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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E13: What Does Education Have to Do with Meritocracy?

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In this episode, Diane details the discussion of the history, pluses, and minuses with meritocracy through the prism of three recent books on the topic. Michael and Diane then discuss how this intersects with our K-12 education system — and set up two episodes to come about exam schools and selective college admissions.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey, Diane.

Tavenner: Michael, it’s exactly two years from when the pandemic began, for me at least. I took my last trip to our Washington schools and had my last in-person meeting and then we locked down. And I find myself in a pretty deep state of reflection on the past two years, as I try to kind of reset my mindset to what it looks like to emerge into the world of, I guess, living with COVID “post pandemic” whatever that might be, that we’re moving into.

Horn: I hear you, Diane. And how we mark this anniversary of our starts, if you will, to the pandemic, at least to me feels in many ways, trickier and more complicated than it did last year. There’s optimism out there, once again, in a sense that perhaps we may be entering the endemic phase. And yet at the same time, there are cautions, there’s murmurs of worries about a new variant of Omicron, for example, as we’re recording this. And of course, there are questions if our schools and institutions have learned the right lessons from what we’ve been through. And I guess I’d say two years and three seasons of this podcast later, it’s interesting for us to reflect on why we began in the first place. Which was because it admits the fear, the unknown, the trauma. We saw the potential for opportunity and we thought something as life changing as the pandemic might create the space for needed innovations in our K-12 school system.

Tavenner: Yes, Michael. And if we’re being honest, our hope on that front has ebbed and flowed during the past two years. But we seem to keep coming back to a resilient sense of hope and optimism for what’s possible.

Horn: So society really does seem to be moving toward at least a policy based on a post-pandemic state. We’re getting to the moment of truth. Will we see change as a result of the pandemic? And if so, what form will it take? We’re starting to hear a bunch of perspectives from folks about the changes for which they’re advocating. And we keep saying, we need to talk about them because at least you and I, Diane, aren’t really satisfied with the nuance of the discussions on things like exam schools and various gifted and talented and magnet programs. And various things that have flared up over the last couple years. But I’ll also say until now, those have felt a little bit like luxury topics given all everyone has been and continues to go through.

Tavenner: Michael, it turns out that the list of what we call our hot topics, we’ve been building, connects directly to a bunch of reading I’ve been doing lately. That, as you know, I’m dying to talk about because I keep pestering you about it. I mentioned it last episode, and keeping in mind with the heart of this podcast, you got really curious and pushed me to bring it on, if you will. So here we are, Michael, I really want to talk about meritocracy.

Horn: Well, Diane, I kind of guess that might be the direction you were going, given some of the titles you’ve been reading. But I also must admit that your slight hesitation has made me wonder. Because at face value of all the things that we talk about in the show, the idea of meritocracy might be one of the most universally popular. At least historically speaking, it’s an ideology that is as close to universal and equally touted on the left and the right. Obviously there’s been some chips, I would say, in the meritocracy armor as of late. But I would just love to pick your brain on what you’ve been learning. And in particular, how can be a framework for us to maybe work our way into some needed nuances on these truly controversial K-12 discussions that are going on around SATs, IQ testing, grading policies, and more.

Tavenner: Amazing. I’m super grateful, as always. Well, let’s get started with a quick inventory of a trio of books, AKA my reading list. That all seek to sort of define the problem of meritocracy, but they all take really different approaches. And then, each of them offer what they see as potential solutions, more on that in a moment.

Horn: So I’m excited to get to the, more on that in the moment. Because I will confess that I have not read the books, I’ve read a lot of the reviews. But I’ve been excited to rely on conversation with you to learn more. And look, there’s certainly more than these three that have come out, but the ones that are driving the conversation over the past two years were first, The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits, which was released in 2019. And then Michael Sandel piled on with The Tyranny of Merit in 2020. And then just recently, Adrian Woodridge accounted in 2021, if you will, with The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.

And right off the bat, we’ll note that all three of these authors are actually self-proclaimed elites who have personally benefited from meritocracy. Markovits is a law school professor at Yale. Sandel, of course, is a famous philosophy professor at Harvard and Woodridge is a journalist at The Economist. And I’m sure they would say, whom better to critique than those on the inside? And as someone, I have to call myself out as well, who has degrees from the universities I just mentioned. I’ll just say that it’s worth noting and we can perhaps return to that if it’s relevant later. But Diane, you’ve been reading these books and you keep saying that you continue to think about them long after you finish. So what is it about these ideas that has you curious and questioning?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, as you noted, I keep thinking about them. And so after a lot of thought and some incredible conversations with folks who’ve been reading them, as well, I think I can distill it down to three key things that really have me absorbed. And the first is that these are three very different approaches to talking about meritocracy. Woodridge takes this historical approach, where he sort of lays out the history of it. And then Sandel takes a philosophical approach to it and he makes this really sort of the evolution history of thought around meritocracy. And then the third is a social critique, really.

