Ideological opportunists often attempt to expand their power during moments of crisis. The ongoing challenge of schooling during the coronavirus pandemic is no exception. This time, the opportunists have as their goal the elimination of competition and merit.
For example, the San Diego Unified School District recently announced plans to change its grading system: Students “will no longer be graded based on a yearly average, or on how late they turn in assignments.” Why not? Board members told reporters that the changes were an effort to fight racism. “This is part of our honest reckoning as a school district,” district official Richard Barrera told reporters. “If we’re actually going to be an anti-racist school district, we have to confront practices like this that have gone on for years and years.”
In fact, what’s been going on is that minority students receive more failing grades than non-minority students. But rather than study why this could be the case, the school board chose to call grading racist and be done with it. The same news reports noted that “the board will also review potential student disparities stemming from its zero-tolerance disciplinary policy on cheating in the coming weeks.”
Meanwhile, in school districts that rely on the results of standardized tests to determine students’ eligibility for acceptance into elite public high schools, the pandemic has generated opportunities to try to eliminate testing altogether—something progressive activists have long desired.
At the Lowell School in San Francisco, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that the school board unanimously approved a plan to “admit students using a random lottery for next year’s freshman class” at the “academically selective Lowell High School” after a “divisive” community meeting.
They should have called it the formerly selective Lowell High School. By eliminating test requirements, the board has struck a near-death blow to the idea of merit.
It’s notable that the school board frequently cited the existence of “systemic racism” (as well as the logistics of testing during a pandemic) to justify its actions, but did not delve into details about the racial makeup of the school. Fifty-four percent of the students at Lowell are Asian-American, which is a racial minority in the U.S. How does their evident success comport with the board’s claim of racism? It doesn’t.
Concerned students and parents at Lowell launched a petition urging the board to reconsider the decision, noting their surprise that the board would “do away with a merit-based admission process altogether” as a response to the pandemic. They are right to be concerned. The changes to Lowell’s admissions process will supposedly be the policy only for next year’s entering class of freshmen, but news reports note that “there is some interest among school board members in making the change permanent.” “There seems to be a hunger by most of the board to deal with Lowell long-term,” Board President Mark Sanchez told the Examiner.
Is opposition to the elimination of merit and competition racist? Board member Alison Collins thinks so; she was caught on an open mic during the meeting complaining, “I’m listening to a bunch of racists” and insisted that the school’s “toxic culture” should be discussed. Just before the meeting, she expressed her opinions on merit on social media, stating: “Please be mindful that ‘merit’ is an inherently racist construct designed and centered on white supremacist framing that justifies who IS and ISN’T worthy of education, safety, justice, empathy… basically humanity.” Speaking of the parents and students who opposed the changes, another board member, Rachel Norton, told the Chronicle, “What I’ve heard tonight from people who claim to support our system and claim to support our students is disgusting. I’m really overcome by the ugliness.”
These views on merit are worth examining in full, for they are representative of the antiracists’ misguided claims about competition and excellence are merely a cover for white supremacy: “When we say some cultures value education, we are saying some don’t. These are what folks who are experts in critical race theory call binary thinking. Black vs. White, good vs. bad . . . These are all ways we racially code our world based on implied beliefs that privilege whiteness.”
Similar efforts are underway in many cities in the U.S. In Boston, led by antiracism advocate Ibram X. Kendi, activists are trying to eliminate admissions tests for the city’s three selective high schools. He likened the fact that some white and Asian parents (who are in fact not all wealthy) devote money and time to helping their kids prepare for admissions tests as “legalized cheating.” He then garnished this indictment with a reference to “eugenicists who created and popularized these tests,” seemingly unaware that they, like him, were the progressive avant-garde of their time.
Kendi’s effort to recast the elimination of scholastic competition as the creation of “opportunity schools” should fool no one. Antiracists will only be satisfied when outcomes are equalized; they care little about the means to that end—or about the harm caused to students whose parents cannot afford (as Kendi can) to send their children to private school when competitive public schools have been gutted in the name of “equity.”
A similar effort to end race-blind, merit-based admissions is also afoot at one of the nation’s top selective public high schools, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, in Fairfax County, Virginia. There, too, the pandemic is the pretense.
“I had the option to make these changes as bold or as [adherent to the] status quo as I wanted them to be. But I have to speak from the heart,” Fairfax County superintendent Scott Brabrand told reporters. “The events of this country in the last few months have changed my heart. And I’ve checked my own conscience as an educator. It is time to do something other than the status quo.”
Leona Smith-Vance, the school system’s Director of Equity and Family Services, also talked about her heart and soul (rather than merit) when parents at the school raised questions about the changes: “I believed in my own heart and soul that it was time to bring forward a change to the status quo . . . When we have a process that shows us patterns of inequities, we have a moral responsibility to check that process. I’m proud of our efforts. We’re lowering barriers, not expectations.” As one black TJ student, Dinan Elsyad, told the Washington Post, “Do you really need me to sit here and prove to you that . . . students who look like me will not dumb down TJ?”
In fact, Elsyad’s presence shows that students who look like her are perfectly capable of thriving in TJ’s competitive environment. But like the ideologues attacking merit at the Lowell School, the end game of these admissions policy changes isn’t success for students, but race quotas that satisfy the school boards.
This isn’t thoughtful, rational scrutiny of merit-based schooling; nor is it an attempt to correct for any errors such merit-based systems might contain. It’s an antiracism power grab that rejects the needs of students in favor of a popular ideological construct whose only proven success is enriching its proponents.
As a junior at the Lowell School told the school’s newspaper, eliminating merit might prove a pyrrhic victory for the students themselves. “Not everyone is capable of handling the stress [of Lowell], which is why there’s a testing or grading system to see which students are suitable for the standards and environment of Lowell,” the student said. “Lowell isn’t going to adapt to you. You adapt to Lowell, and if you can’t handle it, that’s on you.”
What recent events suggest, unfortunately, is that an increasing number of schools will be made to adapt to the new anti-meritocratic demands of antiracism ideology.