Regarding “meritocracy” in education

I received elementary education based on merit.  I was in a school that taught math in levels, and tested the students at the beginning of the year to determine that level.  In addition, I was identified as “gifted” in second grade, and received extra educational opportunities as a result.  When I went to middle school and was mainstreamed at Powell Middle School I was bored out of my mind.  I got straight A’s with, what seemed to me, very little effort. I *needed* to be challenged, and a “mainstream” education did not adequately develop my mind.  When I arrived at Suzanne Middle School nearly ¾ of the way through 7th grade, I was required to take placement tests.  As a result, I was once again placed in a “merit” system, and dropped into a prealgebra class, and expected to “swim” with no prior instruction in prealegra..  Trying to catch up to my peers nearly three quarters of the way through a prealgebra class was HARD.  And, in some ways, I *loved* it.  My mind was being properly challenged!  By the end of 7th grade I was completely caught up with my peers in prealgebra — with no adult intervention.  I had just been put on the track to take calculus in high school.  I had no idea.  

We have come to the belief in this country that each student should receive an “appropriate” education, based on their individual needs and abilities.  This is usually interpreted to mean education for those who have disabilities or other issues that make it difficult for them to keep up with mainstream education.  Academically gifted kids need to be challenged and need the curriculum to come faster and at a more complex level.  We do this for their own benefit and for the overall benefit of society.  That was the reason why my daughter was moved to the Gifted Learning Center — not because I wanted her to be “ahead” of any other students — but because she wanted to love school, and instead she complained of boredom.  In the Gifted Learning Center she never complained of being bored.  Now, in middle school, she is mainstreamed and complains when teachers tell all of the students, “These are new words,” but they are vocabulary words she learned years ago.

In my view, education is not solely about the post-education career.  It is about personal development and contribution to society.   

I do not believe that we should rely heavily on standardized testing.  Should we have standardized testing?  Yes, there should be some of that.  Why?  Because it helps us to get an idea of which kids are excelling, which kids are struggling, and helps us to both improve our teaching and to give us an idea where we are failing so that we can dig deeper and figure out why that may be.  The current emphasis on standardized testing is lunatic.  Should school funding be based on standardized testing?  No — at least, only in the sense that those with many students excelling ought to be studied so that we can understand why that is (good teachers?  better socioeconomic status of the students?) — and, it is quite likely that a school where many kids are not doing well on standardized testing is  a school that needs more help.  Once again, it may just be that the kids come from families with low socioeconomic status, and that they are some very stressed out kids.  The best teacher/school in the world cannot completely compensate for stress in the home.  

Whether or not universities should allow in anyone or be selective — I don’t think it is properly an “all or nothing” question.  Some universities are large, and receive a lot of public funding.  It is appropriate that anyone who wants a university education should be able to pursue such an education.  Not every university is large; not every university receives (significant) public funding.  (Through the Pell Grant/student loans it could be said that all higher education in this country receives public funding.)  It is appropriate that universities have specialties — the smaller the college, the more likely that it has specialties, and the more likely that it has more stringent entrance requirements.  This is practical — one “popular” university may not have the facilities to accommodate every student that wants to attend.  This is reality.  When this is the case we need a rationing system.  Capitalisms suggests that we simply raise the price, and price lower income people out.  Quotas suggest that we have a balance of different races or other discriminators.  We can use the “first come/first serve” system.  We can use a meritocracy system.  Each system has its advantages and drawbacks. 

And, let’s face it: the Ivy League schools are a racket.  The wealthy are the only ones who can afford to pay the tuition fees of these schools.  If the children of the wealthy have the correct credentials on paper, they can get into Ivy League schools and pay for them.  The wealthy whose children cannot or have not achieved the adequate credentials still get into Ivy League schools through donation and systems of nepotism.  The children of the poor can *only* go to Ivy League schools if despite their poor circumstances they rise above them and have high academic achievement and are subsequently endowed with scholarships, Pell Grants, student loans, etc.  Essentially, the way it happens right now, it is a “token” meritocratic system — a nod to meritocracy — icing on the cake of nepotism.

Meritocracy can accomplish amazing things.  I have a client who is gifted.  He came from a poor farm family, his father sometimes owned a gas station and auto repair garage and his mother was the town librarian.  Because of merit, he attended MIT and obtained a degree in engineering.  Because of that degree, his own ingenuity, and the connections that he made he started several companies and aided friends with their business start-ups.  It was a business start-up that he helped with that resulted in him becoming a multi-millionaire.  He spent most of the rest of his days volunteering.  One or two of his kids were also identified as gifted.  Ted became involved in gifted education, and was on the committee that helped draft the IDEA act.  One of his wife’s daughter’s was also identified as gifted.  His wife was a champion of gifted education, and was the person who began the gifted programs that my daughter participated in over the years.  Neither of this couple came from wealthy families.  When they ended up very wealthy they didn’t sell their home and buy a fancy one in a fancy neighborhood.  They stayed put.  They donated their time and money to the local community, to various charities, local politicians, and financed the college education of over a dozen kids. This can often happen when people with middle class values become wealthy — they don’t act like the super-rich, don’t act like those who were born to wealth.  They often appreciate it and use it to better the lives of those around them.  

We need meritocracy in education — because without meritocracy in education we are consigning many of our intellectually gifted kids to boredom and underdevelopment of their innate abilities.  Meritocracy in education goes hand in hand with “special education” as a means to provide each child with an education that is individually appropriate.

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