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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Merit is not a myth

If I wanted to prevent disadvantaged or "marginalized" students from doing well in school, succeeding in college, learning a career or holding down a job, what would I do? I'd set very low expectations for their achievement and effort. I'd tell them the system is designed to ensure their failure, "merit" is a myth and working hard, meeting deadlines, building competence and taking responsibility are only for white people.


Photo: Amina Filkins/Pexels

Why do the people who talk the most about "equity" do so much to sabotage students' chances for success?


"The movement to end homework is wrong," writes Jay Caspian Kang, a parent and former teacher, in the New York Times.


Homework's enemies concede that well-designed homework can help students learn, writes Kang. But they think it widens inequities because some students have parents who can help at home and others do not.


In a paper titled You Need to Be More Responsible: The Myth of Meritocracy and Teachers’ Accounts of Homework Inequalities, sociologist Jessica McCrory Calarco and the mathematics education scholars Ilana Horn and Grace Chen argues that homework, especially math homework, supports the "meritocratic narrative" that students do well in school because of “individual competence, effort and responsibility,” Kang explains. They believe that's a myth.

"Homework reduction, or abolition, is part of an emerging educational movement," he writes. Anti-meritocrats believe "that the idea of responsibility itself — requiring students to be accountable for completing assignments — exacerbates inequality" and "reinforces the idea that one student is better than another."


Some students are better at being students than others, of course. (They are not better human beings.) It's one thing to ask teachers to assign homework that students can do without a parent's help. It's another to assume that students can't learn to take responsibility for doing the work.


Kang recalls his days as a teacher.

Kids need to learn how to practice things. Homework, in many cases, is the only ritualized thing they have to do every day. Even if we could perfectly equalize opportunity in school and empower all students not to be encumbered by the weight of their socioeconomic status or ethnicity, I’m not sure what good it would do if the kids didn’t know how to do something relentlessly, over and over again, until they perfected it.

I vividly remember my first-grade teacher reading The Little Engine That Could to us. What is the 2022 version? "I know I can't due to systemic racism and economic inequality, I know I can't due to the heteropatriarchy, I know I can't . . . "

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6 Comments


Guest
Jul 31, 2022

Problem is homework has grown like a cancer to be huge endless and deadening. Of course my grade school in 50’s had no homework. But wasn’t that period one of good scholastic outcomes? My god, kids spend 6+ hours/day in class - shouldn’t that be time enough for forming habits, so on? More of same bad not useful.

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Guest
Jul 28, 2022

"Homework's enemies concede that well-designed homework can help students learn, writes Kang. But they think it widens inequities because some students have parents who can help at home and others do not."


Just keep homework at a relatively low percentage of the students' report card grades and grade it on completion, not accuracy. Keep the assignments short, but relevant. Ensure that work is shown, and go over the assignment on the due date. Grading for accuracy takes too long and minimizes the impact of the assignments due to the separation between the due date and completion of grading. Will some students cheat (copy)? Of course, but as long as it is a small portion of the students' overall grades, then…

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Guest
Jul 28, 2022

The ending of your take, an imaginary narrative, is reductive. Do better and we can persuade others to believe your central claim.

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Guest
Jul 27, 2022

"Merit" is not exactly the right word for what we usually mean in this context. Using that word carries an intimation that those who succeed at school tasks are somehow more deserving than those who do not. I think if we stuck to words like "well=prepared," "willing to work," and "skilled at academic tasks," we would not meet such resistance to the concept.

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mrmillermathteacher
mrmillermathteacher
Jul 27, 2022

"The soft bigotry of low expectations" raises its ugly head again.

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