Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Losing Faith in the Meritocracy

Americans like to pretend we live in a meritocracy, even when the Black Lives Matter movement smacks us in the face with evidence that we don't. The education system is similar. We pretend that if you apply yourself and work hard, you will succeed in school and life. In reality, it's hard to deny that what school you attended mattered as much as how hard you worked.

The STAAR was a reaction to that. STAAR, for those who might not know, is the school system's standardized test used by the State of Texas. It claimed to identify failing schools, which could then be targeted to change the educational outcomes for many students. George W Bush ran for and won the Presidency in part on his championing education reform that led to STAAR. The result was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. Remember that? It was broadly popular once. Now? Not so much. What changed?

Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times, is a smart conservative. I often disagree with him, but he's worth reading. He had a recent column, "The Real White Fragility", which offered a theory that set me thinking. Or was it a conspiracy theory? Is Ross Douthat going to lure me into believing his conspiracy theory? Who knows?

Here's the broad outline of the theory. It starts with an "overproduction of elites". That is, the nation is producing more and more smart young Americans. Population growth, racial integration, women's rights all contribute to the increasing competition faced by white males. There's more talent than slots in our elite colleges and elite businesses. And the competition for slots is getting fiercer each decade.

Here's where the theory gets interesting. If a pure meritocratic system of standards-based curricula (Common Core, TEKS) and standardized testing (STAAR, SAT) is getting too crowded for the privileged class to always come out on top, the privileged might have an incentive to chip away at such a system.

One way to chip away at the meritocratic tools of the education system is for Whites themselves to argue they are racist. Standardized testing has a long history of discriminating against poor people, people of color, immigrants. So do away with it. Discover that encouraging poor Black children to "work hard, be nice" is a way of conditioning them not to resist systemic racism. So do away with that, too. And so on.

Douthat goes on:
Once you dismiss the SAT as just a tool of white supremacy, then it gets easier for elite schools to justify excluding the Asian-American students whose standardized-test scores keep climbing while white scores stay relatively flat. Or again: If you induce inner-city charter schools to disavow their previous stress on hard work and discipline and meritocratic ambition, because those are racist, too — well, then their minority graduates might become less competitive with your own kids in the college-admissions race as well.

Not that anyone is consciously thinking like this. What I’m describing is a subtle and subconscious current, deep down in the progressive stream.
Source: Ross Douthat.
Note that Douthat says, "Not that anyone is consciously thinking like this." Are these the subconscious thoughts of Whites who are arguing against standardized testing? I admit Douthat makes some good points. Is my own thinking being affected by this self interest? Douthat suggests that such changing attitudes by Whites who have always benefited from the so-called meritocracy "just coincidentally, make [their] own family's position a little bit more secure." The human mind is capable of amazing feats of logical reasoning to draw conclusions that are in one's own self interest. I don't really know if that's what's happening here, but Ross Douthat has planted the seeds of doubt in my mind.


Bill Sproull said...

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 3, which undid the strong school accountability movement that Governor Bush and others created. HB 3 eliminated the old 4x4 high school graduation plan (4 years each of math, science, English and social studies) and replaced it with 5 "endorsement tracks" that were in all cases less rigorous. HB 3 also reduced the number of end or course exams a student would have to pass to graduate from 15 (which admittedly was too many) to only 5, and even then, "graduation committees" could waive the passing requirements for students. This was when attacks on standardized testing really took hold in Texas, and the STARR exam was in the bulls-eye. I remember when my Chamber and tech organization lobbied against HB 3, my strongest allies were the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza. I don't know if Douthat's hypothesis of unconscious bias is correct, but the results of losing faith in meritocracy are the same to communities of color and all our children.

Mark Steger said...

Thanks, Bill Sproull, for filling in the history. As you say, today's dislike of standardized testing was preceded by a dislike of standardized end-of-course exams. I'm not sure where the current trajectory is taking us, but I feel confident in predicting that the elites will fair well in whatever future system we end up with.