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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E14: The Benefits of Meritocracy Amid Problems with Exam Schools

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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 and Michael dive into the fierce debate around selective exam schools as a case study to not only identify the problems in implementation that meritocracy-based ideas have created, but also to suggest solutions that retain and amplify the benefits of meritocracy.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

Diane Tavenner: Hey, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hey Diane, it’s good to see you.

Tavenner: It is good to see you and Michael, it is spring. On the one hand, I can’t believe it. And on the other, it feels like we’ve lived the longest possible fall and winter I’ve ever had in education. So these sort of mixed feelings, interesting.

Horn: Totally hear you, Diane and my kids were telling me the other day that they shouldn’t go to school because they need to spend every waking minute outdoors after this cold winter we’ve had, which I confess they were hitting me in a soft spot. I was empathizing with them, Diane, but I am proud to report that they still went to school. And I told them that they ought to advocate for themselves and see if the teachers will start letting them work more outside. So I will report back next time on the results from that. But I was glad to see them smile and then head off to school.

Tavenner: I am excited to hear how that goes. I’m also really appreciating your encouragement of their self-direction and their advocacy. As we talk about often, those are critically important skills for our children and students to learn. And Michael, one of the reasons we launched this podcast was so that we could highlight the purpose and practices of schools that are truly preparing students for fulfilling lives. And those two skills are a great example of actually preparing your children for fulfilled lives. And we thought that the pandemic might offer an opportunity to redesign our schools, to meet the modern needs of our students and our communities. And Michael, here we are three seasons later, still talking and still hoping.

Horn: Still hoping indeed, but today’s topic, since our last episode, Diane, on meritocracy, I haven’t been able to stop churning on this set of questions that we brought up. And this particular episode is one I’ve been haranguing you. I think that’s the right word.

Tavenner: You have been.

Horn: To talk about for a few months now, and it’s about so-called exam schools. And so here’s a little bit of backdrop. As COVID has wreaked havoc, obviously in our nation’s schools, and more pertinent to this conversation, the nation has had a series of events, obviously, that put race onto the front page and top of mind for many. How exam schools choose their students came under fire in many communities.

Tavenner: Yeah.

Horn: And this conversation touches directly on the conversation we had last time around merit. Namely, what exactly is merit? And are we comfortable with schools selecting based on that definition of merit? So my hope for this conversation is it’ll give us a bigger window, not just into the problems that meritocracy can pose, but also by us talking through this case study of exam schools and the ones to come. We might come up with some solutions that build on the benefits that you and I discussed last week that meritocracy also brings to the table. So let’s get into the exam schools first, and then we can go there in future episodes, Diane, but this is obviously a complicated topic. And I think the brief overview, just so for folks who haven’t been following along, have the basics. Exam schools are those like Stuyvesant or Boston Latin, Bronx Science, Thomas Jefferson, or what’s often called TJ in the parlance, Lowell and Illinois Math and Science Academy. Those listening, you likely have heard of several of these schools. They’re famous, they’re selective and they’re public schools.

Tavenner: Yep.

Horn: They’ve historically had a range of purposes and ways that they’ve chosen their class, but many have noticed that the seats were disproportionately excluding Black and Hispanic students, and it should be added disproportionately including Asian American students. So at Stuyvesant, for example, three out of four students were Asian American. And they’re obviously a racial minority group in the United States. Now the [Bill] de Blasio Administration in New York City, the Fairfax County School Board that oversees TJ, the Boston school community overseeing Boston’s three exam schools. And most recently San Francisco’s School Board overseeing Lowell have all basically taken their turns at trying to create other ways for these schools to select their student bodies.

So that might be barring the use of test scores, changing the formulas, moving to lottery you name it. And the response against these efforts has been extremely strong and vociferous. Three San Francisco School Board members, this is in your backyard.

Tavenner: Yes it is.

Horn: Were just decisively recalled. And not just because of this, but this certainly didn’t help their cause.

Tavenner: Oh yeah. This played a big role actually. Yeah.

Horn: Big role. Right?

Tavenner: Yeah.

Horn: And so, look, maybe I’ll leave it there actually, Diane, because there’s continued movement in all these cases. A judge’s decision saying that what was done with TJ isn’t legal and the Lowell School saying despite the recall, its prior policy was inconsistent with California law, for example. But I think that’s enough background, hopefully, to get in the topics we want to dissect and to think our way through these two poles, if you will. On the one hand people decrying schools that select based on some sense of merit. And on the other hand, people angry when some use of merit is stripped away from these schools. And I’ll say that I think both sides legitimately feel like opportunities are being denied them because of race. And so with that as a prelude, I guess first, how did I do it in describing the dynamic, Diane? But what are your thoughts on the two poles I’ve laid out before we talk about how we might think about what progress might meaningfully look like?

