Saturday, July 25, 2009



One Parent's Witness

now completed my twelfth season of judging speech and debate in NCFCA. From the earliest days of what is now called Region 2, competition was very intense in California; and through this intense competition students developed their skills, allowing them to move on to success in college and in life.

Problems in the Early Days

In the early days of what was originally called the HSLDA Home School Speech & Debate league, all tournaments were open, a practice that California carried into NCFCA. Californians welcomed competitors from across the country, and also took advantage of tournaments in the rest of the country to qualify for Nationals. California also hosted the first two Nationals after NCFCA was formed.

I went to judge one of these early Nationals, I didn't have any children competing but I wanted to help out. I was very surprised, I was expecting the competition to be elevated above that found at our local tournaments, after all this was the National Championship. But it wasn't, in fact, the teams I saw wouldn't have qualified in California.

By the time of the Liberty Nationals, I had a child competing and spent the whole week writing ballots, including a couple of outrounds, giving me a chance to get a firsthand sense of the field. I didn't have a clear picture of the rest of the country, and I was shocked to learn that week that almost 40 states were running closed championships with direct qualifying slots. I cannot imagine why all these tournaments were closed up -- unless it was a desire to see local teams going to Nationals, instead of qualifying out-of-towners like the Carpetbaggers from California.

One of those teams was at our hotel, they were the State Champions of New Mexico. In order to gain that honor, they had been to one tournament with eight teams. The Liberty Nationals was their second tournament, in their entire debate career. At that time, California was running 10-12 tournaments per year with open qualifiers, and my own child had debated over 100 tournament rounds before qualifying. I don't know specifically how the New Mexico State Champions did at Liberty, for all I know they went 6-0 in prelims; but it's a reasonable expectation that any team facing a National Varsity field in their second tournament would get shredded based on their lack of experience.

While at that tournament, I got to judge some great teams from across the country, I can also say that about a third of the field at the Liberty Nationals was equivalent quality to the California novice track. They were National Varsity in name, but they just weren't getting the opportunity to compete & develop their skills.

NCFCA Addresses the Issues

After this, two changes were put in place by the national leadership of NCFCA: the Regional Model, and the National Open system. Both of these changes had the effect of reintroducing interstate competition to NCFCA and improving the quality of competitors at the National Championship.

Part of the Regional Model was the idea of grouping smaller states into a region, in order to create a critical mass of competition. Also, by creating a Regional Qualifier, this introduced another large tournament into the calendars of those parts of the country which lacked opportunities to compete.

Since Liberty, I've been to all of the Nationals except for one, and I can say that the effect on the quality of the field was immediate and lasting. That bottom third of the field has been replaced by competent competitors. The National Opens have all been great tournaments and have allowed people to form friendships across the country. From the point of view of the league as a whole, these changes have been a raving success, and those members of the NCFCA leadership who envisioned and drove these changes are to be commended.

Let me be explicit on the definition of success: the key goal of NCFCA is to prepare home schooled children to impact the world for Christ by developing the presentation and interpersonal skills that are the natural fruit of competitive speech and debate. For this reason, effective competition that identifies and acknowledges excellence is the key tactic in service of this strategic goal. Fellowship within the league is also a key goal, just as is fellowship a purpose of the Church.

However, now we must turn to the part of the story that only a Californian can share, because the experience of the Regional Model by Region 2 within Region 2 has been almost entirely detrimental.

The Regional Model in California

One of the first changes that was imposed by the NCFCA leadership on Region 2 was to close all our qualifiers. This was initially a grevious change for our families, as we had always welcomed the chance to act as hosts for the rest of the country. However, as time has gone forward, our tournaments have become so large & the search for adequate venues so difficult that it is questionable how many teams from outside of California we can accomodate anymore. If given the opportunity, I am sure we would try to find a way to make it work & reopen our tournaments.

The next point of contention between Region 2 and the NCFCA national leadership was the idea of a single Regional qualifier as a "gateway" tournament to Nationals. The Region 2 objection from the start to this idea was that using a single tournament to determine all the national slots was a bad idea. What if your best competitor gets sick, or gets a bad ballot or two?

Well, after a couple of years on the Regional Model, the national leadership realized that the "big bang" approach to selecting slots was a bad idea after all (just as the Californians had been saying). As a result, the Regional Model was modified to add the "At Large" point system.

It's important here to inject another aspect of the California system. In Region 2, pre-qualified debate teams don't break. Note the key detail which distinguishes debate from speech: there's a winner and a loser in each round. Avoiding the breaks for pre-qual teams removes the temptation of "taking a dive" in an outround to help their friends qualify. In fact, at the later qualifiers, pre-qual teams are given their own out-round ladder, so they can stay sharp without affecting the outcome of the qualifying track. California teams also took this policy into the National Opens, where it initially caused some conflict but was eventually accepted as an enhancement to integrity.

