I’ve been having some trouble with the concept of “merit” lately… the more I hear it, the more I want to scream. (!)
Really? You may be asking… what’s wrong with merit? Well, let’s start with a definition (via Google)
deserve or be worthy of (something, especially reward, punishment, or attention).
“Meritocrats accept inequality as proper. As long as opportunities are equal, outcomes need not be. Of course this ignores that opportunities are not equal but it also legitimises the increasing bifurcation of our society. Since the elite no longer live with the masses, work with them, socialise with them the concerns of ordinary citizens don’t register.”
This question is explored even more further in a book titled, The Rise of the Meritocracy, whose main points can basically be boiled down to two ideas:
- Our ability to measure merit is flawed. — In education, this is usually done using some form of “objective assessment” like IQ tests, state tests (e.g. our old STAR tests), and/or grades plus “effort”, which is measured by teacher or parent recommendations. In reality, the job of measuring has been shown to be highly subjective, as those doing the measuring have biases (both positive and negative) and the measurements themselves tend to be inherently biased as well.
- To whatever extent you can successfully identify merit and distribute resources accordingly, there are certain resources that shouldn’t be distributed based on merit. — Education is one of these things. Add to this list health care, housing, police protection…
For these reasons, I am growing weary of the concept of “merit” as it is used in determining student access to educational opportunities. Lately, I’m hearing it again and again as its used to justify why our schools should reinstate honors tracking in our middle and high schools (via “accelerated” algebra).
What has made the concept of “merit” even more disconcerting is the fact that it is often defined as achievement on a standardized test. (Which is often given as a one-shot deal at a young age such as was the case with former GATE testing in 3rd grade or in 8th grade for high school admission to schools like Lowell.)
How does “merit”-based enrollment play out in SFUSD?
The concept of merit-based admission becomes increasingly troubling when you consider the number of black and brown students in selective programs and schools.
SFUSD GATE Percent Participation by Race
GATE participation is currently being redefined based on new assessments (SBAC) and district “equity” initiatives. That said, in the past academic year of 2012-2013, we see big disparities by race. Clicking on the circle graph representing SFUSD demographics above you can see Asians are the largest ethnic group of students in our district at 44% of the population. If you click on the GATE graph, you see they represent 66% of the GATE population. While Black students make up 9% of the general population, yet only 4% of the GATE population.
How do these numbers square up? Why are Asians and whites overrepresented in GATE programs while black and Latino (and Samoan) students are woefully under-represented? Should we chalk this all up to poverty? Parent education levels? Cultural predispositions?
We see these disparities continue on in enrollment numbers for schools with competitive admissions policies. Last year, at SFUSD’s highly selective high school, Lowell, we see that African Americans make up only 2.6% of the student population there, while Latinos make up 9.7% of the population. This is compared to district-wide enrollment percentages of 10% and 23% respectively.
SFUSD is Not Alone
It turns out, SFUSD is not alone in grappling with these disparities. We see them across the country in other urban districts. New York City’s elite public high schools have long been plagued by a lack of diversity. In an article by Elizabeth A. Harris of the New York Times she notes:
“In 2012, a group of education and civil rights organizations filed a complaint with the federal Education Department that said the city’s admission process, which is based on the results of a single test, was a violation of the Civil Rights Act.”
As the case is investigated, many in NY question whether changing enrollment criteria (e.g. eliminating the test-in requirement) might increase enrollment for underserved groups. Unfortunately, any decisions around this are stalled as policy makers research the impacts of implementing other enrollment criteria, which by some estimates could actually make matters worse.
Others folks suggest it would be more effective to invest efforts in increasing the number of black and Latino students scoring successfully on the test, rather than by eliminating it. As Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation states:
“We are committed to maintaining the test as the sole criterion for admission because we believe that is the best system available to admit kids solely on the basis of merit,” Mr. Cary said. “We’re opposed to the use of the multiple criteria that would inject subjectivity into the process. With this in mind… let’s reflect on the term “merit”
(There’s that word “merit” again…)
What’s most fair?
So is “merit” fair or unfair? Is exam-based admission into an elite program objective or subjective. What does this all mean?
Rereading the definition of merit, you will see the concept doesn’t just communicate a standard, like the word “proficient”, it connotes a whole value system. Words like “deserving of praise” and “reward” illustrate the idea that somehow kids who meet the criterion of merit (e.g. achieving a certain score on a test) have somehow “earned” access to the elite programs for which they gain entry. Those who don’t score well, don’t “merit” or “deserve” to experience the specialized educational opportunities that these educational policies withhold from the larger student body. (The 99%, if you will.)
The fact that some children persist in failing schools despite ongoing substitutes, a lack of classroom resources and the burdens of poverty don’t seem to enter into this equation of merit.
As a former teacher, working in Bay View and Oakland public schools, I have to wonder… Who has more “merit”?
- A child brought up with college-educated affluent parents, who has grown up in a home-full of books? with academic tutors, and ample opportunities for after-school and summertime enrichment?
- Or, the child learning in a language other than their first language, struggling against the effects of poverty, neighborhood violence, financial insecurity? or interrupted schooling as a result of family responsibilities such as childcare, or translating for relatives who need help filling out social security forms, or helping parents navigate complicated bureaucratic systems to access vital social services?
I have known students who’ve come to my English class each day, despite the fact they had never learned to read. I’ve known students who’ve had to negotiate family responsibilities like watching a sick younger sibling in order for their parents to go to work. I’ve counseled and encouraged students to write essays about “hope”, “dreams” or “the future” despite the fact that they slept with gun-shots beyond their windows, or had visions of classmates, friends and family members gunned down before their eyes…
Ugh… So, what do we do?
OK. So, let’s agree that defining “merit” based on test performance is problematic… Even if it’s just semantics, the term “merit-based enrollment” just plain sucks!
That said, even if we changed the name (“performance-based” enrollment maybe?) it doesn’t solve the problem of access for underserved students. Looking at Lowell enrollment numbers makes me wonder: Should we just scrap the whole exam-based enrollment policy altogether?
The answer, it turns out, is far from simple.
I asked a colleague (an Educational researcher, and Ph.d no less!) to share some insights on the subject (thanks John!):
“What makes it a little complicated to consider is that for Lowell, you’d have to know how many of each subgroup applied (and whether or not they were encouraged to apply) and for the other schools, you’d have to know who applied and who was in a neighborhood privileged in the student assignment system, etc.
If the desired goal for the district is to have greater integration, then a choice system often works against that, both because people segregate by neighborhood and tend to choose schools with people who look like them. If the idea is that each student should be able to go to the school of his or her choice, the system also works against that, since there is a limited capacity at high demand schools. Regarding an exam school like Lowell, the optimal thing would be that everyone applies to get in and that other factors (such as average quality of a student’s middle and high school, demographic factors, etc.) are considered.”
Obviously… we’re nowhere close to an easy answer. That said, tough questions are still important to consider. Just because we may not answer these questions definitively, even possibly in our life-times, it doesn’t mean we should throw our arms up in the air and accept the status quo. I can think of other meaningful questions I’m glad humanity is struggling to answer: global warming, world peace, the cure to cancer… (you get the picture.)
What do you think we should be doing differently?
Does any of this make sense? What do you think we could/should be doing to increase more equitable representation of black and brown students in selective schools? What should we be doing as a district, as schools, and as individuals to create a more equitable schooling system?
Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.
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