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The Other Super Bowl

It's Sunday as I write this column, but it's not any Sunday because of the Super Bowl. The obsession with the event prompted me to wonder what would happen if the nation were as focused on the Academic Decathlon. I realize this will never happen, but I think it's worthwhile considering.

I have nothing against sports in K-12. Participation has educational as well as physical value. But the primary purpose of school is to teach the 3 R's. The farther away we move from that goal as a nation, the more we shortchange young people. There are parts of the country where football and basketball seem to be the curriculum because of the emphasis placed on them. Yet there are also schools where academics reign supreme. That was one of the objectives of Dr. Robert Peterson, the superintendent of schools in Orange County, Calif., when he conceived of the Academic Decathlon in 1968. The first national competition took place in 1982 at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

What is little known is that the Los Angeles Unified School District, despite its long list of failures in other areas, has been quite successful in Academic Decathlon competition. In May 2011, for example, Granada Hills Charter High School won the national title beating a team from Texas. I was reminded once again of the possibility of a repeat performance after reading about the excitement bordering on mania at the Roybal Learning Center as students prepared for the last leg of the contest ("Performing well at this decathlon is the smart thing to do," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3). Hundreds of students crammed the gymnasium to show their support for brainpower. Roybal is not the only school in the mammoth district to be caught up in the event. Students at Marshall High School and Granada Hills Charter School have demonstrated their enthusiasm for their teams as well.

Students who decide to participate devote hundreds of hours studying and practicing. Their dedication is as intense as athletes, and their camaraderie as strong. They work together as a team to prepare for the contests, just as their peers do on the field or in the arena. Nevertheless, they never get the same publicity. That makes no sense if we're indeed serious about improving education. Wouldn't it be gratifying if one day the nation became as proud of the finalists in academic competition as they do in athletic competition?

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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