And yet, what’s interesting to me is they all end up with a fairly consistent definition, if you will, of the current problem sort of with and in America’s meritocracy. And I personally find their problem definition to resonate with my experience, especially my 25 years of experience in education. And so that sort of commonality there, I found really interesting.

Second, across the board, I was deeply disappointed with their proposed solutions. They each wrote a book that is meticulously researched and argued, where they’re building a really compelling case. Even in the places where I wasn’t always nodding along or agreeing. And then I would get to the end and the solutions they propose are like completely dissatisfying, is the nicest word I have for it. And there might be a few notations in the margins where I’m not super happy about them. I think I’ve come to believe that none of them are really like qualified or experts at coming up with solutions. Rather they’re expertise sort of ends in the identification of the problem, if you will. And so I just think there’s a lot of white space for good ideas there.

And then finally, at the heart of the three books and essentially meritocracy is education. So what you and I care most about literally sets at the center of the belief system that sort of drives everything in our country. And so that is really gripping for me.

Horn: Wow. So there’s a lot there. But I guess nothing you’re saying is surprising. But I will say isn’t also the first thing I was necessarily thinking about when I’ve been hearing about this big philosophical debate over meritocracy. And you’re making me think that we should perhaps back up a bit here and just take a few minutes to talk about meritocracy itself. What’s the quick take on the definition? Specifically though, defined from what you’ve been reading.

Tavenner: That’s good. Let’s step back. There’s three interesting points here that fall into our “What?” “When?” and “How?” question categories. So keeping with that tradition of the season, sort of, “What is it?” Well, the basic idea is that people hold power, wealth and/or status based on their ability. And this is really easier to understand when you contrast it to getting those things through nepotism, patronage, bribery, corruption. Which is actually the way that happened for the majority of history and the majority of places on the planet. And so, that’s just the basic idea. My ability actually is what gets rewarded, if you will.

And interestingly, like I just said, this is a new idea and new for the world. So much so, I was really surprised to learn that the word “meritocracy” literally was used for the first time in 1958 by a British sociologist, Michael Young. And so, the world is not used to earning your wealth and your power. Rather historically, it’s been inherited or bribed or stolen, in a lot of cases. And so, that’s kind of this new phenomenon.

And then how it actually happens, there’s really four parts to a meritocracy in a society. And I think the first part is, that the society sort of has pride in the extent to which people can get ahead in life, on the basis of their natural talents. And there’s whole stories and mythology around this and like identity around it. And then meritocracies try to ensure a quality of opportunity by providing education for all. So again, that’s our key piece, where we really come in at the heart of it. The third part is meritocracies should and designed to forbid discrimination on the basis of race and sex and other irrelevant characteristics. And then finally, it awards jobs through open competition versus patriotism, patronage, or nepotism, like I’ve just been saying.

Horn: So Diane, that seems to boil a terrifically set of complicated concepts down really neatly. So first, well done. But that definition checks out from my perspective. And I think it’s important to put what we’ve developed against the backdrop of the systems that sort of preceded our desire to focus on meritocracy, to make sure we’re not comparing it to some mythical utopia. What I mean by that is when you say the alternative is patronage and inheritance or bribery and things like that, that’s not something that I would want to return to. So I think it’s important always to see this against what we’ve had before.

And that said, now, I’ll also note that there’s a lot of here that feels a little slippery in the definition. First in the sense of like, what’s the definition of “ability”? How do we measure it? Is there just one kind of ability that matters? And who is to say? College admissions officers, do they get to say? And I’ll just quickly add because I am a believer in capitalism. I’m not sure that the “market decides” as an adequate answer in this particular case. Given that the education system that makes many of these sorting decisions is in so many ways, pretty divorced from equipping students with the habit, skills and knowledge that they need to succeed in today’s society.

Second — and I think this is where that last part of that point is going. It’s pretty clear, Diane, that our education system has historically discriminated in all sorts of ways on the basis of the “irrelevant characteristics” that are supposed to be separate from mobility. And whether that’s the famous soft bigotry of low expectations or historical tracking based on race. Or frankly, just the system’s failings for so many students, given their vast potential in terms of preparing them for the modern world. We’re just not giving the vast majority of people, I would argue, a fair shot at developing their natural talents or abilities to use the word “du jour.”

