TIME language

7 Things You Should Know About the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee

TIME's guide to the B-E-S-T week of the year

In the first on-stage round of the 2015 Scripps National Spelling Bee, only four of 283 kids heard the dreaded ring of the elimination bell. Most breezed through words like ubiquitous, flamenco, autopsy, howitzer and oregano at the front of a giant ballroom outside Washington, D.C. But when the spellers returned for the second on-stage round Wednesday afternoon, some adjustments had clearly been made to thin the flock.

Wearing giant placards and nervous grins, some 13-year-olds navigated the likes of panophthalmitis (inflammation involving tissues of the eyeball) and triumphantly threw their thin limbs in the air. Others held back tears after missing a vowel in the likes of guayabi (a highly valued hard tough wood from South America) and were politely sent off the stage with the same sound used to summon bellhops in fancy hotels.

By Thursday evening, when ESPN broadcasts the finals at 8 p.m. ET, there will be just a dozen spellers left. Here are seven things that will help viewers fully appreciate this harrowing, inspiring American ritual.

Americans are about three times more likely to be struck by lightning in their lifetime than to make it to the national finals. The odds of being zapped by lightning in one’s life are about one in 12,000, according to the National Weather Service. Of the 11 million kids who compete in the bee on some level, only 283 made it to the competition in National Harbor, Md., this year. That’s roughly 0.000026%, or one in 38,869.

There’s an app for that. Scripps, the sponsor of the bee, debuted an app called Buzzworthy this year. When you sign up, you’re automatically assigned five spellers that are essentially your fantasy football team for the competition. They spell words right, you get points. And each has an endearing bio so there’s no way to remain unattached. (Dear Jeffery “Eager to Embrace Tropical Flavors” Thompson: I’m counting on you.)

The process for picking the spelling words is top secret. The officials at Scripps who put on the bee guard their process for developing the word list like nuclear launch codes. There is a word committee, whose members are secret. The sources they use are secret. The qualities they look for are secret. “The nature of how that comes to be is something that needs to be protected,” says Scripps spokesperson Valerie Miller. There are whispers that some word committee members are dictionary officials, while others are former spelling champions themselves.

It is known that words get harder as the competition goes on. Words in the preliminary rounds come from study guides of about 1,500 words that are given to the spellers when they advance to the national finals. But once spellers get to the semi-finals and finals, the words they face could be any of the roughly 472,000 that are in Merriam-Webster’s Third Edition. When the contest comes down to three or fewer spellers in the final, officials advance to a special “championship list.”

There can be up to three co-champions of the bee. Once the spellers have advanced to the championship list of 25 words, there’s no other place to go. If everyone still in the game at that point spells all the words correctly as the officials go through the list, then everyone wins. That’s why there were two co-champions in 2014.

Spellers of South Asian descent have long dominated the bee. For the first time, bee director Paige Kimble recently talked about an obvious but sensitive trend: the spelling domination of Indian-American students. They’ve won the last seven years and all but four of the past 15 years, which led to some ugly comments on social media last year about “real Americans.” Miller says some research into the trend—by academics like Northwestern’s Shalini Shankar—has found that “grit” is the winners’ key attribute. Accomplishment, competition and early literacy are also important in South Asian cultures, Miller says: “When you pair up that love of competition with encouragement and emphasis on education, [spelling bees] are a natural fit.”

The real killer at the bee isn’t nerves; it’s the schwa. There are some obvious characteristics that make words tough to spell, like silent letters (mnemonic), double letters (braggadocio) or single letters where you might expect double letters (sassafras). But the true nemesis of spellers is the schwa, the vowel sound that we hear in words like America, belief and history. The schwa can be rendered as any vowel and even be silent in words like rhyth(ə)m. “The schwa is the richest source of guesses in the final rounds, the most common source of confusion,” says Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski. “These are championship spellers and that’s the most common error at highest, highest level.”

TIME Innovation

How to Fix Fraternities

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Can returning to their roots help fix frats?

By Emily Esfahani Smith in the New Criterion

2. The top reason students struggle academically doesn’t have anything to do with schools.

By Lyndsey Layton in the Washington Post

3. Why we should keep Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks off the $20 bill.

By Kirsten West Savali in the Root

4. Should the U.S. stop trusting Pakistan?

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman in the Reuters Great Debate

5. Calls to reform Islam ignore the bloody history of religious reformation.

By Mehdi Hasan in the Guardian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Education

Here’s Where You’re Going to Find the Best Schools in the World

Schools in Asia outperform those everywhere else

Asian countries claimed the top five spots in a global math-and-science-education ranking administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) while the U.S. placed 28th, below much poorer countries such as the Czech Republic and Vietnam.

Singapore ranked best in the world, with Hong Kong placing second and South Korea, Japan and Taiwan rounding out top five, reports the BBC.

