LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E13: What Does Education Have To Do With Meritocracy?

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

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Class Disrupted is an educational podcast that airs every two weeks, featuring Michael Horn, author, and Diane Tavenner from Summit Public Schools. They engage in conversations with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities to explore the challenges that the education system faces during the pandemic and discuss potential solutions. You can find all the episodes on our Class Disrupted page or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher for new episodes released every other Tuesday.

In this particular episode, Diane delves into a detailed discussion about the history, advantages, and disadvantages of meritocracy, drawing insights from three recent books on the subject. Michael and Diane then examine how this concept intersects with our K-12 education system, and set the stage for two future episodes focusing on exam schools and selective college admissions.

Listen to the episode down below, and a complete transcript follows.

  • Class Disrupted S3 E13: Meritocracy and Education

Diane Tavenner: Hello, Michael.

Michael Horn: Hi, Diane.

Tavenner: Michael, it has been exactly two years since the start of the pandemic, at least for me. I remember taking my last trip to our Washington schools and having my final in-person meeting before everything shut down. As we enter this new phase of living with COVID, I find myself reflecting deeply on the past two years and readjusting my mindset to embrace whatever lies ahead.

Horn: I understand what you mean, Diane. The anniversary of the pandemic feels more complex and challenging this year compared to the last. On one hand, there is a glimmer of hope as we potentially move into an endemic phase. However, there are also concerns and worries about new variants like Omicron, as we are currently recording this episode. Furthermore, we question whether our schools and institutions have truly learned from the lessons of the pandemic. It’s interesting for us to reflect on why we started this podcast in the first place, amidst the fear, uncertainty, and trauma. We recognized the potential for positive change in our K-12 school system, given the life-altering impact of the pandemic.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Michael. To be honest, our hope for change has fluctuated over the past two years. Yet, we continue to hold onto a resilient sense of hope and optimism for what lies ahead.

Horn: Society seems to be progressing towards a post-pandemic policy mindset. We are reaching a critical juncture where we will discover whether the pandemic will truly catalyze change. If change does occur, what shape will it take? We are hearing various perspectives from different individuals advocating for specific changes. However, both you and I, Diane, feel that the current discussions on topics like exam schools, gifted and talented programs, and magnet programs lack the depth and nuance necessary for meaningful progress. At the same time, it feels like these topics have been somewhat overshadowed by the collective challenges we have all faced and continue to navigate.

Tavenner: Michael, it’s interesting that the list of "hot topics" we have been compiling directly aligns with the recent reading material I have been engrossed in. I have been eager to discuss it with you, and I’m glad you encouraged me to bring it up on the podcast. So here we are, Michael, ready to delve into the concept of meritocracy.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Diane. Let’s take a step back and discuss meritocracy itself before delving into the details. Meritocracy, as defined in the books I’ve been reading, refers to a system where individuals are rewarded based on their abilities, skills, and achievements. It is a concept that aims to create a level playing field, where success is determined by merit rather than social status or privilege. However, the authors highlight that there are inherent problems and flaws within the current meritocratic system that need to be addressed.

Now, let’s talk about the three books I mentioned earlier, which offer different perspectives on the issue. Daniel Markovits’ "The Meritocracy Trap" takes a historical approach, providing an in-depth analysis of the origins and development of meritocracy. On the other hand, Michael Sandel’s "The Tyranny of Merit" offers a philosophical exploration of the concept, tracing the evolution of thought surrounding meritocracy. Lastly, Adrian Woodridge’s "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World" presents a social critique of the meritocratic system.

What struck me is that despite their diverse approaches, all three authors present a shared understanding of the problems plaguing meritocracy in America. This resonates with my own experiences, particularly in the field of education where I have devoted 25 years of my career. The consistency in their problem definition is intriguing and worth considering.

However, I found their proposed solutions to be highly disappointing. While their books are well-researched and make compelling cases, their suggested remedies fell short of addressing the complex issues at hand. It seems that their expertise lies more in identifying the problems rather than providing effective solutions. This leaves ample room for innovative ideas and fresh perspectives.

Lastly, education emerges as a central theme in all three books, underscoring its significance within the meritocratic system. As educators like you and me, this resonates deeply and reinforces the idea that education is at the core of our nation’s belief system, driving social and economic mobility.

Horn: Fascinating. Your insights shed light on the content of these books, and it is clear that the authors have provoked thoughtful reflection. It is interesting to contemplate the paradox of their thorough analysis and research contrasting with the lack of satisfactory solutions they propose. It seems that there is an opportunity for individuals with a deeper understanding of the problem to contribute their own ideas and recommendations. Moreover, the emphasis on education within the context of meritocracy is both compelling and thought-provoking.

