Pondiscio: Everything in Education Can Be Gamed by the Privileged. Eliminating Merit in Admissions Will Only Boost Their Advantage
Just over a year ago, Education Week published an op-ed advocating for the implementation of "gradeless classrooms" and the elimination of the misleading nature of grades and numbers when it comes to measuring learning. Mark Barnes, an education expert, painted a vivid picture of a perfect educational system where honor rolls and valedictorians no longer exist. He suggested that clubs celebrating high achievers would disband, colleges and universities would revise their admissions criteria, and academic scholarships would undergo a significant transformation.
However, Doug Lemov, in a thoughtful and almost pleading response, expressed his disagreement. He argued that envisioning a world without GPAs, report cards, and tests did not lead to a utopia but rather to an aristocratic society. Lemov emphasized that there will always be limited opportunities for high-quality education, necessitating a means of sorting and evaluating students. He believed that meritocracy was the best approach, as it requires a system of assessment. Lemov warned that without the ability to judge merit, the elites would monopolize all advantages. Essentially, when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy resurfaces.
From my biased perspective as a friend of Doug’s, I believe he has made significant contributions to social justice as an educator. Urban charter schools, in particular, have been a clear success within the education reform era. These schools have provided thousands of low-income students of color with a path to college and an opportunity for upward mobility. Lemov’s instructional methods, outlined in his book "Teach Like a Champion" and others, have greatly influenced the practices of many charter schools and other educational institutions.
Unfortunately, Doug often faces criticism from those who erroneously perceive disciplined classrooms as a form of colonialism or prison training. However, this perspective is misguided. The students in these schools are on their way to become doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, not criminals. If there is any racism present in these high-performing charter schools (which are no longer referred to as "no excuses" schools), it is primarily found among their critics. These critics, usually armchair social justice warriors, have never experienced the fear or uncertainty regarding their own children’s path to college or the threat to their families’ prosperity.
Aristocracy is making a comeback with great force. It may seem like we are currently witnessing a strong opposition to privilege in education, highlighted by the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal and the ongoing concern about the limited number of black and Hispanic students accepted into specialized high schools in New York City. However, the proposed responses and solutions are more likely to exacerbate the problem. The privileged and powerful have cleverly convinced their adversaries to protect and perpetuate their advantages by disregarding objective merit in the name of social justice. The hard truth is that privilege enables the affluent and privileged to manipulate and exploit every aspect of education. Utopian dreams of dismantling privilege through persuasion, public humiliation, or technocratic measures are naive, impractical, and illegal. It is impossible to completely eliminate or embarrass privilege; the best we can do is limit its influence. Yet, we seem to be disheartened by our efforts.
Following the Varsity Blues scandal, there is a recurring list of suggestions to make college admissions fairer and more equitable. These proposals include abandoning the common application, withdrawing from the U.S. News college rankings, which fuel the race for academic and prestige, and eliminating the requirement for SAT and ACT standardized tests. However, almost every solution aimed at enhancing fairness in college admissions introduces subjectivity into the process. Consequently, this ensures that those who are already ahead in the race will maintain and expand their advantage.
Drawing the line between seeking advantages and engaging in cheating and fraud is a straightforward task. It lies just before your very eyes. Thus, affluent parents in prestigious areas can proudly pat themselves on the back for courageously choosing public schools for their children. When they enlist the help of SAT test preppers, it is not an act of selfishly hoarding privilege, but simply a means to ensure that their children present themselves in the best light. The scandal surrounding the Varsity Blues case strikes a chord because it is a scam that the elites can easily denounce. However, as we descend to the lower levels, discomfort quickly sets in. Behind them in this hierarchy, as privilege diminishes, factors such as race, class, income, and family status come into play. At this level, the privileged require proxies to fight their battles. Social justice advocates have eagerly joined forces with the aristocracy, arguing not for an increase in elite educational opportunities for outstanding low-income students, but for their dilution and rationing in the name of equity.
The number of black students admitted to the highly selective Stuyvesant High School in New York City has dwindled to the point where they could fit in a single SUV. Over the past few years, the number of students who scored high enough on the entrance exam to secure a seat has decreased significantly, from thirteen two years ago, to ten last year, and a mere seven this year out of a freshman class totaling 895. These figures are disheartening and present a concerning picture of the quality of education children of color have received from kindergarten all the way until they sit for the competitive entrance exam. Consequently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, are advocating for the elimination of the exam altogether and propose admitting the top 7 percent of students from each middle school in the city to Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and a few other prestigious exam schools.
An analysis conducted by New York City’s Independent Budget Office reveals that under this proposed scenario, 77 percent of the lowest-performing 500 admitted students would not be proficient in English, compared to the current 32 percent. The impact on math proficiency would be even more dramatic. If the 7 percent solution had been in place during the 2017-18 school year, none of the 500 lowest-scoring incoming students would have been proficient in math. It is difficult to believe that this would not significantly dilute the academic quality of these selective high schools, as well as the advantages that come with attending them.
During a recent town hall meeting in Queens, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising star in Congress, demonstrated a keen understanding of the dilemma at hand. She noted that her own public school teachers failed to recognize her potential until she took a high-stakes test and scored in the top 1 percent across all subjects. Instead of understanding the individual child in front of them, it took a test for them to realize that she did not require remedial education. Her father also went through a similar experience, testing into Brooklyn Tech, another prestigious high school in the city. He would wake up at 5:00 every morning to commute from his Bronx apartment because he saw it as his only chance for a dignified life. He cherished his experience at Brooklyn Tech because he attended a good school.
AOC accurately pointed out that the scramble for seats in selective schools is a product of a scarcity mindset, which was met with resounding applause when she questioned why every school does not match the caliber of Brooklyn Tech. She insisted that when parents start feeling dissatisfied with their local schools, that is the moment to rally for improvement, rather than abandon them. It is a noble sentiment that affluent parents are never asked to consider or act upon. The moment they feel their local schools are inadequate, they either relocate or apply to private schools.
None of the leaders of New York’s charter schools seem to have considered using the current controversy surrounding specialized high schools as an opportunity to advocate for more schools, more spots, and more chances for low-income students. Instead, Richard Buery from KIPP criticized "the myth of meritocracy" in a harshly-worded op-ed in the New York Daily News. He attacked the influence of "paid school consultants, tutors, and prep courses," some of which start as early as kindergarten. Buery pointed out that students from privileged families, particularly those "in the know," have an advantage. This includes poor Asian families who invest countless hours and money into exam preparation. This argument is peculiar for two reasons. Firstly, the notion of low-income parents sacrificing and investing in their children’s education in order to provide them with more opportunities is something that has traditionally been celebrated, not condemned or disputed. Furthermore, the success of KIPP and other charter schools in helping low-income black and brown students access and complete college is evidence that merit is not a myth, but rather a concept that needs to be fostered and allowed to flourish.
It is a challenging task to defend the idea of a meritocracy. It is a weak defense to argue that the alternatives are considerably worse. However, it is foreseeable that the alternatives are significantly worse. When merit is removed from the system and any possibility of recognizing it effectively vanishes, the advantages are gained by those who do not rely on merit to further their own interests. Every argument in favor of subjectivity is an argument for aristocracy.
Similarly, it is understandable that those who yearn for social justice would criticize the various institutions and mechanisms that seem to uphold privilege at first glance. However, in doing so, they risk surrendering even more to a ruling elite and engaging in disputes over small, insignificant benefits.
Robert Pondiscio is a prominent member of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where he holds the position of senior fellow. He extensively writes and speaks about education and education-reform topics, with a particular focus on literacy, curriculum, teaching, and urban education.
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