As long time readers know, I am not a fan of the Spelling Bee competition for many reasons. I have also been puzzled by the dominance of people of South Asian ethnicity in this competition. That community seems to be willing to spend enormous amounts of time and money to coach their children to do well in this competition. This year’s competition that ended yesterday resulted in an unprecedented result in which eight students, seven of them with South Asian names, were crowned co-champions because of a sudden rule change. The reason apparently is that the organizers were running out of difficult words.
One of my main complaints is that even if we grant that being a good speller is an important skill, the competition format is not even designed to produce the best speller since luck can determine if you get a particularly tough word that eliminates you early. It would make more sense to read the same words to all the contestants (at least those who make it to the final round), have them write out the words, and see who gets the most right. Instead the competition is designed for drama with students being place in the national spotlight, to show the exhilaration of getting a word right and the dejection, sometimes devastation, that follows when they get it wrong and are eliminated. Designed for TV drama is fine if you are dealing with adults as in the myriad reality shows we now see. But subjecting young children of the ages of 12 and 13 to it seems wrong.
One of this blog’s readers sent me his analysis of what happened yesterday and I think is worth passing on.
Well, this year the National Spelling Bee was finally revealed as a farce. They got down to the final 8 kids and the judges decided that they didn’t have any words they could misspell, so they declared all 8 co-champions, even though their rules only allow for a max of 3 co-champs. While I was watching it, it seemed like they decided almost last minute in round 17 to allow the remaining kids to be co-champs if they lasted ’til round 20. It definitely wasn’t in the rules. (https://spellingbee.com/ ) Totally ridiculous. And I’m feeling really bad for the 9th place girl who was just as good as the 8 co-champs. They decided at the last minute to give the 8 co-champs $50,000 EACH, but the 9th place girl is stuck with $2,000 (or at least that’s what the rules say 9th place is supposed to get; they might change it and give her the 2nd place $25,000). I mean, if she only gets $2,000, her parents probably spent way more than that on coaching and study materials.
At this point it’s kind of a broken contest … which I guess was bound to happen eventually when your contest is based on memorizing a book (the dictionary) with a limited amount of information in it.
Also they raised the fee to “buy your kid’s way into the Bee” from $750 to $1500 this year (plus travel expenses), and also charged a $600 penalty if you stay at a different hotel than the hotel where the bee is held at. There were about 300 kids (out of the 567 total) whose parents bought their way into the bee this year.
This year’s result should send a clear signal that the format is broken and needs to be changed. In the final round, each of the eight winners spelled one of the following words that were put to them correctly: auslaut, erysipelas, bougainvillea, aiguillette, pendeloque, palama, cernuous, odylic. The only word I recognize is bougainvillea though I likely could not spell it correctly. But we do not know if all of them could spell all the words. But change will only happen if the commercial sponsors that put it on TV demand it because clearly some people are making a lot of money out of this competition.