The War on Merit
Merit in K-12 education is under attack.
Media coverage over the last two years has focused on admission changes at highly selective high schools in an effort to quickly achieve diversity and equity. Across the country, from Boston to San Francisco to Virginia, admission for highly selective academic schools, often called “exam schools,” has moved from objective, test-based student evaluation to a more subjective process in an effort to increase diversity and equity. Some formerly selective schools have adopted what they call “holistic” admission processes.
Much has been written about Boston Latin School in Boston, Massachusetts, Stuyvesant High School in New York City, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science & Technology in Fairfax, Virginia and Lowell High School in San Francisco, California. Voters in San Francisco were so outraged by the changes to Lowell High School admission—from a merit-based process to a lottery process—that three members of the San Francisco Unified School District School Board were removed from their positions in a recall election in early 2022. According to a February 16, 2022 report in The San Francisco Standard, “The future of the elite public school was one of the most galvanizing forces among recall supporters after the Board of Education moved to change the school’s admission policy from merit-based to lottery.”
In their effort to achieve academic “equity” some support immediate changes to admission standards to encourage diversity and create a specific racial makeup of the student population. Those on the side of merit-based admission support admitting the most qualified applicants in a race-blind process and support strengthening the pipeline to these elite schools so that all students are ready to compete for admission. Public schools’ failings at the K-8 grade levels, resulting in students who are unsuccessful in the elite high school admission process, are rarely discussed or addressed by school administration or leadership.
Increasingly, the war on merit is moving beyond college and elite public high school acceptance. There has been a recent rise in the number of public school districts that are eliminating Honors courses, discontinuing Advanced Placement classes and moving toward keeping students of varying academic levels together in the same class (de-tracking) as opposed to placing students in classes based on their academic level (tracking). Many districts are looking to eliminate gifted and talented programs, some of which begin in second grade, and which allow academically advanced students to progress at a faster rate than their peers.
Parents in Barrington, Rhode Island were surprised with the recent announcement that their district was removing all Honors-level classes from English and social studies classes. The principal of Barrington High School informed parents, “English will now be offering one heterogenous course in both grades 9 and 10, with no Honors Distinction or Honors option being offered at any grade level.” After much parent outcry, they reversed their decision.
The California Department of Education is refining its proposal to end tracking of students. Tracking is placing students in a class based on their ability. De-tracking places all students in the same class, regardless of ability. The Department believes that de-tracking will help end racial inequities. Parents argue that tracking allows advanced students to progress at the appropriate pace, maximizing their exposure to new material and sustaining their interest in learning.
The Virginia Department of Education recently ended their proposed Virginia Math Pathways Initiative which would have eliminated all accelerated math courses before 11th grade. This program would have essentially eliminated tracking for more advanced math students.
Parents and educators are seeing a significant increase in the number of districts looking to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to K-12 education. Schools are primarily concerned with diversity and “equity” and that has come at the expense of academic excellence, including accelerated or gifted and talented programs and the students who need them. Department of Education officials, school board members and school district administrators — largely driven by the equity narrative—have increasingly shown themselves to be on the side of diluting advanced coursework and rigorous academics.