Somewhat Rambling Thoughts About Meritocracy and the Education System in the US

I don’t see how anyone can claim that Americans are equal when there is a clearly evidenced lack of equal opportunity. I mean, equal opportunity is one of the basic tenants upon which our society is based, but the reality is that it no longer exists.

A typical elementary school classroom. (Pic | Liz)

I ask that you please don’t misunderstand me when I write against the meritocracy. I’m not saying that anyone who has made a success of their lives has not worked very hard to get there. (I’m also not saying that everyone considered successful did.) I’m just saying that to think that because things worked out the way they did to allow you to become a success, that everyone else automatically had access to the same opportunities as you.

Whether or not you succeed in life is not so much determined by your personality as it is determined by your origins. Studies show this time and time again. You can chalk this fact up to whatever you want, bad parenting, poor schools, but whomever or whatever you try to blame, you will never be able to make a reasonable argument that it is the fault of the children themselves.

So I think we need to get out of the “I worked hard, therefore my child deserves the best” mentality. Yes, your child does deserve the best, but not because you worked hard. Your child deserves the best because every child deserves the best. Whether or not a child becomes a success in life truly should be determined by her own willpower, intelligence, and skill, not by whether or not her parents knew or had the time to read to her before she fell asleep.

And if we want to make America the land of opportunity once again, then we need to seriously invest in our education system. Poor parents we can only do so much about, but the influence of society is definitely something in our power to change.

According to PBS, school funding is mostly based off of the property taxes of the district. This means that a child’s quality of education is mostly determined by where she lives.

In the past few decades (and yes, it really has taken that long to affect any change; even in a day and age when we have access to information at our fingertips, it still takes hard work, effort, and most of all time to change society) there have been some attempts at reform. I think the most famous is the No Child Left Behind Act. Unfortunately, this act has not had its intended effect. Instead, now states tend to determine funding based on performance, with the incentive to perform better being receiving greater funding. On paper this may sound fair, but the truth is that the ones who perform the worst are often the ones that need the most help. Also, by limiting the focus to performance and funding, the issues of quality and community often get swept to the wayside.

For example, lets think about three schools who receive the same amount of additional funding in one year. School A decides to pay their teachers more, School B decides to put the money into much needed repairs, and School C decides to spend the money on extra curricular activities, including the arts, sports, and helping to pay for kids to attend competitions. Which students will most likely be better off?

A typical classroom library. (Pic | popofatticus / Rob from Cambridge, MA, USA)

Well, the problem with School A is that they aren’t using the money to attract newer, better, more qualified teachers. They’re just paying people more to do the same thing. In some ways, it is a bit of a reward for working hard the year before, a way of showing your appreciation for the extra effort and success. But let’s face two facts. First, the teacher is not the only factor determining whether or not her students will do well. Parents and even the students play a role here. Why should you make a teacher suffer when she just got unlucky with a bunch of kids who just don’t care, and she didn’t have the time to give them the special attention they needed because she had the rest of the classroom to look after.

Second, we need to think about whether or not we want teachers in our classrooms who are motivated only by money. Personally, I’d rather be taught by someone who loves what they do and is motivated by love, respect, and appreciation. Yes, teachers should be fairly compensated for their time, but I think we need to do more. As a society, on an individual level, we need to treat them with greater appreciation and respect. I mean honestly, why should teacher appreciation day occur only once a year? Good teachers usually don’t retire because they did not think they were making enough money. Either they retire because they move, because they are old, or because they just cannot stand working with parents who treat them like dirt.

Finally, when you use the money to reward the teachers, aren’t you forgetting about the majority of people in the school, the students themselves? On some levels, I’m sure they appreciate have more dedicated, intelligent teachers, but knowing they are working hard to get their teacher a bonus is not really much of a motivator.

With that food for thought, let’s take a look at School B. They decided to put their money towards repairs and construction. They fixed their roof, limiting the amount of classroom distraction due to leaks, and decided to add another wing, replacing some dilapidated trailers and increasing classroom space. They hoped to make their school more appealing in order to attract more and better students.

I think School B is starting to be on the right track. At least they are focusing on the students. It is hard to learn when the roof leaks or you are sitting in a trailer, sometimes too cold, sometimes too hot, isolated from the rest of the school. I imagine it is hard to teach under these conditions as well.

Let’s move on to School C. They spent all of their money on programs outside of the traditional classroom (math, science, history, English). At first glance, it may be hard to see how not spending money on learning can help students learn more. Linearly, it does not make much sense at all. But the idea here is not just to make students do well. It is to make students want to be students, to make them want to come to school. And if they want to be there, are happy little citizens, then they are more likely to work hard and learn more.

Ideally, a school would be able to do all three, improve teacher quality, improve the classroom, and motivate students, but funds are not unlimited. Schools have to make tough choices, and priorities are not always the same. These examples are based on my own experiences, and I admit that I am no expert. I wouldn’t mind being one, and fortunately, the great diversity of schools in America provides an excellent opportunity to study which of these factors, and others so far unnamed, actually have the greatest effect on student success.

But I think we need to stop for a moment and think about how we define and measure success. We can’t just look at the number of students who graduate. Sometimes students who drop out of high school and college become very successful. They are of course the exception, not the rule, but in some cases examining how the exception came to be can be the most revealing

How should we measure success? Income of graduates? Well that’s a bit of a skewed indicator. What if they become teachers? Then they could be considered successful without making a lot of money. Number of employed graduates? In some ways, this eliminates the skew of successful careers that do not pay well, but employment doesn’t always equate to success, especially in today’s economy when underemployment is rampant. I think it also might prove a biased measure towards women, who may choose to become mothers, a field which I think is universally acknowledged to not pay enough. This issue aside, I suppose we could look at income compared to average income in a particular field, which may indicate how well students perform in whichever field they chose.

Yet somehow, a person’s career doesn’t really seem to capture the essence of success. These days, many Americans do not define themselves by their jobs. Can we somehow measure happiness, personal satisfaction with where they are in life.? Can you measure success by how much one volunteers in ones community, or how much one gives back? Perhaps success should be measured by how much one gives to charities or non profit organizations. A successful citizen is one who gives back, and the more one gives back, the more successful she could be said to be.

Maybe a school’s overall success could be determined by how many students go into the most altruistic careers, like public service, firefighting, nursing, etc. Not a monetary success but rather success as a citizen, as a member of society, of civil society.

Really we ought to measure all of these things. Who knows what the data might show. Maybe schools that invest in their buildings produce in an unusual amount of engineers.

We would need to look at it from two angles, both from percentage of an annual budget dedicated to each area, and from the absolute amount of funding. This would show us both at what threshold the amount of money makes a difference and which area of funding determines the most successful students.

If anybody feels like funding me to get SPSS ( a well-respected statistical program in the social sciences) and a computer with a much higher processing power, just let me know and I will get right on answering all of these questions. ‘K thanks!

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