At sixth, Finland is the first non-Asian country to appear in the rankings; Ghana came in last place.

“The idea is to give more countries, rich and poor, access to comparing themselves against the world’s education leaders, to discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and to see what the long-term economic gains from improved quality in schooling could be for them,” said OECD education director Andreas Schleicher.

The new rankings are different the more well-known PISA scores, which traditionally focuses on affluent nations. The latest version, based on tests taken in different regions worldwide, includes 76 countries of varying economic status.

“This is the first time we have a truly global scale of the quality of education,” said Schleicher.

Below is the top 10 as reported by the BBC.

1. Singapore

2. Hong Kong

3. South Korea

4. Japan

4. Taiwan

6. Finland

7. Estonia

8. Switzerland

9. Netherlands

10. Canada

[BBC]

TIME Innovation

What’s Behind the Russia-China Cyber Deal

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Should we be worried about the new Internet security pact between China and Russia?

By Cyrus Farivar in Ars Technica

2. Here’s a roadmap for building an innovation ecosystem in Africa.

By Jean Claude Bastos de Morais in IT News Africa

3. What if junk food actually kills off the bacteria that keeps us healthy?

By Luke Heighton in the Telegraph

4. We’re about to lose the best way to measure how well we educate poor kids.

By Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report

5. Want to end the War on Drugs? Don’t talk to Washington. Lobby your local police department.

By Ben Collins in the Daily Beast

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Family

See This Dad’s Powerful Response to Principal over His Kids’ Absence from School

His children were going to support him at the Boston Marathon

Pennsylvania dad Mike Rossi had been planning for years to run the Boston Marathon and bring along his family to see him make it to the finish line.

“It was an important moment for our family,” Rossi tells PEOPLE about his decision to run this years’ grueling race. It was about teaching his kids about “accomplishing a goal and the value of hard work and dedication.”

Before the 26-mile race, his wife emailed teachers letting them know that their two third graders would be out of school for three days.

“They knew for months we were going,” says Rossi. “My wife emailed them and told them they would be out and why they wouldn’t be there. We were truthful: ‘Their father is going to run the Boston Marathon.’ ”

However, when they returned, Rossi got a letter, dated April 22, from Rochelle Marbury, the principal of Rydal Elementary School, saying the time off the children took had been officially marked as “unexcused.”

The letter also warned Rossi that, “an accumulation of unexcused absences can result in a referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory school attendance law.”

“It struck me as nasty,” says Rossi. “Getting the letter rubbed us the wrong way and I reacted.”

Rossi posted the letter on his personal Facebook page along with his own critical response. The letter and his response quickly went viral and Rossi has since become the father of the moment, viewed by many as fighting back against the zero-tolerance policy of the school district that is thought to be outdated and nonsensical.

In his response, Rossi argued that in the three days his children missed school they not only learned about “dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education” but “watched their father overcome injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.”

“While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school,” he wrote.

While in Boston, Rossi wrote that they walked the Freedom Trail, visited the site of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, and visited the graves of several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

“It was a life-teaching moment they will never forget,” he says. “It was teaching them lessons about life. It was one of those moments. In 25 years, they will remember being with dad at the Boston Marathon.”

In a letter posted on the Abington School District website, school board president Raymond McGarry wrote about his support for principal Marbury and their district policy.

“It’s up to an individual family to decide whether a particular trip is worth taking their children out of school,” he said. “And when that happens, it’s the school district’s obligation to let the parents know what the law and policies are – and what the potential consequences are if the policies are abused.”

Since his post went viral, Rossi says he met up with school officials to discuss the policy Wednesday.

“It was a good meeting,” says Rossi. “It was productive. They are obviously not thrilled how this has taken off and the light it has cast them in. It was not my intention. It is this policy I don’t agree with. It is one of those ‘zero-tolerance policies so no one has to make a decision’ policies.”

Rossi says he has no regrets about posting his response but says he feels badly about the viral attacks directed towards the principal.

“The principal unfortunately has become the bad guy and has taken a lot of heat and personal attacks and I feel really badly about that,” he says. “I didn’t intend that to happen. My letter was not personal. I have got some personal attacks myself. It should not be me against the principal. I had a disagreement with the policy and let’s have some good dialogue about it.”

“I feel strongly as a parent that we have the right to be able to take our kids on a trip like that or any other trip,” he adds. “I was just trying to say how important this trip was.”

This article originally appeared on People.com.

TIME Innovation

This Is Why Fingerprints Are Forever

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. You can change your password if someone steals it, but you’re stuck with your fingerprints forever.

