Harnessing the Power of Competition to Improve Math Performance

By now everyone has seen the news. America’s 15-year-olds trailed students from many other countries in their performance on the math part of the PISA exam. Instead of reading “the usual suspects saying the usual things” about these results, Andy Rotherham (aka Eduwonk) has told his readers to “read Amanda Ripley’s book instead.”

In her book, The Smartest Kids in the World, Ripley follows high school students from the U.S. who took part in exchange programs in Finland, Korea, and Poland to take a look at what schools in those countries are doing differently from U.S. schools. One thing she found was that high schools in other countries are more focused on academics and less focused on sports than U.S. schools. In an article in The Atlantic, Ripley cites a financial analysis of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest that found that the school was spending more than four times as much on cheerleading as on math instruction – $328 per student for math versus $1,348 per cheerleader.

Though our spendthrift ways with sports is alarming, schools may actually be able to learn a thing or two from our national obsession with athletics. The consequences of competition, such as aspiring to high goals and learning tenacity and teamwork, can also be valuable for academic pursuits.

One contest, the American Mathematics Competition hosted by Interstellar, seeks to go even farther, using competition to transform peer culture such that schools place greater value on academic success.

Interstellar is a web application that features live, team-based, online academic competitions using multiple choice and open-ended questions. Math teams can invite other teams across the country to an on-the-spot competition (Pick-Up Play) or can enter a cycle of regularly occurring games (League Play).

Math Madness is a League Play event that began in mid-October, with round robin math competitions organized around the country. The best-performing teams continued on to a bracket challenge that will conclude on December 14.

Two high schools in the Washington, D.C. area, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA and Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, MD qualified for Math Madness’ bracket challenge and are currently competing in Round 3 of the competition, which means they are 3 wins from the championship game.

Jennifer Allard, one of the sponsors of Thomas Jefferson’s Varsity Math Team, said of the contest, “I see Interstellar as a chance for the students to get real-time feedback on their progress and to experience head-to-head competition, something more akin to a sports competition. And as an added benefit, parents, alumni and other supporters can ‘watch’ the round as well.”

Alexandra Brasoveanu-Tarpy, sponsor of the Wootton’s Math Team, noted, “Most of the students on the team volunteered to sign up for this competition. They decided to take part in this new challenge in order to sharpen their skills through the discipline of using all their intellectual resources as they attempt to perform at their highest level…Since the word spread about the competition, other students have asked to join in.”

It also affords students the opportunity to face challenges head-on. As Ms. Brasoveanu-Tarpy explained, “By encouraging students to take part in this contest I was hoping to bring about a deeper sense of the satisfaction of meeting difficult intellectual challenges. I felt that this would help them prepare for future academic work as well as the demands of the workplace in the real, non-academic world.”

Whether such events can transform school culture remains to be seen. Schools where academic competitions like these take root and bloom are likely places where academic success is already highly valued. As Ms. Allard explains, “The math team at Thomas Jefferson is one of the largest student organizations with over 100 students attending our practices and contests each week.”

And transforming the culture of a school will not happen overnight. Says Ms. Brasoveanu-Tarpy, “Such a change could take months or even years.” Still, the success these students are experiencing is noteworthy. Over the last seven weeks of the competition, Wootton’s team has shown “a lot of enthusiasm and dedication. They are to be commended for their hard work and good strategy in dealing with each stage of the contest.”

In some academic circles, “competition” is a dirty word, conjuring up images of relentless test prep or, worse, classroom cheating or sabotage. But ask former high school athletes about the influence of their sports experiences, and you’re likely to hear heartening stories of learning to practice tirelessly, deal with adversity, and rise to challenges. “Mathletes” may never know the feeling of playing under Friday-night lights, but the lessons they take from their own competitive experiences may pay similar dividends down the road.

-Kelly Robson

Kelly Robson is a research assistant at Bellwether Education Partners. She taught middle school for 5 years, including 2 years in DC Public Schools.

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