Getting ahead based on merit is the ideal scenario. Having success given to you based on anything else strips away the satisfaction of earning what you deserve.
Since 2020, however, there seems to be a growing “war on merit.” The San Francisco School Board voted to end Lowell High School's entrance exam so that every student could attend in the name of opportunity and equality. As a public school, I understand the rationale.
Over on the east coast, Virginia's Thomas Jefferson High School also decided to eliminate its entrance exam. TJ, as the school is commonly known, is also a public school and is consistently ranked one of the top high schools in the nation.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, I never considered applying to TJ. My parents didn't push me nor did I have a particularly keen interest in math or science.
I just remember losing a tennis match to TJ's #1 player, who went on to attend Harvey Mudd College. He's now a computer engineer at a tech firm and probably makes about $500,000 a year.
The National Merit Scholarship Scandal
In a surprising investigation, it was discovered TJ school officials supposedly withheld telling ~1,200 students over five years that they had received National Merit Commended designations. It doesn't seem like the national media is talking about this potential scandal either.
The National Merit Scholarship Program is a national academic competition for high school students to provide financial aid to attend college. The program is ranked in order of Scholarship Winners, Finalists, Semifinalists, and Commended Students.
Generally, the top 3%-4% of PSAT scorers receive Commended student status, or about 35,000 students. Only if you score in the top 1% of PSAT takers in your state are you designated a Semifinalist. You can then submit an essay as part of your application to become a winner.
While Commended students are not eligible to compete for the official National Merit Scholarship, they do become candidates for special merit scholarship awards offered by statewide agencies and corporate sponsors.
Ah, no wonder why so many parents are experiencing so much anxiety. The system is so competitive, yet, there are no certainties that hard work will be rewarded!
Why Withhold Telling A Student's Commended Status?
When asked to explain their actions, TJ school officials said they didn't want to hurt the feelings of other students who didn't win the award. One school official said it was an administrative error. While another said they wanted more equal outcomes for students.
As a high school tennis teacher for three years, equal outcome for students is an impossibility. I don't want to hurt any of my student athlete's feelings either. However, we all understand every student has different levels of talent and work ethic. As a result, at the beginning of each season, we host tryouts.
Those who make the team then compete in a round-robin tournament to see who can win the most matches. The more matches a player wins, the higher up on the team ladder they rank. From this ladder, my fellow coach and I determine our singles and doubles lineup.
The process worked well and no students complained. I did experience some lobbying from two mothers who thought their sons deserved to be ranked higher. As a solution, I made the sons play each other mid-season to settle the dispute.
In the end, we won back-to-back Northern California Sectional championships by using merit as a guide. Not bad for a school that had never won one tennis championship since it was founded in 1975.
The Desire For Equal Outcomes Can Prove Costly For Top Students
I understand the desire for all kids to get participation trophies. Nobody wants their kid to feel hurt or left out, even if they are not the best. As a parent to a three-year-old and five-year-old, I'm constantly trying to encourage kids to be inclusive during playdates.
I also understand not everybody has the same opportunity to study hard to get better grades and test scores. If a student comes from a low-income, single-parent household it may be harder to compete against a student from a high-income, dual-parent household.
However, not notifying the kids of their academic achievements does not seem right. Being recognized as any one of the four levels of National Merit may help with receiving scholarships. With the egregious cost of college tuition today, any amount of money helps!
As a parent trying to instill in my kids the importance of hard work, grit, and determination, I'm concerned everything I'm teaching might be for nothing. Why bother working so hard if schools won't recognize academic excellence?
Instead of encouraging my kids to study so much to get good grades and test scores, I'd rather have them spend the next 15 years exploring the world with us! As untethered parents with no jobs, it'd be fun to travel throughout the year instead of only during school holidays.
Getting B's might be good enough! And if not, we can always take advantage of Canada where the Harvard of Canada, McGill University, has a whopping 45% acceptance rate!
The future is always changing. Parents as well as all adults looking to achieve financial independence need to learn how to adapt if merit continues to be suppressed.
How To Survive The War On Merit
Here are seven ways to navigate a more complex reward system that is beginning to deemphasize merit-based performance. The last thing you want is to work extremely hard only to get rejected because of who you are.
Ultimately, my hope is that we do more to serve the financially disadvantaged across all people. It is the lack of resources that makes it harder to compete equally, not what someone looks like.
1) Understand your gatekeepers
If you are not financially independent yet, then you will have to succumb to a gatekeeper. A gatekeeper is someone who decides whether you get in, get paid, and get promoted. The better you can understand the ethos of your gatekeepers, the greater your chance of getting embraced by the gatekeepers.