Tavenner: Yeah. Excellent. I think that was a really excellent primer there, and I appreciate you laying it out and learning the parlance of TJ, which is not something that I happen to be in the know of. So let me just start with, a little sarcasm aside, I first want to tease out a few important truths in what you just said. So first Michael, you named six high schools that serve, best guess I have about maybe 18,000 students. I think that might be a little generous. Just to give people context, there are out 25,000 public high schools in America that enroll about 15 million students. So 18,000, 15 million, hold that in your mind for a moment.

I think second, each of these selective schools has historically employed a method of selecting students that they claim is based upon the students’ natural talent, if you will, if I’m using the language from the discussions on meritocracy and essentially a process to determine which students are most cognitively capable, if you will. And the theory being, I believe that these students will make the most of this sort of specialized education that these schools are providing to them.

And then the third point that you didn’t say, but the reality is that these schools essentially have a fixed number of seats. And that was implied in what you’re saying. So each year they select the same number of students magically who are deemed to have the most natural talent in their catchment area. And we should add that many states have schools like this. So again, it won’t be a large number in totality, but these aren’t the only ones that we’re dealing with in the country.

And so if we take this meritocracy lens that we started talking about last week, specifically, the historical lens on it, I think it goes something like this. For most of history, people did not have access to education because of their personal merit, if you will, or natural talent. Rather people who got educated had access to it because they were born into a family that was in the ruling class and that class educated their children. And well, working classes had to stay in their place and work. That was the way society worked. And so also within the bounds of these hierarchical societies, I think it’s important to note that A, this was a lot of the world for a lot of history, but some children were educated out of the working class because of patronage. Essentially talent could sort of be discovered, if you will, by an upper class person and someone could be plucked out for learning, but there are significant strings attached there and a lack of stability, et cetera.

And so out of this kind of world order, there grew this revolutionary idea of meritocracy. And it is born. And it essentially says that people are individuals and that raw intelligence is a defining human quality and that people should be able to rise as high as their talents and efforts take them. And this is not only good and fair for individuals, but also society at large, who benefits from the contributions of the best and the brightest, and essentially the promise that anyone can rise if they’re smart enough or work hard enough. And as I’m saying this, it’s occurring to me that I think that’s some of the narrative that you’ll hear about these schools, they love to promote the Nobel. I think some of those New York schools literally list the Nobel Prize winners that come from them and things like that. So there’s some lore there that comes out of that.

So where I’m going with this is when you have a finite number of educational slots and those two options that I just laid out for choosing who gets into them, I don’t think many people are going to argue that nepotism and patronage are better than stack ranking people on their talent and taking the top people. But the key here for me is the number of seats. And is it actually finite? Are the number of seats smaller than the pool of children who actually want to sit in them? And I wonder, I really wonder if that’s actually true in this case. So to unpack this a little, let’s start by asking what is happening in these selective schools that makes the number of seats finite? Specifically, is there something going on here that really can’t be scaled to more than 18,000 students? Are these state of the art facilities that we literally could not build more of and have a significant impact on learning? Or are the teachers in these schools completely extraordinary and there’s no way you could have more of them of this quality? Or are the materials and the supplies so expensive that we can’t make them more broadly available? Or is what has happened in the learning experience literally only valuable or useful to people who have some sort of natural talent, such that without that talent they wouldn’t benefit?

These are the questions that come up for me. And let me just pause here for a moment and say, in case you haven’t picked it up already, I am dubious that any of these schools have something truly special and exclusive going on in them. But for the sake of discussion, let’s just say that one or more of these things is true. And so essentially we have limited resources and so limited seats we can offer. Then we should probably ask these questions. What do we as a society get from a concentrated investment in a constrained number of seats and thus a small number of people benefiting? Two, what are the unintended consequences of having a constrained number of seats using “natural talent” as the criteria for selection? And I think finally, and ultimately, when we balance the two, what’s actually the best outcome there. And have we done that balancing question and act?

And so now I’m going on for a while here, so you… 

Horn: No, this is worth it.

Tavenner: You got me started. So I’m not sure that the two camps that have formed on either side of this debate are really organizing themselves in the way that I just laid out, Michael, and looking at this through these lenses and this decision in a way that is not just visceral and emotional in a lot of ways. And so rather, I think we have the two camps on the one side, just to clarify here, one that says, clearly these schools aren’t capable of identifying natural talent because the students they selected are disproportionately from one or two racial groups, and that’s super unfair and/or financial resources give people an advantage to be selected. So essentially this isn’t meritocracy because the system is corrupted by advantages created by more money, time, resources.

