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Summer 2011

Quiz Kids

Illustration by Lynn Rowe Reed

The toss-up round has just ended. Billy Costa, the show’s quizmaster and a well-known radio and television personality in Boston, looks at the eight high school students standing behind two podiums and throws up his arms.

“How did you know all of that?” he says. Then turning to the audience he hams it up even more. “I’ve never felt more insignificant!”

The parents, grandparents, siblings, classmates, teachers, and vice principals who make up the audience laugh along, knowing, of course, that Costa is only half joking.

These students are brainy — brainy enough and quick enough on the buzzer to have made it to the qualifying round of High School Quiz Show, a weekly academic quiz competition produced by Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. Now in its second season, the Jeopardy-like show has become an instant hit.

“People are hungry for this,” says producer Hillary Wells, noting that when they initially put out feelers last year to see if public schools in Eastern Massachusetts would be interested in such a competition, more than 70 signed on in just two days.

With unscripted dialogue that includes words like “recursion” and “mycorrhizae,” and real students who don’t look like they just walked off the set of Gossip Girl, these kinds of competitions don’t sound like something people hunger for. But several decades after the first matchup pitted one school against another, academic quiz competitions for high school students are still as popular as ever.

That’s Entertainment How did this happen? One reason for the continuing popularity may be their genesis in the entertainment world. Vox Pop, which started in 1932 and ran on KTRH radio in Houston, is widely considered to be the first quiz-type show in the country. According to On the Air: The Encyclopedia of Old Time Radio, advertising salesmen for the station would approach people on the street with their portable microphones and ask questions, offering token prizes for correct answers. Listeners loved the show, and, within a couple of years, Professor Quiz premiered on CBS radio, adding a cash prize to the mix — $25 for stumping “Professor Quiz” with a question. Later that decade, shows like Pot O’Gold; Information, Please; and Doctor IQ were also running. Eventually, colleges got into the act with the 1953 radio debut of College Bowl, often referred to as the “varsity sport of the mind.” In 1959, College Bowl moved to national television and became the model for many high school competitions that followed.

When exactly the first high school match did follow is unclear, but according to Guinness World Records, the first televised competition aired on October 7, 1961, with a show that is still running — It’s Academic! Extremely popular in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, the show has won eight Emmys and includes alumni such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, New York Senator Charles Schumer, and writer Michael Chabon. Actress Sandra Bullock came to one taping as part of her high school’s cheerleading squad. Across the country, other televised and nontelevised quiz competitions for teens have proven just as popular, not only with the students involved, but also for entire communities. Some sponsors even give major financial support for decades.

Wells says one of those popular shows, As Schools Match Wits, was actually the catalyst behind WGBH’s decision to invest in a new program last year. For more than four decades, As Schools Match Wits brought together schools from the western half of Massachusetts, as well as parts of Connecticut. The show was so beloved in the area that when the local television station that produced it decided to pull the plug in 2006, petitions were circulated and newspapers covered every angle of the story. Eventually, Westfield State College teamed up with the local PBS station to resurrect the show. That passionate level of interest piqued the attention of WGBH executives, Wells says. High School Quiz Show was born. Now the two competitions meet at the end of their seasons for a statewide face-off.

Of course, not all academic competitions at the high school level are televised. Most, in fact, are held in school cafeterias or auditoriums, without cameras or cheering audiences or Sandra Bullock–like cheerleaders. They can be simple, intramural events designed for students at one school (or even students against teachers), or more organized (and more competitive) interscholastic matches with students traveling from school to school, usually based on geographic location or athletic conference. The folks who start and organize competitions run the gamut: television stations (often PBS-affiliated), individual schools, state associations, for-profits started by former players, and volunteers who want to encourage a love of learning. Names — many favoring the word “bowl” — include Quiz Bowl, Brainstormers, Scholastic Bowl, Brain Games, Knowledge Bowl, MasterMinds, Scholar Quiz Bowl, Battle of the Brains, the Granite State Challenge, Academic Decathalon, Academic League, and Academic Super Bowl.

Whether the matches are televised or not, relaxed or competitive, one of the key reasons these quiz competitions remain so popular goes back to their Vox Pop roots: They’re fun.

Current Harvard Gradute School of Education student Rachel Hargreaves-Heald, Ed.M.’11, saw the fun side when she worked on High School Quiz Show last season as a production assistant.

“During taping, I would sometimes have to go into the studio between rounds. Every time I walked in, I was struck, though not surprised, by how much fun everyone was having,” she says. “Audience members were holding banners and signs, wearing t-shirts that supported their team, and were clearly having a blast celebrating the achievements of the students. I felt such a sense of gratitude to have been involved in a program that so clearly accomplished what it set out to.”

Joanne Marshall, Ed.M.’96, Ed.D.’00, competed during her high school days in Aledo, Ill., and later coached for a few years. In addition to “ just being fun,” she says quiz competitions also help students build friendships — something that isn’t always easy to do in high school.

“It provides some camaraderie for kindred spirits,” she says. “The team I coached was an odd mix of personalities who I am certain would never have come together otherwise.”