Thomas Jefferson High School had a 2019-20 student enrollment that was 71.5 percent Asian, 19.48 percent non-Hispanic White, 2.6 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.72 percent Black, and 4.70 percent other. In other words, TJ students mostly consist of minorities.
Hence, it would be logical to assume TJ school officials would also reflect the diversity of the school. Further, it would also be logical to assume TJ school officials would be proud to promote the academic achievements of its students. So why didn't they?
Have a look at the tweet by TJ Principle, Ann Bonitatibus. Despite over 70 percent of TJ's student population being of Asian descent, there's not one Asian person in the picture. Hence, be careful to make logical assumptions. Here are their bios.
People will naturally fight for their own kind and subtly fight against people of different backgrounds. No matter how unbiased you think you are, just look at the people you socialize with. The racial makeup of voters closely mimics a politician's race as well.
With not one Asian TJ school official, it should come as no surprise the officials supported hiding the National Merit announcements from the mostly Asian recipients.
2) Assimilate with the gatekeepers
You might be a proud and honorable person. But don't let honor and pride get in the way of achieving financial independence. To get ahead, you must assimilate with the people in power.
If the boss's favorite sport is pickleball, you should turn into a pickleball fanatic. If they donate to a charity that supports banning cars, you should ride your bike to work. By currying favor with the gatekeepers, you reduce your chances of getting discriminated against.
The thing about most gatekeepers is that even though they might virtue signal about equality for all, they will unlikely give up their own opportunity for someone else. The rich and powerful get richer and more powerful by helping each other.
If college administrators really believed in helping marginalized groups, they would eliminate legacy admissions and dramatically expand enrollment. But they don't due to the desire for status.
3) Have a concurrent backup plan
You might think you're doing a good job assimilating with the gatekeepers. However, unless you're a relative or close friend, you never really know for sure whether you are part of their crowd. What people say publicly versus behind closed doors can be very different things. Just ask ex-Clippers owner Don Sterling.
Hence, you can never fully count on the gatekeeper to accept you based on merit. Neither can you count on full transparency.
As an employee, you must have a backup plan in case you are laid off, demoted, or not promoted. That backup plan is your side hustle or X factor. It can even be a second job if you can work remotely.
If you are an excellent student applying to school, your backup should include schools that solely accept its students based on their achievements, not on their identities. For example, in addition to Stanford, you should also apply to UCLA and Berkeley.
As a parent, you create career insurance for your children by owning a private business. This way, you can always offer your child a job in case they can't get into a good school and can't get a good job.
Besides owning your own private business, you can also own a rental property portfolio that needs managing. This way, your child not only has a place to live, but they also have an important job.
4) Become an entrepreneur
One of the main reasons why I left my banking job in 2012 was because there was a breakdown between performance and pay. Instead of complaining, I devised a way out.
The higher up you go at work, the more political it becomes. If you haven't built a support network from those in charge, your chances of ascending to the top are slim-to-none. Your bosses will always give you a reason for why you aren't getting promoted and paid.
If you are not getting rewarded based on merit at work, then the logical solution is to go off on your own. If you truly believe in your abilities, then you are willing to take a leap of faith. Try out entrepreneurship for three years, and if you can't succeed, then go back to work.
One of the greatest things about the internet is that it weakens the power held by gatekeepers. Anybody can start a website in under an hour for cheap. All information can be accessed for free. You don't even need subject matter expertise to make money online.
The traditional way of going to college and getting a job is fine. But for those groups of people who are not looked upon favorably by the elites, becoming an entrepreneur is one of your best bets. Bypassing the gatekeepers is the reason why so many restaurants, convenience stores, and other small businesses are owned by minorities.
5) Maintain long-term friendships
Accept that in addition to merit, great connections makes getting ahead easier.
As a 45-year-old man, the majority of my friends now have 20+ years of experience in their respective fields. Many are Managing Directors at major Wall Street firms. Some are partners at top law firms. A couple are CEOs of publicly-traded companies. While several have Ph.Ds and run academic departments.
With these types of long-term friendships, I can ask for help when needed. Hence, I encourage you to make a consistent effort to connect with others over the years. This means sending them annual holiday cards, going out for lunch once a quarter, picking up the phone to chat, and showing interest in the things they care about.
All of your friends will naturally gain more seniority in their respective fields over time. The greater the friends you have, the easier it is for you and your children to survive any war on merit.
6) Develop a thoughtful personality
If you're always helpful, you will likely have an overflow of people wanting to help you in the future. If you're always asking for something first, then most people will stay clear of you.
Developing high emotional intelligence and a thoughtful personality will help you even if you aren't the best performer. Because at the end of the day, people like helping people they like. Not all of us can be born beautiful. But all of us can work on how we treat others.