And then on the other side, it seems to say that the school is basically a golden ticket and you are denying me a fair chance of earning that ticket if you don’t offer a merit based selection process that essentially lets me compete to prove that my natural abilities put me at the top of everyone and in a place of deserving a spot. And so I don’t know, Michael, now back to you. What do you think? Do those camps sound about right? And what do you think of them?

Horn: So first a wow, Diane, because I think you just really connected that back really well to the broader conversation about meritocracy and its historical evolution in schools, but also nailed a few of these points that were really germane to the conversation, to make it realer, I think, and help us understand why there’s this grappling over this small number of students in this formulas and everything else. But I guess when you put it back to me, I’m dying to reframe this conversation for a lot of the reasons you just said, but because I feel conflicted about the debate as it’s been laid out presently. I don’t love either premise is what I guess I would say. And look, I won’t duck the question, but I’ll start with that as the premise. And so on the one hand, I’ll be honest. I have very limited patience for the side that wants to strip out merit completely and just go to lottery based decisions for these schools out of some belief of “fairness.” I think it’s fair to say that as a country, we under invest in students from all walks of life who are extremely bright and gifted and could simply soar. So I don’t love the idea of cutting off opportunities for individuals who would benefit from being in an academically rigorous environment with other similarly minded peers.

I also don’t think most tests these days are inherently discriminatory based on one’s race. I think in many cases, those tests reflect the failings of our traditional schools and other cultural habits. And you mentioned a few of them that do favor those who have the means or desires to invest disproportionately outside of school in their children’s studies. And on this score, I’m sympathetic to a lot of the Asian American parents who who’ve been on the front lines of these arguments, who feel these moves are discriminating actively against their children. At the same time, I think those who believe that the only way gifted children can realize their full potential is to pull them into a super selective, academically rigorous environment where excellence is really based on the inputs, who is selected, and this goes to your points and your deviousness about is something inherently so special about these schools that we cannot replicate? My bias is that the answer is no, that really the excellence of these schools is based on who they’re selecting for on the front end, not some magical process of what then occurs. And I guess I’m super skeptical of this in a world in which we can personalize learning for each student’s particular needs and passions, no matter where they are.

And sort of the opposite view is a very archaic view of the world hat look, I wasn’t around 120 years ago, but maybe it made sense, right? But I think where we’re stuck is very zero sum thinking, which is causing all these fights, as opposed to the positive sum world that we’ve portrayed throughout this podcast. And part of that zero sum thinking, most of it, frankly, stems from the fact of scarcity that you highlighted, and that we’ve allowed there to be a limited number of seats in these types of programs, which just heightens the tensions around this because people want to hold on to scarce opportunities and not be excluded. And that system in turn has disproportionate impact on the rest of the school system. To your point about how small we’re talking, because it’s really seen as a club that you want to get access to in fact.

And that suggests I think a somewhat simplistic or simple fix of expanding supply, but I guess more broadly, there are also now ways to allow students to fulfill their potential while learning alongside their peers. And so look, I’ll preempt myself and say that I get, there can be advantages from a social perspective to being in a group of peers that push you and drive you to Excel.

 But I think there are two answers to that first. And look, you do this at Summit, so you can create community through technology, through other means to allow students, regardless of geography, to have a group from whom they learn and that pushes them. And there are also huge benefits to being able to teach and work with other students as well alongside you, regardless of where they are in their learning, who have very different talents for you.

Second, the timing effect is also well known in education. We haven’t talked about this, but it’s effectively the notion that being born at a certain time of the year, which makes you quote, old for your grade, when tests are given to determine who is gifted and talented for programs when kids are much younger, it confers an advantage. So me being a fall birthday, perhaps and old for my grade, if I sat for one of those tests, would give a significant advantage over someone that was just a couple months in the calendar before, but almost a year younger when they sit in the same test. And we know that this timing factor persists to some degree into high school and that people develop in jagged ways and at jagged rates. And so I’m very uncomfortable, Diane, with the notion that exam schools might sort people in a very narrow set of metrics and exclude lots of other important talent. When I see this other solution around personalizing in every school that perhaps doesn’t require us to make those very final judgements and sorting calls that will have ramifications for the options available down the line for individuals.

And frankly, even for those who “win” and get in, I kind of wish high school were really a time to explore who you are as a human being and build your sense of purpose. And I worry that these exam schools crowd out the room to do that because they’re so overly focused on a narrow set of things. And look, granted if we didn’t have the ability to personalize learning the way we do in any school, I think I’d opt for the exam school system. But the reality is we’re just not living in that same world in which these schools were created originally. So I guess I just reframed it in the second half there. I didn’t mean to Diane, but I couldn’t help it. And started suggesting some of what I would rather see, but I’m curious your take.

