.

These results don’t surprise me.  Handwritten notetakers must be active listeners who are engaged in the presentation, and active listeners always capture more content.  But there is more to the notetaking advantage than that.  I think the physical act of writing enhances comprehension and recollection because your brain has to be reading and thinking about meaning as it controls the hand that is writing the note.  Multiple senses are involved:  you hear the words being spoken, you move your hand to write them, you see your writing on the page, and you speak the words in your inner voice.  If you take additional steps — like adding stars or underlines to highlight key points — the cognitive impact of the process is that much greater.   

I’ve always been a notetaker; even now, I like to write myself notes to remind myself of tasks rather than typing them into a notes application on my computer.  For me, at least, the physical actions tie directly into the mental process and help me remember.  Plus, I like the tactile sensation of crumpling up notes after I’ve completed a task and throwing them away.

The Constitutionality Of Teacher Tenure

Last week in California a state-court judge declared that the state statute establishing teacher tenure violated the state constitutional right to an education.  The court held that the tenure statutes disproportionately adversely affected poor and minority students, because the worst teachers protected by the statute are assigned to their schools.  The evidence of the negative impact, the court found, “shocks the conscience.”

Much of the news coverage of the decision has focused on the impact on teachers’ unions — a powerful voice in the powerful field of public employee unions.  The head of one of the unions affected by the California ruling said that the judge fell prey to anti-union sentiment and rhetoric and that teachers were being unfairly scapegoated for the problems that exist in public education.  Those arguments will be tested:  the court’s decision is just the first step in what will likely be a long litigation and appeal process.

As I read the reports on the California decision, I had two reactions.  First, we’ve become an increasingly judge-driven society, in which courts and litigants are using constitutional provisions to overturn statutes and popular referendums.  We applaud court rulings when we agree with their effect, but a heightened judicial role is a two-way street.  I’m sure California teachers never dreamed that a constitutional right to education could be used to overturn a hard-won legislative victory on teacher tenure.  And judicial involvement in policy-making can be complicated:  if the existing California system of hiring and firing teachers is struck down, what will replace it?  Legislative enactments are detailed and specific and supplemented by regulation; judicial rulings are much more high level.

Second, the concept of tenure — which was a means of ensuring academic freedom at the college and post-graduate level — does not fit well at the elementary and secondary school level.  The idea was that professors who had proven their merit after years of work should be free to explore research or prepare writings that addressed controversial topics without worrying about being fired by those who disagreed with their conclusions.  How does that translate to the public school setting, where curriculums are increasingly dictated by federal and state laws and regulations?  In California, the state law overturned by the court seemed motivated less by notions of academic freedom and more by simple job preservation:  teachers became tenured after only two years, strict seniority rules required that the newest teachers would be laid off first, and a welter of rules and procedures made it practically impossible to discharge incompetent tenured teachers.

We can expect to see more efforts to use broadly phrased state constitutional provisions to modify existing public policy, and more wrangling about teachers.  They are on the front lines of public education and inevitably will be targets as people grow increasingly concerned about the state of our public schools and what to do about them.

The Latest Government Rating System

The federal government has announced that it plans to “rate” America’s colleges and universities.  The New York Times story linked above describes the ratings push as “a radical new effort by the federal government to hold America’s 7,000 colleges and universities accountable by injecting the executive branch into the business of helping prospective students weigh collegiate pros and cons.”

IMG_0747The underlying concept is that colleges and universities receive $150 billion in federal loans and grants, so the federal government should determine whether the schools are “worth it.”  The proposed rating system would apparently be based on how many students graduate, how much debt they accumulate during their college years, and how much money they make after they graduate, among other factors. The federal rating would compete with the college guides, like that produced by U.S. News and World Report, that are all too familiar to the parents of a college-bound high school student.

College administrators are reacting with horror to the idea.  In some respects, it’s hard not to feel a certain schadenfreude when you read their outright dismissal of the idea.  For years our institutions of higher learning have been relentlessly raising their tuition and fees and administrator salaries, blithely rejecting thousands of applicants, and happily operating in their own, comfortable sphere of almost complete autonomy.  Now they’re the ones who will be judged, and they don’t like it.

But the college presidents have a point.  One Department of Education official said the rating system would be a cinch, like “rating a blender.”  Sounds like the same unfounded  bureaucratic arrogance that led to the disastrous roll-out of the healthcare.gov website, doesn’t it?  And speaking as someone who went to a land-grant school for college and a private school for a law degree, and was the parent of children who have gone to small and medium-sized private schools and a state school for college and master’s programs, I have zero confidence in the judgment of anyone who thinks that rating schools is even remotely comparable to rating an appliance.  There are far too many variables and differences, and focusing on financial issues — like how much graduates are paid — inevitably gives short shrift to the idea of getting a well-rounded liberal arts education.

More fundamentally, I am royally tired of the federal government injecting itself into every facet of American life.  The process is always the same — first the government provides money, then it says it needs to establish oversight to ensure that the money is being spent wisely. (Of course, there’s never any reconsideration of the idea of the federal government spending the money in the first place.)  We know from years of experience that if the Bureau of Federal Higher Education Rating is created, it will immediately become another calcified government program that can never be cut or terminated.

