Meritocracy in Education: Time for Change

Today’s New York Times supplement, Education Life* includes a brief interview with Lani Guinier, the first black, female, tenured professor in Harvard Law School’s history and author of five books including the newly released, The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education (2015). In the interview there are some perspectives shared by Lani Guinier that are well worth exploring and considering the implications for today’s educational system in the United States – both higher education, which is the focus of Guinier’s new book, and K-12 education.

Guinier on Meritocracy:
When asked about the term meritocracy, Guinier shares that the term’s origin lies in the satirical predictions of Michael Young, in his 1958 book “The Rise of Meritocracy, 1870-2033.” In the 57 years since the book was published, Guinier states, Young’s predictions have materialized before us, with merit being determined by test scores and social status assigned based on qualifications acquired through formal education, creating a new form of discrimination.

Guinier on Diversity:
When asked about diversity she shares her view that it is not so much about fairness or how people “look” but about having groups with a “mix of skills, backgrounds and ways of thinking” so that together they can solve the complex multidimensional problems that are before us.

Guinier on Peer-learning:
On a positive note, Guinier mentions new initiatives that draw students into the teaching role through peer-learning. Classroom time is less about the professor lecturing, as students spend time working together, teaching and learning.

It’s striking to me that the points she makes about peer-learning and diversity are addressed by pedagogies that engaged students in high impact approaches to learning, such as experiential education, team-based learning (TBL) and service-learning. Students working together in TBL classrooms and a praxis which takes students outside the traditional classroom, such as service-learning, with its reliance on an “action and reflection” sequence as students engage in, and learning from, real life. These approaches interrupt some of the core concerns of the meritocracy in the educational system that is prevalent in the US today.

While Guinier’s new book looks specifically at higher education in America, there are relevancies to K-12 education. Homeschooling, independent schooling and unschooling are primarily K-12 approaches that step away from the norm in many ways. In particular, these approaches largely abandon today’s testing and credentialing systems as the means of assessing merit, validating learning and advancing to college or employment. That might sound irresponsible to some but homeschooled youth are excelling in higher education and as they move into adulthood. It turns out that autonomy, self directed learning, flexibility and several other key aspects to this approach are highly beneficial and lay a solid foundation for success in higher education and today’s economy.

With the effectiveness of the our K-12 public education system plummeting it’s time to stop blaming teachers, families, students and to step back from pouring exorbitant amounts of money into “education reform.” We need a radically new approach that places these engaged approaches into the core of our approach. How do we get there? One place to start is to stop assuming that only people “at the top” have the answers. Why not engage stakeholders from across the county (including parents and students) in a national conversation and planning process that addresses questions such as:

What do we know about how children learn? What do we know about how to help youth develop character, values and curiosity? How do you keep curiosity and the love of learning alive in children as they grow into young adults? How can they learn from their experiences – from life, without being spoon-fed and force-taught? How can students become versatile, resilient, critical thinkers? What makes a person a strong innovator? What skills and capacities are needed for today’s youth to prosper in the decades to come – in a post-industrial society?

We need to ask ourselves tough questions, be open to truly innovative answers, and develop a radical new plan to educate our children. Our schools are not going to change as needed by continually tweaking the existing system –a system originally designed to produce good factory workers – a system that validates learning (and teaching) based on high stakes tests. What we have is not working for our kids; it is not what our nation needs. The times have changed radically and it’s time for a radical change in public education.

Even as our current system fails so many children, you may know children who seems to be faring pretty well. This, however, doesn’t mean that their curiosity, their love of learning, their passion for life and even their self confidence isn’t being slowly eroded day after day. I regularly see the results of this in higher education, even among many of our brightest college students. The vacant look, the desire to learn only “what’s needed for the test” and to be guided along at every step, are occasionally overcome by the rare professor who prods them back to life with an experiential pedagogy: service-learning or team-based learning, for example. The vast majority of these young adults plod through their college courses and hopefully graduate** to find a decent job where they can pay-off their $30,000 (average) in student loans.***

Guinier’s new book focuses on practices in higher education, which are important but the issues, of course, begin long beforehand. Teaching is too often something done “to” our children and merit is attributed in ways that exclude rather than include, inhibiting many types of “difference” at a very young age. The public education system in America, in the second decade of the 21st century, is not only broken, it’s DOA. The way we teach, assess and promote students is archaic. The way we prepare and then control our teachers is tragic and pushes out the most vibrant, creative ones. The time has come to dump the system we have and create something that values difference, inspires greatness, transforms lives and generally fosters the amazing potential our youth embody.


** the national graduation rate for 4 year colleges, within 6 years of beginning college, is 59%   (



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