By Aarti Shahani at NPR

2. Can teaching kids to be tough make up for income inequality?

By Rachel M. Cohen in the American Prospect

3. You don’t need a nuclear arsenal to feel safe.

By Erlan Idrissov in the Diplomat

4. America’s high school dropouts are quitting school to go to work.

By Molly M. Scott at the Urban Institute

5. Here’s how AI will help your doctor diagnose cancer better.

By Adam Conner-Simons at MIT News

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Internet

Kindergarteners Who Share iPads May Perform Better: Study

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Students perform better if they share an iPad with another student as opposed to having one all to themselves, according to a new study.

Though schools nationwide have ramped up their efforts to introduce technology in the classroom, there’s just a small body of evidence on the benefits for students. Now a new study suggests that iPads do have a role in academic performance, but the effect may be greater when students collaborate.

In the study, Northwestern University researcher and Ph.D. candidate Courtney Blackwell analyzed the iPad usage and academic performance of 352 kindergarten students in three elementary schools. In one of the schools, there were enough iPads for every student to use one. In another school, there were 23 iPads and the students shared them. In the third school, there were no iPads. Blackwell followed the students for one school year and tracked their performance on literacy tests.

Her findings, which Blackwell presented at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, show that students who shared iPads performed better than their peers who used an iPad on their own or did not use iPads at all in the classroom. Specifically, kids who shared iPads scored 28% better on their literacy tests at the end of the year, whereas kids who used their own devices improved by 24% and kids who did not have iPads in the classroom improved by 20%.

“While statistically significant, the percentage increase for the shared-iPad kids is not huge, but I do think it is a meaningful finding given there is no prior empirical research looking at how 1:1 tablets affect student learning compared to shared or no tablets,” said Blackwell in an email to TIME.

In her report, Blackwell concludes that schools may want to reconsider implementing tablet use for young kids, given how expensive the investment can be and the lack of evidence to support the need for individual tablets in kindergarten.

“I think it’s important to remember that iPads and technology in general are just one part of the curriculum, with many other factors playing a role in children’s achievement,” said Blackwell. “Technology has always been touted as a potential panacea for education, but historically it has never changed the U.S. education system on a large scale. That said, with so many schools integrating one-for-one tablets and other devices, we need to know how technology is affecting learning to understand the best way to make tablets and technology most effective for students and teachers.”

Read next: Teachers Actually Want Students to Use This App in Class

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME tragedy

10-Year-Old Boy Jumps to Death After Losing Chess Match

“Do you want me to do something drastic?” the boy said earlier

A 10-year-old boy jumped to his death from a second-story window at his school last month after his chess opponent took his king without saying “checkmate.”

The fifth-grader at Grant Elementary School in New Jersey jumped “headfirst, unforced, unassisted and of his own accord,” said Police Chief Joseph Faulborn Jr., who spoke as the police report was released Wednesday, The Record reports.

The lunch aide who turned to see the boy jump remembered hearing him say to his opponent earlier, “Do you want me to do something drastic?”

[The Record]

TIME Australia

Ex-Principal at Prestigious Australian School ‘Sorry’ for Alleged Sex Abuse 

Former students at Knox Grammar include Hollywood star Hugh Jackman and ex-Australian PM Gough Whitlam

The former, longtime principal of one of Australia’s most elite private schools has expressed regret for the alleged sexual abuse that occurred during his tenure.

Ian Paterson apologized Tuesday during a Royal Commission hearing that is investigating institutional responses to sex abuse at Knox Grammar in Sydney, reports the Agence France-Presse.

The ongoing abuse allegedly occurred between the 1970s and 2012, and Paterson served as principal for three decades up until 1998. One former student describes Knox Grammar during these years as having harbored “a large pedophile cohort.”

“I should have known and I should have stopped the events that led to the abuse and its tragic consequences for these boys in my care and their families,” Paterson said.

“My abject failure to provide for you a safe and secure place at Knox strikes at the very heart of a responsibility of a headmaster.”

Although Paterson has not been charged with abuse personally, the commission did hear evidence that in 1989 he inappropriately touched a female student during rehearsals for a stage show with another school.

Paterson is due to give evidence to the Royal Commission Into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse about how he managed the teachers accused of abusing students. The body was formed in April 2013 to probe accusations of sexual misconduct in state institutions including schools, orphanages and places of worship, and was extended in September 2014 to deal with the thousands of victims who have come forward.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: March 2

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. “Whenever there is conflict, the women and children are the first victims.” Here’s why we need more female peacekeepers.

By United Nations Peacekeeping

2. ISIS is raising money and hatching plots on the “dark web.” The NSA is watching closely.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

3. Schools in one South Carolina town want to extend their supportive environment to school buses. It’s paying off.

By Sam Chaltain in the New York Times

4. Eyewitness testimony is the “number one cause of wrongful convictions.” We can make it better.

By Kevin Hartnett in The Boston Globe

5. Data centers consume and waste massive amounts of energy. So Microsoft is powering one with methane from wastewater.

By Leigh Paterson in Inside Energy

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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