Tavenner: Well, Michael, it won’t surprise you to know that I really like where you’re going with several of those threads and I’m very happy for a reframing on this one. So let me see if I can bring them together and add a bit more color to this productive path you’re putting us on and starting to introduce. So first thing, as a society, I don’t think we can afford to under develop any of our 15 million high school students.

Horn: Amen.

Tavenner: Let alone 14 million and change of them. And so in my mind, if 18,000 kids are in schools where their passions are lit and they are curious, learning, growing, and on their way to fulfilling lives and purposeful work, then awesome, great. And at the same time, that needs to be true for the other 14 million plus as well. And of course, I believe that one size does not fit all. And so I am not saying replicate those schools for everyone. What I am saying is that the more we are able to get really clear about specifically what a learning experience offers and does and how that is a good fit for the different goals and values and who a student is to your point on developing identity, then everyone wins. We do not have, and you’re going down this path with personalization obviously, that’s the key here.

Also I think that the intellectually honest thing to do is to answer those questions I posed about these schools at the top. What are really offering that is constrained and why do we believe that only select kids can benefit? And then we need to get busy with either figuring out how every kid can have access to the special stuff, if it truly exists, or other versions of special things that are a good fit for them. Because when I put my mother hat on, and I think this is a really important hat to wear, whose kids do we think it’s fine to not give a learning experience that truly develops and prepares them in a way that these schools claim to offer? What mother are you willing to call up and say, “Yeah, nah, your kid’s not worth it. So we’re just going to reserve the super special learning for these other kids, and yours is going to get this super subpar experience.”

And Michael, I have never met an educator or a politician for that matter, willing to make that call explicitly. And yet I think they’re doing it implicitly all day long. And so I think where I’m landing, Michael, is the problem is not necessarily the existence of schools that select kids who are good fit for them, but rather that every kid doesn’t have a school that is a good fit for them. And those good fits will not all look the same and are not inherently better one from the other. They’re just different. And so rather than spending, and let me just edit myself right there, it might not even be a whole school to your point. It doesn’t have to be a whole school. It can be components and parts that are mixed and matched within a school. And that’s even better, I think.

And so rather than spending an extraordinary amount of time, energy and resources on these schools, which honestly, as I’m reflecting on this conversation is why I didn’t really get excited about talking to them, I just didn’t want to give them more air time, quite frankly, because we should shift all of that towards building all of the other options to be equally compelling and at the same time unique, and then no one will care anymore about these schools. And I guess just to finish my final thought here, when I play this out, if we don’t and we just keep this small set of name brand schools that drive the behavior and evaluation literally of millions of kids, while only serving a teeny fraction of them, then let’s be clear. We do not have the meritocracy that these schools claim to be emulating. And we are creating a large, disaffected population that isn’t being equipped to live a fulfilling life. And when that happens, Michael, we’ve got a very, very big problem on our hands.

Horn: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more, Diane, and I hear you not wanting to give these schools disproportionate air time, but since they are anyway, regardless of us, I thought it was worth us taking this detour to try to reset that conversation I think, because the current place it’s stuck is really frustrating from my perspective as everyone just heard, and it may be the perfect segue, frankly, into our conversation next time around selective college admissions, as we continue to explore the contours of this topic of meritocracy. And so with that, I’ll propose we leave it there for now, and let’s turn to what we’re reading and exploring outside of this topic, and we’ll come back to the topic of meritocracy through the prism of college admissions next time.

Tavenner: That one’s not going to be fiery at all.

Horn: No, not at all.

Tavenner: All right. Well, thanks, Michael. Look, I have turned all of my reading and watching time and energy to Russia’s invasion and war on Ukraine, not unlike the conversation we just had about this small set of schools driving so much of everything for everyone, I just can’t help but think how has the world got ourselves back in this place where one man, one man is driving so much of what all the rest of us are doing and thinking and an extraordinary amount of suffering and pain. And so I’m pretty haunted by that right now and immersed in it.

Horn: Yeah. I hear you, Diane. I don’t think I’m in that different a place I suspect. Most people listening are not in that different of a place. It’s been sickening and a lot of sense of futility of what can we do, I think to your point about one single man driving so much. I’ll just add that my wife and I, as you know, we’re usually behind on our pop culture, significantly behind.

Tavenner: You’re just aching for this, Michael. That’s what I’ve decided.

Horn: We’re very asynchronous. That’s a good way to put it. That’s why I love asynchronous learning. So we’ve been binge watching for the last few months the old FX series The Americans, and I will say it’s terrific and terrifying. And given the news out of Russia these days, it’s hitting a bit too close to home, Diane. So it’s been really something, but I’ll leave it there and just say thank you all for joining us on Class Disrupted. We’ll see you next time.

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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