“Everybody has won and all must have prizes”: The drive to end merit-based schooling

November 9, 2021 • 12:15 pm

There are two articles you can read that show how quickly merit-based educational assessment is vanishing in the U.S. The first, from the New York Times, discusses California’s downgrading of math instruction, turning it as well into an instrument for teaching social justice. The second, from the Los Angeles Times, describes the move to eliminate grading, or at least the lower grades of D and F so that everyone must have the prize of a “C” (required to get into the Cal State system of colleges).

Click on the screenshot to read the pieces. I’ll give a few quotes from each (indented):


If everything had gone according to plan, California would have approved new guidelines this month for math education in public schools.

But ever since a draft was opened for public comment in February, the recommendations have set off a fierce debate over not only how to teach math, but also how to solve a problem more intractable than Fermat’s last theorem: closing the racial and socioeconomic disparities in achievement that persist at every level of math education.

The California guidelines, which are not binding, could overhaul the way many school districts approach math instruction. The draft rejected the idea of naturally gifted children, recommended against shifting certain students into accelerated courses in middle school and tried to promote high-level math courses that could serve as alternatives to calculus, like data science or statistics.

The draft also suggested that math should not be colorblind and that teachers could use lessons to explore social justice — for example, by looking out for gender stereotypes in word problems, or applying math concepts to topics like immigration or inequality.

No matter how good the intentions, math—indeed, even secondary school itself—is no place to propagandize students with debatable contentions about social justice. The motivation for this, of course, is to achieve “equity” of achievement among races, since blacks and Hispanics are lagging behind in math. (Indeed, as the article notes, “According to data from the Education Department, calculus is not even offered in most schools that serve a large number of Black and Latino students.”)

Everything is up for grabs in California given the number of irate people on both sides. Some claim that school data already show that the “new math” leads to more students and more diverse students taking high-level math courses, while other say the data are cherry-picked. I have no idea.

Complicating matters is that even if the draft becomes policy, school districts can opt out of the state’s recommendations. And they undoubtedly will in areas of affluence or with a high percentage of Asian students, who excel in math. This is not a path to equal opportunity, but a form of creating equity in which everybody is proportionately represented on some low level of grades. I wish all the schools would opt out! There has to be a way to give every kid equal opportunity to learn at their own levels without holding back those who are terrific at math. I don’t know the answer, but the U.S. is already way behind other First World countries in math achievement. This will put us even farther down.

From the L. A. Times:


This issue is a real conundrum, more so than the above, because it’s not as easy to evaluate.  Here are a few suggestions of what teachers are doing to change the grading system—the reason, of course, is racial inequity in grades that must be fixed.

 A few years ago, high school teacher Joshua Moreno got fed up with his grading system, which had become a points game.

Some students accumulated so many points early on that by the end of the term they knew they didn’t need to do more work and could still get an A. Others — often those who had to work or care for family members after school — would fail to turn in their homework and fall so far behind that they would just stop trying.

“It was literally inequitable,” he said. “As a teacher you get frustrated because what you signed up for was for students to learn. And it just ended up being a conversation about points all the time.”

These days, the Alhambra High School English teacher has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.

But I had always assumed that grades were based on what students were learning: that’s what tests do. You ask students questions based on what you’ve taught them and what they’ve read, and then see if they’ve absorbed the material.  I have no objection at all to basing grades on “what students are learning” so long as you don’t grade them on the basis tht you have different expectations of what different students can learn. (In fact, as you see below, that may be the case.)

As for behavior, well, you have to conduct yourself in a non-disruptive manner in class; and as far as deadlines and quality of papers and work, those are life lessons that carry over into the real world. You don’t get breaks from your employer if you finish a project late.  I always gave students breaks if they had good excuses, or seemed to be trying really hard, but can you give a really good student a lower grade because she’s learning the material with much less effort than others? Truly, I don’t understand how this is supposed to work.

There is also much talk about “equity” in grading, and I don’t know what that means except either “everyone gets the same grade”, which is untenable, or “the proportion of grades among people of different races must be equal”, which, given the disparity in existing grades between whites and Asians on one hand and blacks and Hispanics on the others, means race-based grading. That, too, seems untenable.  But of course this doesn’t negate my own approval of some forms of affirmative action as reparations to groups treated unfairly in the past. Nobody wants a school that is all Asian and white, and nobody wants a school that is all black or all Hispanic.

