The elimination of the meritocracy in schools is proceeding quickly, with abandonment of standardized testing, grades, and now, in a New York City proposal, class rankings and honor rolls as well. Although a frequent excuse is that, during the pandemic, it’s unfair to hold people to “normal” academic standards, my prediction is that these changes will be permanent. That’s because the pandemic suspension is somewhat of a ruse, masquerading what’s envisioned as permanent change.
Everyone knows that the real reason for such changes—and the ones under consideration in this post are essentially post-pandemic—is that a meritocracy disadvantages some minority students because, on average, they don’t perform as well as Asian or white ones. And if people’s success depends on their performance in a ranking system, then there will be “inequity” in the Kendian sense: people will not be represented in achievements, or positions that require achievement, according to their proportion in the general population. According to Ibram Kendi, this kind of inequity is prima facie evidence of ongoing racism.
I doubt that’s true most of the time, but it may well be evidence of past racism. Regardless, it must be fixed, because even without current “structural” racism, many members of minorities don’t start at the same place as others. In other words, they lack equal opportunity from the outset, and inequities result from that combined with cultural differences that may devalue achievement.
Do we fix inequities by dismantling meritocracy in schools (or other areas)? Well, affirmative action does that a bit, but to me that’s justified as a form of reparations—a way of leveling the playing field. But you can practice affirmative action not by a wholesale dismantling of standards (e.g. eliminating SATs or grades), but by enriching your pool of students or job hires with people who are all qualified, but are more weighted with minorities.
This is a tricky balancing act, and it requires admitting that adhering strictly to a meritocracy will cause inequities, and admitting that yes, conventional measures of “merit” will fall. There’s also a problem of fairness. While the treatment of minorities in the past (and, for some, in the present) was unfair, there’s also unfairness in denying high achievers the rewards of their work. Finally, it requires admitting that in positions where quality is crucial, an average lowering of standards could be injurious (surgery, for example).
To me, the answer lies in realizing that nobody is really “responsible” for their failure or success: these things are determined by factors beyond people’s control. So while merit should be rewarded and failure punished as external stimuli to change behavior, this should be supplemented by a meaningful attempt to make up for inequalities of the past. My solution is, as I said, to see affirmative action as a form of reparations, but to be very careful how to exercise it, and, most important, to realize that the ultimate solution is not an indefinite continuation of affirmative action, but the creation of fundamental societal change that, by giving everyone equal opportunities from the outset, will make such reparations obsolete. That will take, as I say repeatedly, a lot of time and money, and it’s a lot easier to think that you’re fixing the problem by taking down statues or eliminating standardized tests.
Now the article below is from the New York Post, but checking other places seems to confirm that what it reports is accurate. I haven’t been able to find the official school guidelines.
Click to read.
The plan: Get rid of honor rolls and class rankings.
The reason: Several are given in the article (indented):
The city Department of Education wants schools to rethink honor rolls and class rankings because they’re “detrimental” to some kids, according to a new grading guidance.
“Recognizing student excellence via honor rolls and class rank can be detrimental to learners who find it more difficult to reach academic success, often for reasons beyond their control,” the document states.
The DOE wants schools to widen recognitions to include “contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity.”
. . . “Grades are not only a reflection of student performance but can be self-fulfilling prophecies,” the document states. “Influencing future student performance either directly through their psychological impact or indirectly through instructional decisions, placement in courses, and guidance in post secondary options.”
I don’t think that honor rolls and class ranks are detrimental to those who don’t perform well. They might cause envy, but is there really a psychological route that will improve your performance if you do badly but are not told about it? Don’t you need to know where you stand? In what sense is knowing you’ve performed poorly a “self-fulfilling prophecy”? As for “institutional decisions” not relying on ranking, that route leads to complete abandonment of rewarding achievement. And if achievement is not rewarded, nor failure “punished,” then there is no incentive to achieve.
John McWhorter had addressed a version of this, whereby low-performing students wash out of schools—not because of self-fulfilling prophecies, but with the realization that they’re just not cut out for a particular curriculum. His selection is to send lower-tier students to lower-tier schools, where they can get an education without washing out.
Now the new rules also say that other measures of student success such as behavior, attendance, and participation “should not affect grades.” I disagree in part. To me, attendance is a sign of being serious about achieving, as is behavior. Participation not so much, for that depends on how much of an extrovert you are.
We all understand what’s happening here, but it becomes clearer in this sentence:
Staffers should “minimize the effects of bias and eliminate practices that penalize students who have been marginalized based on their race, culture, language and/or ability.”
If you count lower achievement as an “effect of bias”—past bias—then yes, this diktat tells us to get rid of ranking. But if you’re talking about accusations of present bias, it’s not so clear.
In the end, I wonder if the above rationale applies to the increasing criticisms I hear from the “progressive Left” about capitalism. If you listen to some of these people, you get the impression that they’d like to return to the Soviet era of collective farms! For capitalism, like schools, rewards achievement and merit, but does so with money rather than rankings. While I believe in the injection of socialism even into the most capitalistic societies like ours—it’s a way of giving a social cushion to the disadvantaged with programs like Medicare, unemployment benefits, and Social Security—you will never hear me say that we need to get rid of capitalism. That has been disastrous whenever it’s been tried, and even the most socialistic Western nations, like those in Scandinavia, are largely capitalistic.
But this is just a thought.