Me and Meritocracy

About the title: I’ve been reading the book Me and White Supremacy this week, so this title just came to mind. I still cringe whenever a speaker, much less a writer, puts herself first. Never begin with “me,” don’t ya know? Always put the other person first. But no, languages evolve, and I seem to have lost this battle, among others. So just go along with me, and let’s get on with this essay.

Following my recent rather flippant post about Asians gobbling up more than their share of merit-based spaces in elite high schools and colleges, I found myself thinking about how intractable this problem is. This quote caught my attention as I was scanning articles about these elite high schools: “To build a world that is simultaneously democratic, egalitarian, and meritocratic may be a difficult task, but not an impossible one.”

Not impossible? I wonder. The primary solution in play at the moment would dismantle any entrance requirements that have the result of unequal admissions of racial groups stripping schools of any claim to merit-based admissions. So, as academically elite schools and colleges try to craft admission standards that reduce racial disparities in enrollment, it seems that a first step is to consider whether or not programs exclusively for high achieving students have merit. Do they provide a public good as well as a private good? 

Is there any merit in a meritocracy? Yes, No? Examples, please:

1) Could we have produced Covid vaccines in less than a year if we didn’t have programs for students with exceptional abilities? Hmm.

2) I may look fine to you, but I am 100% dependent on a pacemaker for every beat of my heart; it doesn’t just kick in now and then. My heart is there, but does nothing without a jolt! Thank you, smart people.

3) You may or may not value our exploration of space, but I’m just dumbstruck by photos of the vastness of space beyond out solar system. I’m so glad to be living during a time when I can see stars beyond stars. 

4) And what about safety features in new cars? My new car beeps louder and faster, with increasing urgency, as I approach things behind me. I love that, but I could not have invented that feature. I’m glad someone with some super math and engineering skills did so. 

Bottom line: I think merit has some merit.

Could merit be overrated? Sure. For example, I think test scores can be overrated. People are so concerned about the abundance of whites and Asians at selective high schools that people are busy scrutinizing the tests that are used to screen students. The tests that have been designed to screen students for these elite schools are not, it seems, always best at predicting success in school or after graduation. Schools could certainly make changes that might open up more spaces for young women or black and brown students. But even focusing on income could net more Asians because low income Asians often have good scores! Yup, true. 

The one change that absolutely would rebalance enrollment by race and sex is to simply allocate spaces for males, for females, for white students, for black students, for Latinos, for Native Americans. This is called affirmative action. And it generally results in disadvantaging high achieving white and Asian students.  We did this in the past. It was the norm both for schools and in the workplace. 

After the civil rights era of the 50s and 60s, affirmative action was a tool to help balance things out. There was never a time when everyone was onboard with this, but it continued until elections and court cases began to limit its use. Another thing that contributed to the downfall of affirmative action was increasing evidence that it could work to the disadvantage of people who were supposed to benefit from it. 

A study of the effect of affirmative action compared the outcomes of black students who enrolled in the University of California system during the era of affirmative action and again after it was discontinued. It showed that students granted admission despite not meeting all the criteria of the various schools did not always do well. After the the end of affirmative action students ended up at schools better matched to their abilities and did well.  They graduated confident of their abilities rather than feeling as if they just didn’t measure up. They could, and did, do well in job interviews. They got jobs and did well. The sky did not fall, and I bet their kids do even better.

I am not versed in the totality of research on affirmative action, but that bit of information rings true for me. And it brings me back to my reflections on meritocracy. It seems as if we’ve come to regard the top rung of the ladder as the only rung worth clinging to. How silly. Imagine a ladder with only the top rung! Useless, absolutely useless. 

Although I would agree that many students in our K-12 system have what it takes to do better academically, we just have not found the magic to help them all. Lots of factors play into this failure, I’m sure: Poverty, chaos at home, lack of role models, neighborhood culture, and programs that focus on schools and not the homes that kids come from.  I’m all for putting more imagination and effort into helping all kids achieve proficiency in reading, math and other subjects. That said, I think we also need to think harder about that ladder with only a top rung. 

Remember my new car that beeps as I get close to backing into things? Imagine a care that beeps from every angle, as some now do, but has no windshield wipers – or cup holders. Someone needs to invent those things, too. And someone needs to package them, sell them, and ship them to stores (or directly to you). I’m guessing it didn’t take a top tier engineer to design the wipers or the cup holders. Yes, the materials engineer was key, but using the materials in new ways could be done by people who love tinkering but didn’t ace every exam of every class. 

Remember the push to crank out millions of ventilators at the beginning of the Covid pandemic? We did it! We made so many ventilators. But before they arrived, hospital staff struggling to help patients learned that turning patients to a prone position helped them breathe. Maybe we needed the top one percent to invent faster ways of manufacturing ventilators, but a caring, curious RN or Respiratory Therapist who was smart, but maybe not one percent smart, was free to say, “Let’s try this. It’s helped other patients, maybe it can help Covid patients.”

While mulling over this situation of the ladder with one rung, I found myself reminiscing about a class of students I had over 30 years ago. I didn’t teach regular classes often during my career, but one year I was blessed with an amazing class of fifth and sixth graders. This group included three students who had tested into the gifted program but elected to stay in regular classes. One had tested into the “1%” meaning that he could have attended a special school in the district. His parents really, really wanted him to go there and asked me to encourage him to do so. 

The first time I asked him about his choice to stay where he was, he very clearly and emphatically said he had no interest in “that program.” He didn’t want to have to focus on achievement. He didn’t want to compete. He didn’t want to strive to be the best at anything. He enjoyed school as it was, he liked his friends, he was just fine, thank you. Could I please just not talk about it again! 

OK! I didn’t. He didn’t shirk his assignments. He wrote well and turned in admirable work in all subjects. He was right, he seemed to enjoy learning. But he also enjoyed his friends, he participated as his interests dictated, and seemed fine with the notion that he might not be putting himself on track for elite colleges. I think he’d have done fine in the “1%” program, but maybe his enthusiasm would have dimmed in that environment. 

In any event, I hope we will allow kids to find success on lower rungs of the ladder. If kids are happy in their elite schools, I’m all for that. But there are so many ways to do well in life even if SAT scores are below 1575. Could we please allow for that possibility. 

Remember a year ago when we were suddenly discovering how many people earning ordinary wages in invisible jobs were essential workers? Lets’ not forget that lesson, please. I think it was one of the most important things we learned during the pandemic. We need lots of people doing jobs we don’t even think about.

I doubt we can even out the elite admissions challenge – while maintaining merit as an important value – any time soon. Some of what’s happening with our Asian students is likely due to new immigrant energy, a factor that often evens out after two or three generations. Perhaps we should let them have their day while we focus on helping underachieving groups in lower grades. 

And, by the way, who says Asians don’t count for diversity scores? Just look at the amazing diversity within the very broad category of Asian. Are we paying any attention to that? Are all Asians doing well, or if we look more closely, are we ignoring some Asian kids who need more support while focusing on the top of the heap? 

And all of this leads me to one last observation. More and more people are refusing to check any box for race or ethnicity. Bravo, I say. Let’s help families and kids who need help, support kids who are acing their exams, and try to make sure that we respect people on all rungs of the ladder.

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