Tavenner: Yeah. And Michael, you are putting your finger on where these books go. They really lay out the case for the problems with meritocracy, which you started to name and which feel really familiar to so many of us. What is interesting is that they definitely don’t agree on why these problems exist. And so, as much as they’re all identifying a problem, the why is very different. And some of them think it’s an implementing without fidelity issue, like we should go harder and better on meritocracy. And others think the design is just totally flawed from the bottom up. Which makes places where they are aligned, even more interesting.

So let’s take a minute to identify a few of those places of alignment that, in particular, relate to education. And so the first one is in… I don’t think we can emphasize this enough. Like this idea of meritocracy is super popular across the political spectrum. And that was one most shocking things for me, because try to think of one thing that the whole political spectrum really agrees on. It’s really hard.

Horn: It’s really hard.

Tavenner: This is one of them.

Horn: Yeah.

Tavenner: For the most part, lots of people agree on this. The second thing is education systems are now stacked in favor of elites. And so this was universal across the books. This springs all sorts of issues, it dramatically reduces mobility and solidifies basically a new aristocracy, if you will, that isn’t based on raw talent and hard work. But rather on parents conferring sort of their status onto their children. It’s perhaps the biggest issue here, this idea that parents are doing this and it’s so natural. That’s what parents do, it’s the human thing to try to give what’s best to your children. And so that’s a really interesting piece of all of these arguments.

The other place where there’s agreement is, what ends up happening or is happening is that disadvantage is framed in terms of individual defects of skill or effort. And so basically non-elites believe their position is their own fault. And elites believe that their position is totally earned. And so you have these two perspectives of like, “Well, I’m getting what I deserve and you’re getting what you deserve. Everyone’s getting what they deserve.” Which really ignores all these other factors happening.

And then the final thing is what I would call the sort of loss of the dignity of work. And that is that anything that isn’t sort of the ultra-high pain with high value attached to it, or requiring really elite credentials isn’t valued. And so then most of the work that happens, doesn’t have dignity to it anymore. Which you and I have talked about a ton, like having purposeful, meaningful work is one of the factors of a fulfilled life.

Horn: Yeah, yeah. And I personally have found the sense of superiority and privilege to be one of the more interesting and important critiques of meritocracy to come from the way that the books. Just sort of that arrogance that has piled up, if you will, among people who’ve played the game and done well at it, in a sense that they’re somehow superior.

And it’s another recognition though, in my mind, that our education system and our society more broadly, isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. Which is to help people understand that all individuals have intrinsic value and worth. And something meaningful to contribute from which we can and should learn. And I don’t want to lay that failure all at the feet of the education system, but I will hearken back to something we’ve talked a lot about in this podcast. Which is that education is, as Michael Sandel notes, obsessed with a credentialing function at the expense of the education function. And because of that, it reinforces this notion that education is something to be won. The zero sum game concept.

Which then very naturally tells someone like me, who “might win at it” and gain selective seats that they’re entitled to feel special. It’s a very natural emotion and feeling. And given that dynamic, I guess where my head goes is that, given the popularity of meritocracy and given the really bad alternatives, it brings to mind the [Winston] Churchill quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. It seems like the path forward is to try to figure out how to make it better in education, which is likely where our hot topics lists intersect with these ideas. But I’m curious, how you’re thinking about it.

Tavenner: Well, I do agree with you that it feels impossible and unwise to abandon meritocracy, given the other possibilities. I have to confess that I have engaged with several people lately who do not agree and it’s worth just a moment on this, Michael, before we sort of speed ahead. Specifically, there are educators who I think would consider themselves egalitarians in that they don’t believe everyone should be the same. But they do believe that nobody is worth more than anyone else. And so what this means is, they don’t support the “equal opportunity with variable outcomes or to win” idea. Which, as you’re pointing to, is problematic. So there’s good reason for this thinking.

They really don’t like that life is competitive. And so for example, they are interested in policies where every educator in the system, from teachers to principal to superintendent earned the same pay. Or pay is not at all tied to performance, but rather longevity or some other measure like that. And I have to raise these points because these are real conversations happening in real time with real educators. I will note very anecdotally that my own reaction to these ideas, which honestly when confronted with them, I’m a little bit confused. And have a little bit of disbelief with the sort of policy suggestions. Maybe not with the initial part, but then when they get to the solution part.

And so, what it makes me realize is that while I struggle with a lot of the impacts of our meritocracy, especially in education. I, like many others, have deeply internalized the basic idea that your hard work and skill should be rewarded. And that systems that don’t incentivize quality work and hard work end up being pretty demoralizing and defeating. I mean, I don’t know how to say it better, but these are the systems that I don’t … in the other countries where I don’t want to live sort of thing. And so, I’m really just sitting with my very visceral reactions. And also noticing that all of the folks that I’ve had these conversations with, for what it’s worth, are a lot younger than me. And so I’m pushing myself to really try to stay curious and open and at the same time, finding that to be a little bit hard.

