Meritocracy in Education

For my first blog post I wanted to talk about the concept of meritocracy in schooling. Basically, meritocracy in schools means that the students who put in hard work will receive the highest grades, and, with those grades, go on to achieve more after their education. Sounds simple and fair right? Well not everyone agrees…

Colbert Report with Walter Kirn

Kirn and Colbert really don’t have time to nuance the debate on meritocracy and schooling but I’ll put a few quotes here from some articles that I’ve looked at that will help us get a better understanding of meritocracy and schooling.

Meritocracy entails that those with power and authority hold their positions by virtue of their ostensible ability to do the job at least as well as any contenders (from Meritocracy by Thomas B. Hoffer 435).”

In general, social class and racial or ethnic differences in achievement test scores are present at the beginning of formal schooling, and the gap grows larger each year (Hoffer 441).”

Schools work to reproduce inequalities from generation to generation rather than creating opportunities for talented but low-status children (from Conflict Theory by Christopher J. Hurn 113).”

Schools socialize students into the apprpriate values and sort and select students according to their abilities (from Functionalist Theories of Education by Peter Cookson Jr. and Alan Sadovnik 268).”

Represented in these quotes are two different views of meritocracy in education. Conflict theory is closely related to Marxist philosophies and sees schools as agents of social reproduction. This means that the educational outcome for students is based on their families socioeconomic status (SES) and not the effort that they put into their schooling.

Could you imagine looking at one of your students who’s parents didn’t graduate high school and seeing a probable dropout? It’s hard to imagine, as a teacher, that the greatest determinant for achievement is out of our control. After all, teachers have been held responsible for improving test scores under No Child Left Behind. An important question for us to consider is: why are we held responsible when there is an entire school of thought that believes that student achievement is predetermined?

Opposed to conflict theory is functionalist theory. This theory sees meritocracy in education as a working and effective practice within schools. Schools function to assess and sort students into jobs and careers that are best for them based on their achievement. This theory views the institution of education in a positive light and gives more credibility to the teacher being held accountable for student achievement.

Perhaps neither of these views are perfectly correct, but one thing is certain. There are a disproportionate amount of low SES and minority students achieving less than white middle class students.

Achievement Gap

The cause for this is also another hot point of debate and discussion. More importantly for teachers to think about though is whether the system of meritocracy in schools works or if it doesn’t.

Personally, I think I fall between functionalist and conflict theories. On the one hand, I’ll never be able to look at my students as statistics doomed to remain at the level of SES of their parents. Yet the system of meritocracy in schools is not perfect. These imperfections can be seen in the disproportionate amount of minority and low SES students placed in lower tracks within schools and the higher dropout rates of those students. When I’m at the front of the class, I hope to be a leg up to better achievement for my students and not just a part of the process of social reproduction.


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One Response to Meritocracy in Education

  1. cpf5032 says:

    I agree with you in being between the two theories. I don’t think students should be doomed because of SES, but I do think that if students come from low SES, then the teacher may need to provide more encouragement and support for the student. I also feel that the amount of support that a student needs can be determined without looking at SES and with a teacher getting to know his or her students.

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