Given that bipartisan agreement went extinct sometime in the previous decade, the fact that conservatives and liberals have both concluded that our country suffers from a troubling lack of social mobility might be reason enough to celebrate. The problem, as I wrote yesterday, is that few commentators on either side of the political spectrum have recognized the obvious: This problem begins with our schools. And it could potentially end there, as well. In my experience with public schools and the culture that surrounds them, we won’t close the social mobility gap unless we recognize three facts:
1. Our schools don’t value merit
The idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners.
As we know, the idea of merit implies the idea of non-merit; we can’t all be winners. Yet, that is exactly the kind of talk I hear in schools all the time: We are all winners. As Thomas Edsall wrote in his Times essay, “In the business sector, particularly, other less benign qualities emerge as essential to meritocratic success: aggressiveness, ruthlessness, dominance-seeking, victimizing behavior, acquisitiveness and the disciplined pursuit of self-interest.” How do we possibly reconile the hard-edged reality of merit in the real world with the "all winners" ethos of our public schools? We don't. We have to get real at school and start rewarding merit there. It need not be cut-throat, but it needs to be something better than giving everyone a blue ribbon.
Mike seems to have touched off a flurry of discussion (or at least landed in the middle of it) about meritocracy with his “Can schools spur social mobility?” essay from last week, which was prompted by a recent appearance at Fordham by Charles Murray, to talk about his new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Simultaneously, Chris Hayes was getting attention for his new book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. There followed two pieces by David Brooks (“Why Our Elites Stink” and “The Opportunity Gap”), a report from the Pew Foundation (“American Dream”), Jason DeParle’s page-one story in last Sunday’s Times (“Two Classes, Divided by `I Do’”), followed by some good piling on by journalism professor Thomas Edsall, also in the Times, who takes out after Mitt Romney for suggesting we have a “merit-based society.”
I’m sure there was more, but the gist of the current hand-wringing is the news that the nation is no longer the equal opportunity society it once was. The social mobility gap is growing while our faith in boot-strap capitalism, where hard work (i.e., merit) can get you a spot at the table of the
Catching up on some reading, I discovered some stories that may be old news to some of you, but merit a second look:
Oh, the pineapple.
Photo by Richard North.
I would like to skip this one, so named for the test question used by a big testing company, Pearson, and subsequently used by a number of states, including New York, for its 8th-grade English language arts exams, that asked kids to analyze a story adapted from one written by popular children’s book author Daniel Pinkwater about a “race” between a hare and a pineapple. Leave it to the intrepid Leonie Haimson, the anti-testing and class size matters pit bull, to uncover this dastardly deed, issue a scathing condemnation that “The ONLY right answer is Pearson; for getting paid $32 million from NY State for these recycled, annoying and pointless exams,” and force the NYS education commissioner to discount the answers on the pineapple test question. The horror of it. Wrote Ms. Haimson a few weeks later, in the New York Times: “…few people who heard about a test question involving a talking pineapple could help but question the judgment of those who would include this material on a standardized test used to determine the future of children and schools.”
Passing a set of historic reform bills last week, the Louisiana legislature handed Gov. Bobby Jindal and his new education chief, John White, the keys to reform city. By a healthy majority in both houses, it passed legislation, writes Bill Barrow of the Times-Picayune, which will
The Lousiana legislature passed a set of historic reform bills last week.
Photo by Jim Bowen.
…curtail teacher tenure protection, tie instructors' compensation and superintendents' job security to student performance; shift hiring and firing power from school boards to superintendents; create new paths to open charter schools; and establish a statewide program that uses the public-school financing formula to pay private-school tuition for certain low-income students.
It was anything but a cakewalk for the Jindal reform package, as teachers descended on the Capitol to fight the bills and Democrats charged the second-term Republican governor with strong-arm tactics reminiscent of former political tough guys Huey Long and Edwin Edwards. “I make no apologies for having a sense of urgency,” said Jindal. “I was elected to help lead our state. I was not elected just to hold an office."
Even Diane Ravitch made a trip to Louisiana to cheer-lead the anti-reform troops. As she recounts on her Bridging Differences blog, headlined “Bobby Jindal v. Public Education,”
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
About the Editor
Peter Meyer is an adjunct fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Since 1991, Meyer has focused his attentions on education reform in the United States, an interest joined while writing a profile of education reformer E.D. Hirsch for Life. Meyer subsequently helped found a charter school, served on his local Board of Education (twice) and, for the last eight years, has been an editor at Education Next.
Sign Up for updates from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
- Daniel Willingham: Science and Education Blog
- National School Board Association’s School Board News Today
- National Governors Association Center for Best Practices
- Texas Association of School Boards
- New York State School Board Association
- Florida School Boards Association
- California School Boards Association
- Program on Education Policy and Governance
- The Center for Research on Education Outcomes