We don’t need President Obama or the federal bureaucracy dreaming up new ways to regulate and new administrative positions that need to be filled, we need them to focus on doing a better job of running the programs that already exist and figuring out how to run them more efficiently — and determining whether they are truly needed at all.  I’d give the notion of establishing a federal college rating system an “F.”

Baited Breath

Today as I was driving home I heard a snippet of a press conference given by a police chief somewhere in America. He was talking about an investigation he was conducting in coordination with the federal government, and reassured citizens that no stone would be left unturned thanks to their “duplicitous” efforts. Sounds like the kind of devastating admission that could be used to good effect by the lawyers who defend whoever gets arrested as a result of that joint investigation!

IMG_1674Of course, the police chief should have said “duplicative” — which is probably what he intended — but he botched it. No doubt he wanted to sound highly educated, but instead he gave people who were paying attention a hearty chuckle at a pretty good malapropism.

I received an even better malapropism recently via email. The emailer said he was waiting for something with “baited breath.” I laughed at that one, and thought of all the witty, fish-related responses that his error made possible. Should I say that when he finally got a response he shouldn’t fall for it hook, line and sinker? Add that I hoped he wouldn’t worm his way out of his responsibilities? Observe that if it didn’t work out there were other fish in the sea? Fret about the possibility that the project might hit a snag?

“Baited breath” — as opposed to bated breath — seemed like an especially succulent metaphor because it conjures up the idea of the speaker eating worms, minnows, and maybe even a little chum and tackle. Alas, it turns out that “baited breath” has become so commonplace that linguists think it might soon become the usual form of the phrase. Horrors! Has illiteracy reeled in and ruined another deft phrase that traces its lineage back to Shakespeare himself?

When A Letter-Writing Campaign Goes Terribly Wrong

Sometimes you wonder about what kind of schooling American kids are getting.

Here’s a recent example. The New York Post wrote an article about a high school — the Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers — in which the curriculum appeared to be less than rigorous. The school, miffed by the unflattering article, encouraged students to write letters to the Post to complain about the piece.

Unfortunately for the school, some students did — and their letters confirm that they apparently have only the most dim comprehension of grammar, spelling, and other basics of the English language.

I know there are large, looming issues about public schools, and private schools, and charter schools, and how we can best prepare our young people for the future in a hyper-competitive global economy. It’s incredibly sad, however, that high school students not only would write letters that are so filled with errors, but also that they lack the basic self-awareness to understand that they are bordering on functional illiteracy and are exposing that fact whenever they put pen to paper. We are failing these kids.

General Business

In junior high school, amidst the courses in trigonometry and English and American history, I took a class called General Business.  It harkened back to the days when President Calvin Coolidge famously observed:  “The chief business of the American people is business.

The class was taught by a friendly woman who ran her own business and was filled with enthusiasm for capitalism.  She taught us about profits and losses, balancing a checkbook, and basic bookkeeping concepts.  We learned about principal and interest, mortgages, and things to keep in mind when you were applying for a loan and trying to decide how much to borrow and how much to make as a down payment.  We read about stocks and bonds and how they were different and talked about how businesses were run and why some succeeded and others failed.  It opened our eyes to everyday things we’d never thought about — like what a cash register actually does and why you got a receipt when you bought something.

Through it all, the message of our cheerful teacher was consistent and packed a punch:  you’ll need to understand this stuff in the real world.  If you want to take control of your own future, get out on your own and be successful and independent, you have to this kind of practical knowledge of how the economy works and how you can participate in it.  You don’t want to be a know-nothing who is easy prey for shysters and frauds.  You don’t want to go bankrupt, either.  Even the most uninspired student paid attention when the teacher was explaining how a car loan works, because we all wanted to buy a car some day.

I still think of that class whenever I write a check, because I write it just the way I was taught more than 40 years ago.  The high concepts of trigonometry have been lost in the mists of time, but the basics of business are still there in my brain, accessed regularly.  I’m glad they are there, and I wish I could meet that teacher and thank her for the years of useful guidance she provided.

Do schools still teach classes like General Business?

Fewer Law Students, Fewer Lawyers

The number of people applying to American law schools is dropping sharply.  A recent report of the Law School Admission Council states that applications to law schools fell almost 18 percent from 2012 to 2013.  That drop-off continues a trend; the report says approximately 20,000 fewer people applied to law schools in 2013 than submitted applications only two years earlier, in 2011.

Why the drop-off?  The economy has changed, and there is less need for lawyers.  Would-be law school applicants recognize that many recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed.  The employment statistics compiled by the American Bar Association show a significant number of graduates struggle to find any kind of law-related job.  In the meantime — because law school is incredibly expensive — many recent graduates are saddled with tremendous student loan burdens.  Working at a waitressing or bartending job in a desperate effort to pay your debts while looking fruitlessly for work in the field for which you’ve received costly but narrow training is not an attractive future.

