When Jim Hatem set out to prepare his students at Los Angeles High for this year's academic decathlon, which has become a kind of Super Bowl for brainy high schoolers, he anticipated a rigorous curriculum focused on the three Rs. Instead Hatem, a science teacher and volunteer coach, opened the prepackaged U.S. Academic Decathlon Association study materials and was stunned to discover bizarre questions asking, for example, what year the daughter of jazz great Charlie Parker died (1955). "This crap is the antithesis of everything education's supposed to be," Hatem fumes. Says Mark Johnson, who coached Los Angeles' El Camino Real High to the 1998 national championship: "Decathlon has become a joke."
The revolt by educators against what they consider inappropriate testing has now reached even the arena where the very best students compete. Founded in 1981, the decathlon has come to be regarded as America's premier academic tournament, attracting young scholars from 2,200 schools in 38 states. Every spring, schools field teams that match wits in 10 subject areas from economics to arts, with the best teams advancing to national competitions. Successful teams bask in media limelight normally reserved for athletes, while enhancing their schools' reputation.
But a growing cadre of decathlon coaches feels the event has been tarnished by the decathlon association's decision to market $495 "curriculum guides" and other expensive materials, rather than simply providing topics for students to research. As a result, "the emphasis shifted to memorization rather than critical thinking," says Richard Golenko, who coached Houston's J. Frank Dobie High to a national title in 1996. Decathlon exams began asking trick questions such as how Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi traveled to work (the answer is below).
Because contestants memorize the same material, "it's like a beauty pageant, where the winning teams are the ones best at giving a speech," grouses Hatem. Fed up, two of the past three national champion coaches have resigned, as have at least a dozen others, including three last month.
James Alvino, the decathlon association's executive director, insists the group markets study materials "to level the playing field" after wealthy schools demonstrated a competitive edge. "Under the old system," agrees Nathan Schauer, a coach at Los Angeles' Lincoln High, "a few schools were always wiping the floor with the rest of us." Alvino adds that the $1.3 million proceeds from sales of study guides last year are needed to help support the nonprofit program's $1.75 million operating budget. In response to its critics, the decathlon association promises to cut prices for study guides and eliminate them for three decathlon categories. Alvino also vows to eliminate trivial questions and errors in the study materials, such as a reference to NASA as the "National Aeronautics and Space Commission." Until then, however, decathlon teams would be wise to remember: Verdi walked.
--By Dan Cray/Los Angeles