The reason this digression into the California culture is relevant is because after another couple of years with the modified Regional Model & at-large point system, the national leadership realized they had another problem with the system: knowledge affects behavior. The formula for calculating at-large points was leaked onto and entire blog threads spring up every year on that forum tracing down every last decimal point on all the plausible contenders. Now, one point of view might be that transparency & accountability is a good thing, however it is also true that knowing the points and placings that everybody needs to qualify will present a trans-region temptation to the entire competitive community. I can't say for certain it is this effect which drove the national leadership to express themselves "grieved" over the public awareness of the "At Large" formula, but is is clear that even the modified Regional Model still has issues.

Once again, we come back to the what we can call the "California System" as an alternative: qualifying slots for Nationals through direct competition. The California qualifiers are routinely larger than all the National Opens, indeed Region 2 families who were told that this year's Texas Open was "the biggest NCFCA tournament in history" were a little perplexed, since the last Region 2 qualifier at Point Loma included 141 policy teams, and Region 2 has never rationed registration for Improptu.

It isn't just that the California system avoids all the growing pains that the Regional Model has experienced since it was introduced. And it also isn't just a matter of size for the Region 2 qualifiers. One also has to look back at the original problem the Regional Model solved: improving the quality of competition in NCFCA. Is anyone willing to assert that California has exhibited difficulty developing quality NCFCA competitors for national competition?

The "Grand Compromise"

After several years of fairly intense pressure from the national organization to conform, the leadership of Region 2 circulated a compromise regional plan for '08/'09 that included "at large" slots for the first time. It is important to emphasize the transparency and servant's attitude of the Region 2 leadership throughout this process. Opposition to the "big bang qualifier" attribute of the Regional Model has always run very deep among the parents of Region 2, and in resisting the imposition of this attribute the Region 2 leadership has merely reflected the desires of the California affiliates.

The "Grand Compromise" of '08/'09 took several significant steps toward conforming to the Regional Model:

* four "at large" slots held back to award via the point system
* early qualifiers cut back from 4 slots to just 2
* the Regional Championship (i.e.- final qualifier) slot count expanded beyond 4

(note: these changes describe the details of TP debate, IEs & LD were changed in similar ways)

Compared to previous years, the "Grand Compromise" met the Regional Model more than 1/2 way. There were a few interesting aspects of using this new system. First of all, Californians got a chance to see firsthand the aspects of the "At Large" point system which the national leadership found grievous. Second, somewhat surprisingly, the "At Large" system didn't really affect who went to Nationals, at least in debate: the teams that were awarded "At Large" slots pretty much all would have qualified under the old system. IEs are subject to more variability, but the California qualifiers are so enormous that top finishers come into the Regional with near insurmountable point leads.

The final impact of the "Grand Compromise" was direct and burdensome to all affliates, but takes a little explanation. As stated repeatedly, California tournaments are enormous. In debate, we routinely break to triple-octos. In some IE events, we wind up with three or more rooms for semis. By the time we reach a "qualifying round" in debate, California practice is to stop the tournament and resolve the top four placings via prelim seedings. By cutting the number of slots in half for our "early qualifiers", this tacked an additional two hours onto our tournament schedules. As a result, tournaments that used to end at 9 PM wound up running to midnight on the last day, and tournaments that used to take three days are dilated out to four. This cuts down the participation by dads in the judge pool, drives up the cost of competition, & burns everyone out even more than usual. Another negative side effect is the greater temptation for affiliates who aren't involved in the breaks to take off & avoid staying for the awards ceremony, which has a direct impact on the parental component of the outround judge pool and further delays the tournaments.

Replacing the "Grand Compromise" with the full regional model would impose an additional 2-3 hours per qualifier. This would have the effect of extending our 10 round tournaments into 12 round tournaments over a two-year period.

Perhaps the worst part of the "Grand Compromise" has been the negative reaction to the '08/'09 regional plan by the national leadership. The parents of Region 2 feel they have gone more than half-way to meet the directive to conform, making real and tangible sacrifices in the process. The response by the national leadership is apparently binary: full implementation of the entire regional model, without deviations, is the only acceptable outcome.

The Purpose of Pressure?

One may ask, why is conformity on this issue so important to the national leadership? Maybe it makes it easier for the leadership to enforce conformity on the rest of the country when there aren't prominent exceptions. It would have been pretty easy to finesse this issue by making a simple exception for "single state regions", or a size limit could have been instituted for early qualifiers. A more prosaic articulation might have acknowledged Califonia's tendency to creative innovation in the face of unique circumstances, as well as Region 2's long history with running massive tournaments.

Let us return again to the central purpose of NCFCA: to prepare home schooled children to impact the world for Christ by developing the presentation and interpersonal skills that are the natural fruit of competitive speech and debate. We assert that all the variants of qualifying seasons practiced in California have adequately served this goal.

Pressure to conform to the regional model has been a source of division between Region 2 and the national leadership. This post is an attempt to explain why overall the regional model has been a good thing for the league as a whole, and also why the regional model is viewed so negatively by the affiliates of Region 2.

-A Region Two Parent
This blog is intended for commentary on NCFCA, from the perspective of a Region 2 parent.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author.

Our family loves the competitors and families of Region 2, and we have been very grateful for the opportunity to compete in NCFCA, where we have met great competitors and their families from all over the country.