Which points to one of the biggest misconception about high school quiz competitions: that they are only for the nerdy kids. (One student on New Hampshire’s Granite State Challenge even poked fun at the stereotype, wearing tape around the bridge of his heavy black glasses.)

“There were about 12 people on our academic team and there was a mix: athletes, student council, a cheerleader, Future Farmers of America members, and some choir/ drama people,” says Marshall, who was in the jazz band. Mark Robertson, Ed.M.’08, played all four years at his high school in Granville, Ohio, traveling afterschool during the week for round robin–style meets with other schools and occasionally competing in regional meets and on WOSU’s In the Know. He says stereotypical labels often associated with high school didn’t really exist when he competed, either.

“My school was a very fluid academic and social environment,” he says, adding that he played drums, soccer, and tennis; did public service projects; and was on the student council. “A lot of kids did seven or eight [extracurriculars] in addition to the quiz team. They were on a sports team and played an instrument. It wasn’t seen as a nerdy thing. It was just one more thing that we did as students.”

Wells, too, says that times have changed. During the filming of one High School Quiz Show match, students offered a range of background information on themselves — some borderline nerdy (one has wanted to run an airline since he was a little kid, another excels at chess), some less so (captain of the cross-country team, ballet since fourth grade, a karate brown belt).

“For so long, being intellectual was associated with being a nerd,” Wells says. “But it’s exciting to break down the smart/athlete barriers the way that Glee has broken barriers — kids singing but also playing football. I love that we’re contributing to that.”

However, even with barriers broken, athletes still usually get most of the glory in high school. Quiz competitions are one way to show that doing well in school is also something to celebrate.

“There are so many different ways students can excel, but not all types of achievement get the same recognition,” says Hargreaves-Heald. “I think shows like this are important because they showcase an area that might otherwise get overlooked.”

For Rich Reddick, Ed.M.’98, Ed.D.’07, being a part of the Academic Decathalon team (as well as the Certamen team, which focused exclusively on Latin) earned him huge praise at Albert S. Johnston High School in Austin, Texas — at least with the staff.

“Johnston was probably the lowest-performing high school in Austin at the time. It’s since been closed because of not making adequate yearly progress four years running,” he says. “For a school struggling for academic success, our teachers and principal were very proud. It earned us rock star status among the adults in the school although we probably placed poorly at the district competition.”

Having a team also said to outsiders: We’re more than just the dropouts and gangs you read about in the newspapers. “We wanted to show everyone that kids from our community were interested in learning,” he says. At matches, “I remember the surprise when we showed up.”

Alexandria Wilson, Ed.M.’95, Ed.D.’07, and her Reach for the Top teammates also received recognition, not only for themselves but also for the larger community in The Pas, Manitoba, about 500 miles from Winnipeg.

“It was the closest school to the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, where I grew up,” she says. Because the show was popular in that part of Canada, and because there were few channels, “everyone would watch it.”

When she was in the 11th grade, she worked at the local IGA grocery store. She was there the night the episode with her school competing aired.

“One of my coworkers brought a TV to work, and the store manager set it up at the front so the staff and customers could watch,” she says. “I recall being teased by a few people the next day about a question that I had answered incorrectly. I knew that was their way of acknowledging that they were proud to see me on the show. After a show, people would always stop my parents and grandmother to tell them they watched. I don’t recall ever seeing another aboriginal person on the show, or even on TV for that matter, in all of the years I watched, so I suppose it was significant for our community at the time.”

Significant, too, is how fairly open these kinds of teams are to all students at most schools, at least when it comes to being on a team. Joe Caulfield, the coach at Blake High School in Chevy Chase, Md., says that any student who is academically eligible — C average or better — can join their team. Reddick’s coach, Ms. Bishop, cherry-picked a few of the “smartest” kids for the starting team, although it was open to anyone who wanted to join. For Robertson, quiz bowl was an afterschool club open to everyone, but, similar to Reddick, they would “unofficially” recruit students who were in the top 5 percent of the class for the starting team.

“There’s a good correlation between being good at high school,” Robertson says, “and being good at academic teams.” He also notes that in all four years that his team played in the school league, they never lost a match.

Practice and Buzzing It’s the first question of the High School Quiz Show match, and Roopa, a senior at Acton-Boxborough High School, jumps on the buzzer.

“Freud,” she says in answer to who founded psychoanalysis. It’s not surprising that Roopa was the first to earn points: Not only did she spend the past two days reading an entire children’s encyclopedia (hard copy), but along with her teammates, she has spent countless hours practicing her buzzer skills.

“Timing has a lot to do with it,” says Kay Steeves, one of Roopa’s coaches. This became apparent when the team scrimmaged a neighboring school. “One of the kids from the other school kept buzzing all the time. He knew he’d have a few seconds after buzzing to think about the answer. It was a strategy.”

Marshall remembers the buzzer system at her high school — a homemade contraption of scrap lumber and Radio Shack parts, built by Mr. Hoffman, the physics teacher, and a few industrious students.

“It was a big wooden scoreboard with boxes that lit up, literally with a light bulb, when one of us pushed a hand-held buzzer,” she says. “Eventually the parents and school chipped in and bought us a real buzzer system.”

