Friday, April 12, 2013

Is Merit a Myth in America - Does Education Truly Provide Opportunity?

Americans have long told themselves that the American Dream is about being able to rise in society based solely on merit - though many realists have long disdained this as myth.  Education writer and critic Marc Tucker challenges the myth of merit and "education as the great equalizer."  While the situation is complicated, he exposes serious issues:

In the mid-60s, James Coleman, in an iconic U.S. Government report, Equality of Educational Opportunity, said that the biggest influence on student achievement was not anything having to do with the schools they attended, but rather the socio-economic status of their parents.  No doubt this is partly because wealthy communities can easily raise enough money for their public schools to buy the best teachers, facilities, materials and school administrators.

But that may leave out the most important variable, the socio-economic status of the other students in the school.  Take for example, the conditions in a typical low-income, mostly minority community: expectations for all students are low, students get As for doing mediocre work, the curriculum is not challenging, classrooms are constantly disrupted, teachers have a hard time maintaining order, students who strive for academic excellence are ostracized by their peers and few go to college.  In a wealthy school district serving mostly students from well-to-do families, all is reversed: expectations are high, classroom discipline is not a problem, students are paying attention in class; they have to work for their As and are not ostracized by their peers for doing well in their classes.  The curriculum is challenging and designed to put all students on a track that will get a great majority of them into selective colleges.  

Certainly, merit is significant in American society, and there is no arguing the ability of high quality education to increase opportunity for success.  Yet, the "American Dream" has much to answer for when there is clearly not "equality opportunity and access" to high quality education.

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