And interestingly enough, as I mentioned earlier, this is a novel concept that is new to the world. I was genuinely surprised to discover that the term "meritocracy" was first coined in 1958 by British sociologist Michael Young. So, the world is not accustomed to the idea of earning wealth and power. Throughout history, these privileges were typically inherited, obtained through bribery, or acquired through theft in many cases. Hence, this concept of meritocracy is relatively new and revolutionary.

Now, let’s delve into how a meritocracy functions within a society. There are essentially four key components to a meritocratic system. Firstly, society takes pride in the fact that individuals can progress in life based on their natural talents. This notion is deeply ingrained in the stories and mythology surrounding meritocracy, becoming an integral part of people’s identities. Secondly, meritocracies strive to ensure equal opportunities for all by providing access to education. Education plays a fundamental role in the meritocratic system. Thirdly, meritocracies are designed to eliminate discrimination based on factors such as race and gender, considering them irrelevant to one’s abilities. Finally, jobs in a meritocracy are awarded through fair competition rather than favoring certain individuals due to nationalistic sentiments, personal connections, or nepotism, as I mentioned earlier.

Horn: Diane, you’ve managed to succinctly capture the complex concepts in a highly comprehensible manner. Well done! However, it is crucial to evaluate our concept of meritocracy in comparison to the systems that existed before. We must not idealize it as a solution to some mythical utopia. When you mention the alternatives of patronage, inheritance, and bribery, it becomes clear that we should not wish to revert to such practices. Therefore, it’s important to always consider the context in which our idea of meritocracy emerges.

That being said, I must admit that there are certain aspects within this definition that seem ambiguous. Firstly, how do we define "ability"? How do we measure it? Is there a singular type of ability that holds significance? Who determines this? Should college admissions officers have the authority to decide? Additionally, as a proponent of capitalism, I believe that "letting the market decide" is not a sufficient answer in this context. The education system, responsible for making these determinations, is often detached from equipping students with the skills, knowledge, and habits necessary to thrive in today’s society.

Secondly – and this is where the final point comes into play – it is evident, Diane, that our education system has historically engaged in various forms of discrimination based on so-called "irrelevant characteristics" that are meant to be separate from social mobility. Whether it is the well-known issue of low expectations for certain groups or historical tracking based on race, or simply the system’s inability to cater to the vast potential of many students in terms of preparing them for the modern world. The majority of individuals, I would argue, are not given a fair chance to develop their natural talents or abilities, using the current buzzword.

Tavenner: Absolutely, Michael. You’ve highlighted a crucial aspect that these books explore. They extensively discuss the problems associated with meritocracy, which, as you have mentioned, are all too familiar to many of us. However, what’s interesting is that these authors do not necessarily agree on the reasons behind these problems. Although they all identify the issue, their explanations and solutions vary. Some believe that the flaw lies in the flawed implementation of meritocracy and advocate for a more rigorous approach. On the other hand, others argue that the entire design of meritocracy is fundamentally flawed. This convergence and divergence of perspectives make the areas of agreement even more intriguing.

Let’s take a moment to identify a few areas of alignment that specifically pertain to education. Firstly, it’s worth emphasizing that the idea of meritocracy enjoys widespread popularity across the entire political spectrum. This was particularly surprising to me as it is extremely rare to find a concept that garners such broad consensus.

Horn: Indeed, it is remarkably rare.

Tavenner: Yet, meritocracy is one such concept.

The consensus among individuals is that disadvantage is often attributed to individual deficiencies in skills or effort. Non-elites tend to believe that their position in society is their own fault, while elites believe that their elevated status is entirely deserved. This narrow perspective fails to acknowledge the many other factors at play.

Another concerning issue is the diminishing value placed on work that does not require exceptional abilities or credentials. Jobs that lack prestige and are not associated with high pay are often seen as lacking dignity. You and I have discussed the importance of having purposeful and meaningful work for a fulfilled life.

Regarding the criticism of meritocracy, the sense of superiority and privilege among those who have succeeded in the system is an interesting and significant point. It highlights a flaw in our education system and society as a whole. We should be teaching people that every individual has inherent value and worth, and that everyone has something meaningful to contribute and teach us. The education system, however, seems to prioritize credentialing over actual education. This reinforces the idea that education is a competition, a zero-sum game, which naturally leads successful individuals to feel entitled and superior.