Again, I don’t know the solution except to improve teaching while allowing everyone to learn to the best of their ability. And that means effort must be judged as well as achievement. Here’s a statement from L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer:

“Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test,” Yoshimoto-Towery said. “Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.”

Somehow I get the feeling that this refers not to different individuals‘ capacity to learn, but on assumptions about the capacity of members of different races to learn—assumptions that are both racist and patronizing. This is supported by the fact that San Diego’s school board said this:

“Our goal should not simply be to re-create the system in place before March 13, 2020. Rather, we should seek to reopen as a better system, one focused on rooting out systemic racism in our society,” the board declared last summer.

Similar to Los Angeles, the San Diego changes include giving students opportunities to revise work and re-do tests. Teachers are to remove factors such as behavior, punctuality, effort and work habits from academic grades and shift them to a student’s “citizenship” grade, which is often factored into sports and extra-curricular eligibility, said Nicole DeWitt, executive director in the district’s office of leadership and learning.

It seems to me that you can’t solve the problem of unequal achievement by adjusting grades based on race. In the long term, that accomplishes very little. You solve the problem by giving everybody equal opportunities in life from the very beginning of life. Since minorities don’t have that, we should be investing a lot of time and money in providing those opportunities. In the meantime, some affirmative action is necessary to allow more opportunity than before, and because we owe it to people who have been discriminated against and haven’t had equal opportunity.

41 thoughts on ““Everybody has won and all must have prizes”: The drive to end merit-based schooling

  1. When I was in public school, the course I hated was Physical Education (PE). We got graded on how well we performed in various sports not on our effort and attitude. I never got better than a C. And not because I was unfit — I just didn’t do sports, so I was really bad at them.

    In academic classes (e.g. math, language, science, etc.) the schools always had various levels of courses available (high, medium, and low), so people with lower proficiency could take easier coursework. So, you could get an A in the low level course instead of a D in the high level course. Some kids aren’t cut out for advanced math (etc.).

    But, of course, there were no gradations in PE: Just one class for all.

    Now at my son’s school, there are often 4 levels of coursework available, with a super-high level “squeeze” curriculum at the top that accelerates even beyond the high level coursework (which, even in my day — the Pleistocene, allowed me to pass my first two college quarters of calculus by passing an examination). He’ll have most of his first year of university already complete by the time he graduates from his high school.

    1. Same for my (Oregonian) sister’s daughter – the statistics class and others that she is taking in high school now will give her exemptions and ease her load in her freshman (freshperson?) year at university. Let’s hope she uses the time wisely. Like I did, naturally ;o)

    2. When I was in public school, the course I hated was Physical Education

      Me too. The teacher got very upset at being told, infront of the rest of the class, that his subject was considered utterly unimportant, and that I couldn’t give a damn about his so-called subject. Since he was also going through the terrors of going from the most important teacher in the school to the least important, he didn’t take this well. Several canings later, and a lawyer’s letter from Dad to the Council, that stopped. But he never recovered from being treated with contempt in front of the kids he was meant to control.
      I never bothered paying attention to the “games” lessons after that. I had plenty of homework to do in the library. I guess he continued trying to whip up hooliganism in the year promoting football hooliganism against other schools in the town. Their problem, not mine.
      I’ve no idea how it is handled now. Dead subject.

  2. We have tried these ideas before. They didn’t work last time. And I don’t expect them to work this time.

    The previous efforts were described (by their critics) as dumbing down the schools.

    But this is the American way — find a quick and easy “fix” to a very complex problem.

  3. It seems to me that the American policy-makers are seeking very hard a solution to a non-existent problem. For I see no problem if different groups of people differ in their average success in learning, as long as all children receive a needed minimum of education, and children with a potential exceeding that minimum are given a chance to realize their potential.

    1. Hello Maya, you are missing one key element: Special support for the kids who struggle at the bottom. There are lots of them, for a huge variety of reasons.

      The US system (at least the ones I have had contact with) has put huge emphasis and a lot of money into this. It does no one any good to not provide this support. The schools’ mission is to help raise up “useful” contributing citizens.

      Providing the extra support in school is much less expensive than housing these (future) adults in prison. Not to mention much more humane and moral.

      1. What resources does the USian education system put into smashing the people who treat Thuggery (a.k.a. “PE”) with the contempt it deserves? Does the state provide the tar, or the feathers?