Nowadays, having a real buzzer system is essential, say most players and coaches.

“Any team that wants to be competitive in these kinds of contests has to have buzzers with which to practice,” says Caulfield. “Speed is essential, and response times among players probably only vary by hundredths of a second.”

That is why one team of students competing on High School Quiz Show last year stopped using click pens during practice sessions — it was too hard to tell who clicked first — and upgraded to a computer program and handheld clickers. As Quincy High School student Michaela told The Patriot Ledger about the switch, “It’s said you could know everything you need to know about a subject, but if you can’t get the timing of the buzzers right, your team’s doomed.”

From the organizers’ standpoint, the importance of the buzzer can lead to heated discussion about buzzing rules. “How many seconds do you allow them before they can buzz in?” says Wells, noting one of the technical nuances they scrutinized during initial planning sessions. “Do you let them interrupt when a question is being read or lock them out, as they do on Jeopardy? And do you vary depending on the type of question?”

Most high school competitions allow students to buzz in as soon as they know, or think they know, an answer. Jeopardy! makes players wait until the question has fully been asked. Robertson says, with all of the competitions he was involved with, you could buzz in at any time, which made it more fair.

“It did promote quick recall more than buzzer speed,” he says, referring to the ability to summon facts from memory.

So if the abilities to buzz in quickly and summon facts instantaneously are key skills to doing well in quiz competitions, do quiz kids even need to read entire encyclopedia sets or study before matches? Caulfield from Blake High School says absolutely — both practice and study are essential, “even for these smart kids.”

For Marshall, practice meant three times a week before school, plus flipping through trivia books at home or reading to one another on long car rides to matches. But, she admits, the questions were often about things they had been learning in school.

“Math problems, American authors, and history,” she says and then recites a question she remembers being asked: “What poem begins, ‘Whose woods these are I think I know . . .’?” Reddick, who would later compete on Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, Win Ben Stein’s Money, and Who Wants to be Millionaire?, sometimes played the Trivial Pursuit board game with his teammates but didn’t like practicing this way.

“People would accuse me of reading the cards and memorizing the answers,” he says. “Seriously.” They also took practice tests and were exposed to what many consider the “holy grail of trivia” — E.D. Hirsch’s The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy.

“I always joked that you could give the book to an alien from outer space, and if he/she memorized it, he/she could fit in Western society fairly well,” Reddick says.

Robertson found that competing during the week against other schools was a great way to practice. It also helped prevent stage fright.

“Repetition is built in, which helps,” he says. “The set of questions asked, they’re not completely off the map and are rarely things you’ve never heard of. It’s quick recall, so if you practice enough, you tend to feel comfortable.”

Although Beth Cooper Benjamin, Ed.M.’02, Ed.D.’06, had appeared in nearly every school play at her small school in Rochester, N.Y., and had one professional role as a fifth-grader on a local show, “I was definitely nervous about appearing on TV.” The nervousness, however, didn’t seem to affect her performance, as her coach, Mr. Cowett, noted the following year in his college recommendation for her: “Beth has the largest store of worthless information I have ever seen in a human being.”

Surprisingly, with televised competitions, the excitement that builds can actually help nervous students.

“That extra adrenaline — the bands and the cheering audience — works to their benefit,” says Susan Lechner, who joined It’s Academic! as senior editor only a couple of years after it began. “We’ve rarely found that it works against them. They feel excited to be a part of this.”

Questions It’s the end of round three at High School Quiz Show, the category round. While Ron, the stage manager, keeps the audience’s energy up by blaring music and getting a vice principal to make up his own rap about the competition, the two coaches for Acton-Boxborough are backstage with the show’s staff, challenging an answer given by a student on the Natick team.

This is to be expected, says Wells.

“You’re going to get challenges. “There’s no way around it,” she says. “Our writer is at each taping and has a list of alternate possible answers and all of her sources.”

The questions are a big deal. Most high school competitions base questions on what’s being learned in school. Wells says their questions get sent to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education before being used.

“Their curriculum experts review them to make sure we’re not completely out of standards,” she says. “The questions are the show. There can’t be another answer.”

It’s Academic! turns to D.C.-based experts when needed.

“We pride ourselves on being right. We go to extraordinary lengths to see that our questions are not only right, but also not misleading,” says Lechner. “If one is, we won’t use it. We go through a long period with each question with experts,” especially in math and science. She says they are especially lucky being able to tap national figures at iconic institutions like the Smithsonian and the National Archives.

“This, for us, is an extraordinary resource.”

Although general knowledge questions that students learn in school form the foundation for most competitions, some, particularly those that are televised, also add sports, pop culture, and current event questions — something bemoaned on various nontelevised quiz tournament blogs, where coaches, players, and former players vigorously debate topics like moderating etiquette (“Do not prompt answers!”) and the best books to use as study guides.

But for Robertson, the “lighter” questions added another dimension to the game.

“Participants tended to know the answers to them, so that made for some fun buzzer races,” he says. Besides, he adds, “It was rarely the case that these questions would determine the outcome of the game since there were so few of them.”