Despite these critiques, it is challenging and unwise to completely abandon meritocracy, considering the lack of better alternatives. However, there are educators who advocate for a more egalitarian approach, believing that no one should be valued more than anyone else, although they acknowledge the need for varying outcomes. Some propose policies, such as equal pay for all educators regardless of performance or tying pay to factors like longevity. These discussions are ongoing among educators, and while I personally have reservations about some of these ideas, they warrant consideration.

In conclusion, it is essential to address the shortcomings of meritocracy and strive for improvement in education. We need to find a way to uphold the value of merit while ensuring equal opportunities for all individuals.

Horn: It’s truly fascinating. When you first began, I was genuinely thrilled by what I heard, the idea that we should value each person for their differences and believe in their worth. However, as you continued, discussing the idea of paying everyone equally, my reaction became very different, likely similar to yours. This suggests to me that I am comfortable with the economy rewarding scarce talent more if it provides something that is highly valued by society. I believe that supply and demand help us allocate limited resources and meet people’s needs for progress in life.

However, I don’t always link value or self-worth with earning potential. In my mind, these are separate concepts. I need to think about this more and honestly, I don’t have an answer right now. In a way, this conversation is making me realize, Diane, that we are both being vulnerable here, discussing our struggles with these concepts almost in real time. But it’s something I want to explore further and reflect upon.

Tavenner: That’s how engaging this topic is, Michael. It keeps you thinking about it. Meritocracy wins over TikTok, no doubt. Jokes aside, I do like the idea of examining this important topic through the lens of the challenges it presents. We should explore how we can improve it through a third way, a redesign, rather than just having one side triumph over the other.

But most importantly, we need to add nuance to these conversations and be transparent about the underlying roots of these issues. Let’s take exam schools as an example. Instead of viewing them as either purely good or bad, let’s really consider their purpose and impact. What are these schools achieving? What potential harm might they cause? Can we improve meritocracy by redesigning the policies and systems surrounding these schools? I want the conversation to be more nuanced and to honor the ideas we are discussing.

Horn: Diane, that could be a great way to leave our audience intrigued and set the stage for our next conversation. I’ve been eager to discuss what’s happening with schools like Lowell in San Francisco, Stuyvesant in New York City, and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia, among others. But I think it’s the perfect setup for our next episode.

And I haven’t mentioned this before, but I also think we should explore the college admission selectivity process. It seems like there are two distinct gates with similar, yet different mechanics for sorting students in this elusive concept of meritocracy. I would love to delve into both sequentially and maintain our curiosity over the next few weeks as we do so, using the framework you’ve introduced. Before we get carried away, though, because we could easily delve into these topics deeply, I’d like to ask, have you had the chance to read, listen to, or watch anything else besides meritocracy?

Note: The rewriting aims to better articulate the ideas expressed in the original text while maintaining the overall meaning. The goal is to enhance the clarity, readability, coherence, and natural flow of the text.

Horn: Diane, you’re venturing into a realm of popular culture that exceeds my knowledge, but I admire the way your Los Angeles roots shine through. Today, I want to take a completely different direction. I’ve been pondering the podcasts that my children listen to, and I must say, many of them are incredible. They had the opportunity to join a Zoom meetup with the actors from their favorite podcast called "The Adventures of Red Knight" over the weekend, and I was truly amazed. It’s a family of four – a boy, a girl, a mom, and a dad – who create an engaging storyline and act it out. Their podcast has garnered over a million downloads, and it was such a cool experience for my kids to interact with them for two hours on Zoom.

Then, we delved into a discussion about my kids’ favorite podcast called "Greeking Out," hosted by National Geographic Kids. It’s fascinating how they absorb knowledge during car rides, meals, or simply unwinding after school. They’re building a strong foundation of knowledge about Greek myths, as well as other interesting topics. Additionally, I recently took my kids to the town library for the first time in two years, and despite the challenges, it felt like a lifting experience to be there together. It reminds me that we live in an extraordinary era where knowledge is easily accessible, and we can do incredible things with it.

So, I suppose that’s a fitting end to this podcast – with a message of optimism and hope that we strive to convey. I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has been listening and joining us on Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is an esteemed author of multiple books about the future of education, particularly Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He collaborates with various organizations to revolutionize education and empower individuals to pursue their passions and reach their full potential.

Diane Tavenner serves as the CEO of Summit Public Schools and is a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She has dedicated her life to education, innovation, and is also the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.


  • marthareynolds

    I'm Martha, a 27-year-old blogger, volunteer, and student. I'm a graduate of the University of Utah, where I studied communications and political science. I'm passionate about education and volunteer work, and I love spending time with my family and friends.

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