Horn: It’s really interesting. And when you started out just now, I was really excited at what I was hearing, that we ought to value each individual for their differences and believe in their worth. And then you went down that line of, well, it means to pay everyone equally and such. And I had a very different reaction, very similar, I suspect to yours. And I guess that suggests to me that I’m quite comfortable with the economy paying more for scarce talent that provides something that is valued by people in society. That supply and demand, I believe helps us allocate scarce resources and provide what people need to make progress in their lives.

But I don’t always equate value or the notion of self worth with what someone is then able to earn, perhaps. Like those are decoupled in my mind. And it’s something I’m going to have to think about more, frankly, I don’t have an answer out of this. In some ways, it’s making me realize, Diane, we’re both being vulnerable here about what we’re wrestling with in these concepts almost in real time. But it’s something I want to wrestle with a little bit more.

Tavenner: And that is how this topic sucks you in, Michael, and keeps you thinking about it. TikTok’s got nothing on meritocracy. All kidding aside, I do like the idea of looking at this hot topic list, if you will, through the lens of what is challenging with meritocracy. And how we might be able to improve it with a third way, redesign. Versus just a sort of one side wins and the other side loses.

But most importantly, just like, add the nuance to these conversations and the transparency about the roots of some of this stuff to them. And so like one example that pops in my mind, rather than being binary, if we think about the exam schools that are all in the news right now. In New York and San Francisco and all over, and really what the conversation boils down to, are they bad or good? Do they either stay selective on test scores or are they open to all? What are we actually trying to achieve here? What good are they doing? And what potential harm are they doing? And is there a way to improve upon our implementation of meritocracy with a redesign of the policies and systems around these schools? I just want a much more nuanced conversation that actually honors and recognizes some of these ideas we’re talking about.

Horn: Diane, that might be the perfect way to tease our audience and ourselves and end today and set up our next conversation. Because I’ve been dying to talk about what’s happening with Lowell in San Francisco, Stuyvesant in New York City, [Thomas Jefferson] in Virginia, and so many others like them. But I think it’s a perfect setup for our next episode.

And I’m going to say — we haven’t talked about this — but I’m going to say, I also want to do one on the college admission selectivity process out of this, as well, because it feels like those are two distinct gates that are having similar, but different sort of mechanics. Of how you sort students in this elusive concept of meritocracy. And I love to dig into both sequentially perhaps. And for us to stay curious over the next few weeks as we do so, through the frame that you’ve introduced here. So before we get ahead of ourselves, because I think we could just go down the rabbit hole and start talking about both of these. I’m going to back up and just ask, what have you made time to read, listen or watch? Anything else besides reading about meritocracy?

Tavenner: Well, Michael, we lived in L.A. for 10 years and so it’s still in me this time of year, there’s always a bit of a flurry in our house as we try to watch as many Oscar nominated films as possible. We can’t help it, it’s like ingrained. And so we’re really, really far behind. But we did manage to catch the best picture nominee, Don’t Look Up on Netflix, which was honestly deliciously funny, brilliantly written and provoked a lot of reflection. And also Spencer, which produced a best leading actress nomination for Kristin Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana, who was such a big part of my like cultural youth. And so this look at her from what I would say is a very different lens than I’d ever experienced. With real attention to the issues of mental health, as well as, don’t kill me, meritocracy and aristocracy. It was so in there and so it was super thought provoking. How about you, Michael?

Horn: You’re going to a place of pop culture that you know I cannot match, Diane. But I love seeing the Los Angeles in your blood come through, I’ll say that. I’m going to go a totally different direction today. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about the podcasts that my kids listen to and how amazing many of them are. They got to do a Zoom meetup over the weekend with the actors of one of their favorite podcasts called the “Adventures of Red Knight.” And I was just so taken because it’s a family of four — boy, girl, mom, dad — who create this really compelling story line and they act in it. They’ve had over a million downloads and it was just cool for them to hang out over Zoom for two hours with these folks.

And then in the next breath, we were geeking out on what the kids’ favorite podcast azure is, which is called “Greeking Out.” Which is put on by National Geographic Kids. And I just marvel at how during drives in the car or meals or when they’re vegging out when they get back from school. The kids are just building a fantastic base of knowledge about Greek myths, but also those like north Samaritans and more. That plus being back in the town library with my kids for the first time this weekend in two years. First time that all of us have been in there together, despite the challenges, it felt like, gee, we’re lifting up and we do continue to live at a very cool time in history. Where knowledge is at our fingertips and you can do some really neat things with that.

So I guess that’s where I’ll end this podcast, with some optimism and hope that we like to bring. And I’ll just thank everyone for listening to us and joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.

Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life. 

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