      2. Of course you are right, such support is needed. I just think that it should not consist in routine inflation of grades and pushing academically successful students down to “equity” with struggling ones. In fact, providing adequate support to the latter students requires first to admit honestly that they are struggling.

        In my country, middle school students at the end of grade 7 are subjected to national written anonymous tests in language and math, and then can apply to high school based on their scores. Until 2 years ago, most high schools were obliged to take only students who had passed the tests. However, there were discussions that this deprives academically struggling children, including those of the Roma minority (whose scores are generally low), from enrolling in trade schools. So the law was changed to allow all 7th grade graduates to apply to any school.

        Nevertheless, if there are more applicants than positions, the scores will decide who will get in. So we have “elite” high schools teaching additional hours of language or sciences where only high-score students go. These schools are all-white, and unless they have gender quotas, they are also predominantly female. Who cares? The important thing is that every child can earn a position in a school matching his performance.

        I think that such a system is honest, and not only to those who get the “best” positions. My own children are in trade schools.

  4. I wonder what Jaime Escalante would think of this “new math”? Would he be accused to racism for having high standards and expecting his students to work hard in order to succeed?

    1. Not much, that’s for sure. I used to sell math software to teachers and remember travelling by plane to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics annual conference right after “Stand and Deliver” came out. The plane was probably half full of math teachers and all I heard was about Escalante and the movie. Obviously, they were really jazzed to have their profession elevated in a mainstream movie.

  5. Crazy stuff. The “no grades” approach advocated in Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has its appeal, but only goes so far.

    The solution to the attainment gap is simple, although maybe expensive: give extra tuition to the kids that are failing – regardless of race, which shouldn’t need to be said but probably is. In many regions of the UK, white British boys are the ones falling behind the most but woebetide anyone pointing that out in any educational or political forums.

    1. “give extra tuition to the kids that are failing – regardless of race”

      This was exactly the approach used at my wife’s former school. Some kids got a full time adult professional assigned to them. Think that’s expensive?

      But (in urban US schools), you have a steep uphill battle in front of you: Kids that don’t show up, parents that don’t show up, “Urban” culture that strongly denigrates educational achievement, and a cultural norm of dealing with conflicts “their own way” (that is, using violence; this seen over and over and over again), and a total inability to discipline students — I mean nothing; teachers had to invent perks that could then be not permitted to miscreants.

      And that would only last until some parent noticed. You couldn’t make kids sit during recess. You couldn’t touch them (literally). You had to move that rest of the class out of the classroom when kids went out of control (and even little kids get dangerously violent (some of her colleagues received concussions from elementary school kids)).

      1. Sounds tough, jblilie. As John McWhorter points out in Woke Racism, it’s usually the minority kids who suffer from disrupted classes, bullying, etc. when a blind eye is turned to abhorrent behaviour because actually dealing with the perpetrators from the same or other minorities would entail “racism”. Every child deserves a decent education – if only that simple thing could be enabled and supported by all in every community. Too much to ask, I know…

      2. I think such schools would become at least somewhat better if classes were made smaller (though again, this would require an honest admission that the main factor keeping kids down are their peers).

        One of my children is in a class of only 10 pupils. Unfortunately, one of them comes from a broken home, and in his world, you succeed by violently fending for yourself and taking what you want. It is because of this boy that my kid cannot bring a cellular phone to school. If the class had 30 pupils and 3 of them were like this, I’d have to pull my son out.
        What do you think?

  6. You know who will benefit from this? The Catholic church, because parochial schools are looking better every day.

    1. Although the Pope seems onboard with the Progressives, and the Catholic colleges and universities are going Woke.

  7. We need to face the fact that equity, the equality of outcomes, means dragging everyone down to the same level.

    1. And eventually employers who need to fill vacancies which need a higher intellectual ability will start administering their own testing as part of the recruitment process. Which will probably be challenged in courts as being discriminatory… which of course it is. All recruitment is discriminatory, but not necessarily by ‘race’.

  8. Like nearly all terminal degrees, the doctorate in education often requires original research to earn the degree. The application of theories of teaching and learning based on much of this research has been disastrous on student outcomes. This is an institutional failure. Some might even call it “systemic” or “structural” failure.

