Four of the top 10 competitors were homeschooled. The National Geographic reports:
"A survey of this year's contestants showed widespread admiration for President Bush and the job he's doing, and a desire to be president themselves one day."
While homeschooled kids make up 1.7 percent of U.S. students, they comprise 21.8 percent of national geography bee competitors and 10.9 percent of national spelling bee competitors.
Why do homeschoolers do so well?
1. Homeschooled kids can be spiky rather than well-rounded, going deeply into subjects they care about.
2. Bees require memorization, which is unfashionable in schools but still cherished by traditionalist parents.
3. Similarly, bees require individual performance, not the group learning favored in today's schools. There are winners and losers, putting a competitor's self-esteem at risk. Answers are judged by an authority figure to be right or wrong. It's all very retro.
It's not that homeschoolers are so smart. It's that they're competing against students who¹ve been told they don't need to know anything as long as they can look it up on the Internet, run it through spellcheck, punch it up on the calculator — or get the smart kid in the group to do all the work.
In theory, progressively educated students will do more critical thinking. But I've noticed that people who are good thinkers tend to know a lot; they have something to think about. Conversely, ignorance may be bliss but it's not conducive to deep thinking.
Now a Columbia student, Mark Shawhan competed in the National Spelling Bee as a middle-schooler, as did his brother. He points out that homeschoolers' bee success doesn't necessarily prove that homeschooling is educationally superior.
"Based on that experience, what largely matters in qualifying for a spelling bee (and doing well once you get there) is drill, rather than learning.
"In the National Spelling Bee, for example, only the first couple of rounds use words that a middle-schooler could be legitimately expected to know on their own (and I'm speaking as someone with what I'd like to think of as a strong vocabulary); after that, knowing the spelling of words is primarily a matter of having studied them ... I would think that the more flexible scheduling of homeschooling (not to mention the ability to alter the homework load, if all parties think it desirable) would make it easier to find the time for drill, practice, etc."
Shawhan also remembers homeschoolers as being less social and more likely to stick with their parents during Bee Week.
He's certainly right that homeschoolers have an advantage in flexibility, and that such bees favor memorization.
However, I've noticed in doing crossword puzzles that memory is not enough. I use my knowledge of word structure in the English language, including its borrowings from Greek and Latin, to analyze my options and predict the correct spelling of unfamiliar words. Surely, a champion speller must do this.
Of course, my only spelling bee experience came in Mr. Parker's fourth grade class at Ravinia School. After I'd won, Mr. Parker tried to spell me down. It took quite a while. He thought he had me with "ricochet" but I knew it because of the "Rick O'Shay" comic strip. He finally got me with "feign."
Mark Shawhan responds:
"Having a good vocabulary, knowing your Greek and Latin roots, etc., is certainly important; but by the time you get to the final rounds of the National Bee, for example, there are words from so many different languages and so many possible spellings (even if you know your roots), that you have to rely on your memory, even if you have a great vocabulary, etc."
Judging by the link he provides to the rounds in the '97 bee, Indo-American students are as over-represented in the National Spelling Bee as homeschoolers.
"To do well in spelling bees requires a good vocabulary, an ability to handle pressure, and a fair amount of practice and drill. None of those have much to do with whether one is being educated at home or in a public school; they have far more to do with the level of involvement of parents in their child's life."
Ken Summers is a spelling bee and MathCounts parent.
"I want my own kids to do well but not be national champions. I want them to study hard for roots and derivations, but memorization of obscure words is time better spent elsewhere."
"This is even more important in math competition. As a MathCounts coach, I pressed students to concentrate on principles and how to apply them to a variety of problems. National competition, though, requires memorizing shortcuts due to the time aspect. I am not willing to have students concentrate on shortcuts except for a few that are very common and useful. As they work a variety of problems, they generally recognize shortcuts on their own; more importantly, they learn to draw deeper connections between different types of problems. This may not make them national champions now but it serves them far better in the future."
It's not just spelling and geography, and it's not just memorization. A team of homeschoolers known as the Family Christian Academy has won the National High School Mock Trial championship. A Wall St. Journal editorial celebrated the victory, noting that it's outmoded to call homeschoolers drones.
"...an issue of the alumni magazine of the Ivy League's Brown University quotes a dean describing homeschoolers as the 'epitome' of Brown students. 'They are self-directed, they take risks, and they don't back off.'
My daughter competed on her high school's mock trial team for three years. In her senior year, they won the county and placed fifth in the state. So I can vouch for the rigors of Mock Trial, which requires students to understand the law, argue persuasively and think on their feet. No drones need apply.
Joanne Jacobs used to have a paying job as a Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer. Now she blogs for tips at ReadJacobs.com while writing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. She's never gotten a dime from Enron.