In my previous article on how traditional roles and an established hierarchy undermines progressive education, I realized I made some assumptions and errors that need further explanation or correction. 

Firstly, I called up the image of a ghosts that haunt the halls of schools with fear to explain why schools remain fairly static in their structure and organization.  However, this is faulty imagery.  In actuality, the ghosts do not instill fear but comfort.  Otherwise, we would exorcise those ghosts and tear down those hallways.  The fear is, of course, not of the old but of the new.

Secondly, the post throws out the umbrella term “progressive education” as if it is: a. meaningful; and b. positive.  And whereas this dual assumption does not particularly bother me, I recognize that it leaves a lot on the table to be discussed or examined.  Progressivism, as a philosophical idea, is generally positive in connotation.  However, this does not mean in any way that how it plays out in education is necessarily positive in its impact on students. Therefore, progressive education needs to be further defined as how it relates to effective teaching and learning before any exorcism can begin.

Progressive education contests meritocracy to create a more equitable democratic institution

I began the last post with a quotation from Sidney Morris that prompted thought on why hierarchy or divisional organization is problematic in many traditional or long-standing institutions: that classification based upon mythical attributes is undemocratic.  The post, of course, attempts to highlight how education remains a quite traditional institution that relies on archaic, unsubstantiated qualities for its organization. If we take this and Morris’s statement as true or convincing, it logically follows that modern education remains, at its core, undemocratic.

I will push this further: modern schools are undemocratic not only because they retain fabricated status-based organizational charts among its faculty and staff but because the entire system promotes the myth of meritocracy.

One need not look further than the inability of most schools to rid themselves of grades or marks to see that the concept of meritocracy forms the very basis of how “we do school”.  In fact, bring up the idea of eliminating grades or point values or percentages or rankings and you will encounter resistance in all shapes and sizes.  Cries of “How will we know if students are learning?”; or, “What data will we have to show?”; or, “How we will we benchmark our school with others?”; or, the worse yet “How will our graduates get into the best universities?” abound whenever the issue of grades is challenged.  But each of these questions actually has very little to do with teaching and learning and more to do with proving to external factors institutional legitimacy.  It just so happens that those external factors, such as world rankings or college acceptances, are also indebted to the same myth of meritocracy. The myth goes something like this: this is the most fair and legitimate way of categorizing students and student achievement.

Therein lies the problem: categorization.  One of the primary tenets of meritocracy is that it is required for the fair (but not equal) distribution of scarce goods and resources (Mulligan).  But knowledge, understanding, and skills are not quantifiable nor are they a scarce or finite resource. And if our primary objective is to help students acquire the knowledge, understanding and skills needed to negotiate the world around them, why do we feel the need to categorize and rank students or schools according to some number or percentage or label?  Furthermore, in an increasingly volatile world, even static descriptors that align with numbers, marks, or grades tend to fall short of illustrating the complex relationship a student has with a given assessment or assessments over time.  And if grades, marks, or labels do not provide our students with the best feedback possible for this emerging landscape while simultaneously creating a less equal classroom environment, then, as Alfie Kohn has stated, “what matters is whether a given practice is in the best interest of students. If it isn’t, then our obligation is to work towards its elimination and, in the meantime, do what we can to minimize its impact” (Kohn 149).

Meritocracy is a myth perpetuated by those who have no interest in equal opportunity

That said, eliminating grades, marks, percentages or labels is only one front for progressive education in its task to disrupt meritocratic foundations in traditional schools.  The bigger task is much more radical: to understand that merit is a social construct defined by social power dynamics.  And this is where things really fall apart. 

If the second “principle of meritocracy is equal opportunity”, then most schools (and most social institutions for that matter) do very little to combat the inherent power discrepancies that plague our communities and leave meritocracy in its rightful, theoretical place (Mulligan).  We are kidding ourselves if we think that we have a level playing field even if we have made great strides in the last sixty years. 

Most international and other private schools are shameless in this regard: they have very little interest in cutting off the hand that feeds them.  And many international or private school educators (myself formerly included) who feel that liberal tinge of guilt of educating the privilege reinforce the meritocratic myth with statements such as “rich kids have issues too” (of course they do) and “we are educating the leaders of tomorrow who will make major changes” (an argument which is only strengthens how meritocracy truly works: for the benefit of the wealthy and advantaged).  Both statements do nothing to combat inequality and the right to a good education for everyone and instead shun the responsibility to a future generation that will, most likely, simply replicate the system they benefited from.

The future of progressive education

Progressivism roots itself in belief of the betterment and improvement in humanity, and this is where progressive education should continue to take its inspiration from.  In doing so, progressive education can begin to develop, as John Dewey stated years ago and Andy Kaplan has reiterated recently, a philosophy (and realistic practice) of education (Kaplan 130).

And this philosophy and practice should include focusing on how to develop democratic participants who value equal opportunity as a means to a better society and not stratified participants who value what school they get into or what job may result from that placement.  We have all the tools and support from the research of the past 80 plus years, and many educators who identify as “progressive” certainly utilize those tools as far as they can.  Constructivism and inquiry, contextual development, community outreach and service learning, real world assessment, growth mindset, a focus on the process, and skill development all align with a progressive philosophy and practice.

But as my previous post alluded to and Kohn speaks directly to, rebellious actions are not enough if the ghosts of comfort remain.

1 thought on “ Progressive Education: disrupting meritocracy ”

  1. One point to consider: Both myself as an educator and my school as an institution need a way to communicate and endorse the readiness of our students for entrance into whatever comes next. I do not think that our current communication tools are the best we can do (GPA, class ranking, AP or IB scores, SAT scores, or even whether or not a student possesses a diploma). I would argue that we still need some sort of system, one that better communicates students’ skills and accomplishments. That’s why I have been and am becoming even more of a supporter of mastery-based learning and digital portfolios to showcase students’ work.

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