Meritocracy in America Is a Myth. New York City's Public Schools Prove It.

Gabrielle Bruney
Photo credit: New York Daily News Archive - Getty Images

From Esquire

The recent college admissions scandal has helped resurface a gratifying bit of trivia-the fact that the term "meritocracy" was originally intended to be used satirically. The word made its debut with the publication of sociologist Michael Dunlop Young’s 1958 dystopian work The Rise of The Meritocracy, a critique of a British education system that purported to offer the chance for academic and professional advancement to the best and brightest, but that instead ended up mirroring the centuries-old aristocratic order. The word is a portmanteau of “merit” and “aristocracy,” and mocks the ways in which systems that pledge to elevate the deserving instead serve to replicate existing social divides.

But somehow we all missed that memo, and the idea of a meritocracy became accepted as both something that's possible to achieve, and, even more implausibly, the social system that currently governs our land.

"The book was a satire meant to be a warning," Young wrote for The Guardian in 2001, dismayed to see the word he coined take on a such a misapplied afterlife. "It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others."

The college admissions scandal, which found fifty wealthy Americans scheming, lying, and bribing their marginally-talented children into some of the nation's most prestigious universities, partially lifted the veil on the myth of meritocracy and revealed in the basest, most digestible terms the hidden mechanisms by which educational privileges are distributed. But on Monday a story from New York City emerged that offers all of the educational controversy of the college admissions scandal without any of its easy villains.

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New York City’s school system is the most segregated in the nation, and its public high schools often vary in quality along predictable lines of race and class. Among the hundreds of high schools in the city are nine elite specialized high schools that accept their student bodies according to the results of a single test, the Specialized High School Admissions Test. Around 67 percent of the city’s high schoolers are black or Latino, but only ten percent of seats in these nine schools award such students. The prestigious Stuyvesant High School, an elect institution among the elite, admitted only seven black children to its incoming freshman class of 895 students.

Around half of all seats in the specialized schools are earned by Asian-American students, and Stuyvesant is 74 percent Asian. Many of the Asian students who score highly on the SHSAT are the children of low-income, first-generation immigrants who devote a significant percentage of their limited time and resources to ensuring that their children are prepared for the SHSAT. It's a story more complicated than the white-black, rich-poor divides that so often mark American racial narratives.

But even here the idea of meritocracy falters. The students who are admitted to specialized high schools often do so with the aid of intensive preparatory programs that members of the city’s black and Latino communities can struggle to access or afford. In 2017, The New York Times profiled a test-prep center, one of many serving a largely Chinese-American community in Flushing, Queens. Parents paid $1,400 dollars for their kids to attend three hours of SHSAT prep on summer weekdays. The center's founder told the Times that most of his students earned entry to one of the specialized high schools. Test prep centers-and $1,400 to spend-can be harder to find in New York's black and Latino neighborhoods. It's a city with such entrenched poverty that one in ten students experience homelessness over the course of an academic year, and 88 percent of the homeless are black or Hispanic.

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Last year, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio revealed a plan to overhaul admissions at specialized schools. Rather than relying on the SHSAT, the top students at every middle school in the city would be guaranteed admittance to a specialized high school. It's a plan similar to that used in the University of Texas's admissions system, and one that would mine the city's segregated middle schools for large specialized high school gains for black and Latino kids. Under such a plan, these kids would receive 45 percent of all offers at specialized schools-but offers to Asian children would fall by half.

The plan was exceedingly controversial. The hapless de Blasio rolled it out poorly and failed to consult with the Asian-American community before announcing his plan to make it significantly more difficult for their children to gain entry to the city’s best schools. But at least part of the backlash stems from the fact that SHSAT system has an emotional appeal. What could be more purely meritocratic than a test? There are no legacy admissions, no athletic scholarships at play, just one assessment of 8th graders' mastery of English and math.

But the SHSAT doesn't gauge a child's merit-it measures preparedness for the SHSAT. Writing of the class system in his native Britain, Young noted that "ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education." The popular idea of a meritocracy is a myth, a comforting one that assures us of the righteousness of the status quo. But if New York's high school system judges merit, then only seven black eighth graders in the entire city were meritorious enough to attend its best school. The kids aren't the problem-we are.

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