    McWhorter correctly identifies a key to the problem: Kids aren’t correctly taught how to read (institutional failure) and too many kids don’t value reading because they come from homes without books (cultural problem). The relationship among learning and thinking and reading is underappreciated.

    You want to close the educational achievement gap? 1. Teach teachers how to teach kids how to read. 2. Fund adult literacy programs.

    1. Every time some moronic idea was rolled out at my wife’s former school, my comment was, “someone’s dissertation!”.

      Most teachers (the vast majority of primary teachers) know how to teach reading. They are directed by administration to teach certain curricula.

      1. Why are illiterates leaving infant’s school? Or does “primary” mean something different there. You certainly should be able to read by the time (age 7, ish) you leave infant school for primary school.
        (Not picking on you – you ask interesting / bizarre questions.)

      2. Here in Germany, the reforms always work nicely with children from highly literate upper middle class or upper class households who get at home what they don’t get at school. It’s the kids that are already disadvantaged who suffer. “Schreiben nach Gehör/Lesen lernen durch Schreiben” (let the kids write in their own fantasy orthography as and never correct them for the first 4 years of their literacy) was one such reform, anyone with half a brain could have known that children who don’t read much at home would suffer, and suffer they did, and parents protested, but it took 20 years or longer for politicians and some university ideologues to finally admit that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Beginning with conservative regional governments, the traditional method has now been reinstated in many regions. Sadly, the parties I vote for are rarely on the right side on educational issues.

      1. I have long-demanded that NBA teams be required to have an old, 5’10” white guy on their roster. I can still shoot free-throws and tres better than most, and will be quite happy with the going minimum salary of $925,258.00

    1. 50 years ago?
      Anything but excellence in music was a caning offence. Ditto for enthusiasm about sports.

  9. Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to to learn it tomorrow and re-take the test.

    But sometimes that is what the failure does mean, or it means I can learn it eventually with a lot of help and hand holding, which a boss might be reluctant to give. I only have to contrast the speed and ease with which my daughter mastered calculus with the difficulty I had, leading to my eventual comprehensive failure in it. In any job requiring advanced mathematical skill, I would be a very unsatisfactory worker.

    …giving students opportunities to revise work and re-do tests.

    I quit teaching (mostly English) while my school was trialling a coming national system based on this type of assessment at three levels in senior high school. Before I quit, it was obvious that 1) different teachers gave different levels of feedback, so you couldn’t be too sure how much was a student’s skill, how much the teachers; 2) the unit system of task assessment narrowed teaching to the specific tasks to be assessed; 3) frequent, careful moderation by senior teachers of junior teachers was required; 4) careful moderation of schools by even more senior teachers and further moderation by national tests were both required.

    More than a decade later, when I was tutoring some friends’ children for my own amusement, it was clear that #1 was still a problem. Published results from the assessment system said that the lowest performing ethnic group was now doing a lot better at the lowest level, but huge gaps still remained at the most senior level. Recently published truancy rates also reveal huge gaps in attendance by ethnicity. Overall, I wonder if there has been much change other than to give more people some worthless credentials.

  10. I may well live in False Equivalency Land but I’m still perplexed about why we accept with few questions disparate results by race, gender and body type in professional, Olympic and college athletics but we twist ourselves into knots to avoid those disparate results in each academic subject. So academic aptitudes are different than athletic aptitudes? Where is the rigorous science backing up this notion? Wish somebody could help me find it.

    1. More cultural than scientific I think.

      -Because we like to see a few exceptionally gifted people — our tribal champions — win by beating everyone else in the field? Sport speaks to that in a way that academics doesn’t. I don’t know why a math contest doesn’t generate the same excitement as a track meet or a hockey game, or the Oscars. Maybe at the elite level where academic contests live, the subject matter is just not understandable to most would-be fans. For academic and professional endeavours, the goal is to meet a public standard, not to be Number 1. Climbing the greasy pole is done out of sight of the fans and isn’t as pretty as a 1-on-4 goal (5 counting the goaltender).
      (I don’t care about ice hockey but this was indeed amazing.)

      -Because you don’t have to succeed at sports to make a living in the real world? Whereas you do have at least some academic achievement to enter the job market. It is therefore seen as unjust to exclude people because of failure, even if the fault of the failure is their own and that of their parent(s).

