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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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