Chequered Results

chess 1Despite its Orwellian sounding name, Intermediate School 318 is an American phenomenon. In a country with high and rising inequality, and a plethora of abysmal inner-city schools, I.S. 318 in Brooklyn, New York, is providing an unlikely arena for its students to excel: chess.

318, the subject of the 2012 documentary Brooklyn Castle (broadcast this week on PBS), draws its students from diverse but mostly poor backgrounds where over 65% of its students fall below the federal poverty line. The triumphs of its chess team are a huge point of pride for students, teachers, and school board in the face of recession induced funding cuts and often bleak futures.

Extra-curricular activities such as chess are commonly provided by schools across the US and Europe. Ostensibly, children are encouraged to participate in pastimes that broaden their horizons beyond the limitations of the traditional classroom. During their formative years, pupils are given a chance to develop interests and skills to become the elusive ‘well rounded’ individual. The benefits of these pursuits in preparing pupils for life in an ever changing and more complex world are widely perceived to be huge.

Much of this is now at risk. Most obviously, and most pressingly to students and schools like those showcased in Brooklyn Castle, government budget tightening has led to the loss of funding for many out of classroom activities, including champion chess teams. But there is a further, in many ways more pernicious, threat to the huge but often immeasurable benefits that truly extra-curricular activity provides: the success of the programmes themselves.

School grades are becoming less informative. As employers and university admissions departments seek to select the best candidates from a seemingly ever increasing supply of applicants, the information conveyed by academic results is becoming heavily diluted by grade inflation and inconsistent exam techniques, among a host of other factors. The obvious result is a desperate rush to find better indicators of a candidate’s quality, such as their extra-curricular record.

So well know is this desire for strong non-academic records, that the activities designed to grant students an escape from the stringencies of classroom based subjects have begun to assume many of the same features.  Focus has been shifted away from the esoteric and intangible benefits and on to more measurable (and therefore more suitable for candidate comparison) aspects. The most easily reported results generally take the form of competitions, the like of which I.S. 318 has been lauded for doing so well in.

To report success at a national or international tournament is, rightly or wrongly, seen by many secondary school students and their admissions advisors as a serious leg up over the horde of other applicants. Little wonder that the most competitive schools and parents are pushing pupils into more competitive environments for activities that are intended as an escape from the daily grind. This trend is well established for more sporty students, who are used to competition for places on school teams followed by competition for trophies followed by competition for scholarships at university.

chess 2

Starting young

The act of observing alters the thing being observed, and what is true in quantum mechanics is also true in secondary school debate, chess and even sports teams. With demonstrable victories becoming increasingly valuable, parents and teachers are keen to ensure the tournaments are consistent enough that the scores received in them can be compared. Standardised measures, just like their academic equivalents, can be taught to by educators reliant on tangible results to justify their slightly increased salary and status.

The presence of well-defined competitive environments with valuable rewards for success seems to inevitably lead to homogeneous outcomes. This is most evident in pursuits such as the European Youth Parliament, Model United Nations and debate teams, where point scoring and research (i.e. the aspects that can be taught and controlled by teachers) have become the focus of nearly every tournament and club at secondary level. It is noticeable that at college level, where the potential rewards for success are almost exclusively limited to individual glory, a much more heuristic scoring approach encourages a somewhat deeper exploration of the issues than the understandably less nuanced approach evident in their High School counterparts.

This lack of diversity not only sends extra-curricular exploits the way of school grades as a means for assessment, but also robs participants of the chance to develop many of the skills and aptitudes that the activities are meant to demonstrate.

For schools like I.S. 318, success by the chess team is a beacon of hope for students facing an uphill battle to graduate with diplomas. But the myopic focus on a single discipline risks leaving many students who are not interested in chess behind. At an inner city school with funding cuts a feature of daily life, hiring one dedicated extra-curricular supervisor pushes the budget almost to breaking point. Hopefully the attention generated by the chess team draws attention to these limits.

The likely outcome, however, is that funding will flow to those with tangible results to show for the investment. At I.S. 318, donors have plugged the funding gap for the wildly successful chess team and its $70,000 travel budget. It’s hard to begrudge the kids, who work spectacularly hard to perfect their craft, but beyond the headline achievements there are huge numbers of children in Brooklyn who could benefit from investment of that scale.

Disproportionate rewards flowing to the already successful has received a lot of attention in the last week or so, following Robert Schiller’s Nobel prize. For millions of school children, the phenomenon is depriving them of a real chance to broaden their horizons and prepare themselves for a dynamic and changing world. Contra a typical attitude, it’s not the winning that counts, it’s the taking part.

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