      -Because the culture of fair play — let the best human win — is so ingrained in the culture of sport, any sense that someone is breaking the rules instinctively rubs people the wrong way? It threatens the integrity and very credibility of the sport Rigging the game to favour the less talented would create a travesty. (In baseball, that’s a specific rule infraction.) The recent controversies in elite women’s athletics are a case in point, as is the persisting (unrelated) scandal of drug-cheating. No one will pay to watch a fixed game. (They might bet on one, but that’s another story.)

  11. All this high-minded hand-wringing about equality of outcomes will be brought down to earth in the real world where, outside of school, people have deadlines, achievements are measured, and some people go further than others. When a company or institution comes to realize that it is falling behind—in terms of profit, or prestige, or whatever it cares about—that company or institution will turn toward what has always mattered: merit. It may take time for the pernicious effects of the current climate to become evident, but become evident it will.

  12. Been thinking about affirmative action and politics, and it is pretty clear that you have certain jobs that are political, and you get appointees, and certain jobs which are not political, and you get career public servants (who are supposedly hired on merit, notwithstanding affirmative action).

    You have appointments in order to send political messages to various constituencies, often on some of the grossest levels of identity politics. These appointments are supposed to be political representatives of the community in some sense, and very little concern is paid to their merit.

    If diversity is about proportional representation, why don’t we silo jobs/college admissions markets into those whose function is political representation, and those that actually require merit. You could do something like 10 percent set asides for diversity, and then 90 percent based on merit. No one is going to expect someone in a representative role to actually be competent, but no one is going to be pissed off about assessing the merit of the 90 percent.

    Because there are two functions here, i.) maintaining an impression of democratic (demographic?) representation, ii.) preparing people to be skilled professionals and/or employing skilled professionals. When you merge the functions, it is important to hide the fact that someone is being used as a token by pretending they are competent or equally skilled. [There is that example of the law teacher who noted her minority students were in the bottom of the class, and everyone got mad, even though the university admits minorities with lower tests scores than everyone else that strongly correlate to ending up in the bottom of the class, so the result is the inevitable result of the universities pattern of admission.] The only alternative is going full cultural revolution, and putting the illiterate peasants in charge of the nuclear program, instead of those “educated” children of landlords who think they are better than peasants because they know how to manage a nuclear reactor without it blowing up.

    This won’t bring the SATs back, of course, because that is mostly about trying to hide quotas against Asian Americans in elite schools, but it might help clarify.

  13. No one has had “equal opportunities in life from the very beginning of life.” None of us do, None of us had.
    More generally, I’ve been wondering what you’d been thinking about all this grade-normalization equity crap.

  14. Commenter #9 above (and John McWhorter) raise an interesting and perhaps profound issue: literacy and its consequences. Maybe the USA’s peculiar deficiency in teaching kids to read is the basis not only of the ethnic asymmetries in school performance, but also of the whole fashion of anti-rational wokeism. [I wonder how semi-literate or ignorant the woke posts in social media often tend to be.]

    I know a couple of middle-aged US adults who are the obvious outcome of “whole language” teaching in early childhood, who are semi-literate, and who are not well off. On the other hand, the ethnic minority groups which have done well financially in the US are groups in which literacy is widespread and is valued. Could it be that a full return to the phonics method of teaching children to read would do more for the social mobility of USians than umpteen zillion “anti-racist” training modules?

  15. I just listened to James Lindsay’s “New Discourses” podcast episode on “… paranoia” where he points out that the Woke campaign is basically activist niihilism. The aim is to tear everything down in the vain hope that what will arise to replace it will somehow be better. This drive to eliminate academic standards may be intended to increase the rate at which the US population is becoming less intelligent so that the GOP / QAnon moronic politicians will be elected in even greater numbers thereby accelerating the rate at which the USA goes down the metaphorical tubes.

    In the immortal word of the King of Monosyllables, and wanna be King of the USA, “Sad!”.

  16. Or perhaps…

    This drive to eliminate academic standards may be intended to increase the rate at which the US population is becoming less intelligent so that the Democratic / Woke moronic politicians will be elected in even greater numbers thereby accelerating the rate at which the USA goes down the metaphorical tubes.

    Both versions could be true (irrespective of political inclinations) if the elite hanging on to power is the main driver and Republican/Democrat, Right/Left, Individual/Collective are merely customisations of the product for sales purposes.

    Cynical? Moi?

  17. Well this is going to make the job of the committee awarding the Fields Medal a bit simpler; they can ignore all candidates from California.

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