I think this change is permanent — which means we’re going to see some of the less well-regarded law schools close their doors and we’re going to see a change in the power equation between the shrinking pool of applicants and law schools that want to fill out their classes with well-qualified students.  The latter result apparently is already occurring, as students are negotiating more lucrative financial aid packages with law schools competing for their acceptance.

Optimists might foresee other, positive long-term effects from this trend.  Lawyer jokes aside, lawyers tend to be intelligent, well-educated, highly motivated people who could contribute to the American economy in many different ways.  I’m hoping that people who might have gone to law school in the past now apply those traits and abilities in opening and managing their own businesses, devising new approaches to products and services, and letting their creativity and passions guide them to other productive roles.  The fact that the door to a career as a lawyer may be closing just means that other doors should be opened.

The Demotivational Impact Of Empty Platitudes

According to an article in the Washington Post, schools and teachers have finally begun to recognize that efforts to boost student “self-esteem” that aren’t tied to concrete accomplishment aren’t achieving anything.  The article says that three decades of research shows that constant praise irrespective of performance, participation trophies, and the like aren’t actually increasing self-esteem and instead are interfering with actual improvement and accomplishment.

This shouldn’t come as news to anyone.  Indeed, the only surprise lies in the fact that it took three decades for schools to figure out what is obvious to most parents — but then, once a “concept” like “promoting self-esteem” gets rooted in the hidebound American educational system, it’s almost impossible to dig it out.

Kids — even kids who learn at a slower pace — aren’t stupid.  They’re observant and socially aware.  They know who is smart or adept at math or science and who isn’t, just like they know who is good at sports and who is a klutz.  If you praise them for non-performance, they will feel patronized, not proud — and may conclude that you don’t care, or are too incompetent to determine, whether they are really learning.  Neither message motivates kids to work harder and learn.  Ask any parents whose basements are filled with boxes of the silly participation trophies or good citizenship medals or attendance certificates their kids have received — those “awards” mean nothing because the kids intuitively know that awards given to everyone mean nothing.

Self-esteem can’t be conferred, it has to be earned and developed by actual achievement.  It’s time to return to schools that feature competitions with winners and losers, like science fairs and spelling bees and speech contests.  When I was in elementary school, we used to play a game called conductor where two kids would stand next to a desk.  The teacher would call out a math calculation, and the first student to give the right answer would move on while the loser would sit.  If you made it through the entire classroom you felt legitimate pride — and those who sat down were motivated to work harder.

We need to forget about the trophy generation, and focus instead on how to turn our youngsters into an actual achievement generation.

When Law Schools Lie

Recently the University of Illinois College of Law announced that Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and grade point average (GPA) statistics provided on the school’s website were inflated.  The school posted the correct numbers, said it was conducting a thorough review of how the error happened, and placed the dean of admissions on leave as part of the investigation process.

The incident is part of a broader trend of concern about the credibility of law school admissions statistics at the beginning of the law school experience (the LSAT scores and GPAs of the incoming classes) and the placement statistics at the end of the process (how many graduates get law-related jobs).  The LSAT and GPA statistics are significant to the law schools’ ranking by the U.S. News and World Report, which uses those numbers to measure “selectivity.”  Every college and graduate school student, parent, professor, and administrator knows that the U.S. News and World Report ranking carries a huge amount of weight.  With law school admissions dropping — and they fell by 10 percent in 2011 — schools competing for the reduced pool of applicants may be sorely tempted to cook their  admissions and job placement figures.  Interestingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers have noted the issue and are pondering whether inaccurate reporting should be met by a class action lawsuit on behalf of students.

Institutions of higher learning used to presume to occupy the moral high ground.  More and more, however, those institutions behave like businesses and are facing the same kinds of scandals we see in the business world.  What do such scandals mean for a school’s ability to achieve its educational mission?  How is a law school that admits to falsifying data supposed to enforce an honor code, or credibly instruct students about legal ethics?

Buzzing About The National Spelling Bee

The annual National Spelling Bee is underway.  Yesterday the 275 contestants took a written spelling test.  Today they started spelling words on the stage.  Fifty of the kids will advance to the semifinals tomorrow, and tomorrow night at 8:30 p.m. ESPN — ESPN! — will broadcast the final rounds.

I was a good speller as a kid.  I used to enjoy the spelling contests between classroom teams in grade school, and I competed in at least one all-school spelling bee that I can remember.  But I never had the kind of dedication to spelling prowess that the kids competing in the National Spelling Bee have displayed.  They spend hours studying lists of words, reading dictionaries, memorizing spellings, and developing strategies to aid in the recall process.  As a result, they can spell words that even the most well-educated among us would likely never use in normal conversation.

You can tell the National Spelling Bee is a throwback event by its name.  Are any other contests called “bees” anymore?  But the format is tried and true, with the kid leaving her chair to stand up behind the microphone, hearing the word, perhaps asking for a definition and to have the word used in a sentence, and then giving it her best shot and hoping she doesn’t have to slink back to her chair in failure.  The contestants don’t do it because it is cool, or because champion spellers will make millions of dollars in professional leagues.  No, they do it because they like being good spellers and like the idea of seeing whether they just might be this year’s champion.  And that, I think, makes the National Spelling Bee cool after all.