Every day I get lots of questions from people who have never left a comment on one of my 2,500+ posts. They don't spend time introducing themselves. Instead, they just fire away as if I'm their private wealth manager.
But if a reader introduces themselves and writes they bought How To Engineer Your Layoff or Buy This, Not That, I will most certainly respond. They showed an interest in something I spent years creating.
Be thoughtful about how you treat others. The more thoughtful you are, the more people will want to help you succeed.
7) Get so rich merit doesn't matter
So far we've discussed strategies for succeeding in a declining merit-based environment if you are not yet rich. You might be a HENRY looking to build your fortune.
But there's a point where you may have so much money merit doesn't really matter anymore. You have enough money where you can do as you please and your children will always be fine.
The amount of money where merit starts to not matter is likely when you have at least $1 million in liquid assets per person. With $1 million in liquid assets, you can generate between $30,000 – $50,000 in passive income with relatively low risk. Most people can survive just fine on $30,000 – $50,000 without having to do any work.
If you want to live in a higher-cost area or you have more luxurious tastes, then you might need at least $3 million in liquid assets per person where merit starts to matter less. $3 million in investments can generate between $90,000 – $150,000 a year in passive income. $3 million is also the definition of a real millionaire today thanks to inflation.
There's just one thing to be aware of if you're trying to go for this strategy. No matter how rich you get, as a parent, you still want your kids to succeed on their own merit. Deep down, you may feel guilty paving their path to success with gold bricks and a massive trust fund. After all, honor is important for all Financial Samurais.
In order to buy your kid's way through the front door at universities like Harvard, you may need to donate at least $10 million. Back in the 1980s, the price of admission only had a $1 million hurdle. Hence, if you want to bypass merit, you can do so by getting extraordinarily wealthy!
Related: The Wide Implications Of The College Bribery Scandal
Hard Work Is Still Worth It
Although it's a bummer that merit is no longer as rewarded as it once was, I'm still going to push my children to work hard. Having a good work ethic will help them when things inevitably get tough in all aspects of life.
One of the ways I'm going to encourage my kids to work hard is by continuing to work hard myself by writing another book. Showing is far more effective than telling.
At the end of the day, all of us really want is to be properly rewarded based on our efforts. I have yet to meet someone who feels good about receiving something they don't deserve.
Equal opportunity is a worthwhile goal. The opportunity for anybody interested in learning about personal finance is a big reason why I write on Financial Samurai.
You will build more wealth over the years compared to those who don't read Financial Samurai and other personal finance sites. However, I don't believe we will all end up multi-millionaires with yachts parked in the South of France. It would be nice! But it's simply not reality.
Reader Questions And Suggestions
Readers, do you think there is a war on merit? If so, what are some strategies to help you and your children survive such a war? How is it possible to engineer equal outcomes for students? Have you considered relocating to a more socialist country like Canada so your kids have a better chance of getting into school?
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71 thoughts on “How To Survive The War On Merit: When Hard Work Isn’t Enough”
My criticism of your podcast version of this post is that you laud the drive and work ethic of the Indian and Chinese but then say that adult children living at home is a horrible thing when that is very common in Asia.
Criticism is welcome! What would you have liked me to say?
Are you commenting from China or India? I’m writing from an American’s point of view because that’s 90% of the readership.
We live in joint family systems which is advantageous for young starters as half their paycheck is not spent on rent, utilities etc.. This frees up expenses for investment properties, stock portfolios etc. Families that live paycheck to paycheck are unable to build wealth and escape the rat race. The only downside really is a lack of independence and the issue of low motivation to succeed in young people.
I can’t remember which recent post you suggested keeping a log of work accomplishments (might have been this one). I have been doing this for the past two years because I was constantly getting shuffled from one director to another. Well, today it paid off! Because of my log, I was able to easily argue a case for promotion. The upper management group had little choice but to seriously consider me a promo. That tip and log just made me an extra $10k annually!
Wonderful! Hooray! $10K extra a year is a lot. I’m pumped for you.
Can you do me a solid and pickup a hardcopy of Buy This, Not That and leave it a great review on Amazon? I think you’ll really enjoy it, and it will provide you even more value over time. Thanks!
> I just remember losing a tennis match to TJ’s #1 player, who went on to attend Harvey Mudd College. He’s now a computer engineer at a tech firm and probably makes about $500,000 a year.
That was my freshman year roommate, Kim Sparrow. Funny to find this in a blog.
Speaking as a former TJ alum, I’m pretty sure the “commended student” thing is a non-issue for two reasons. The first is that you receive that news directly from the National Merit organization, not from the school, in the same way you receive your test scores externally. Second is that so many kids fell into that category they’d be announcing half the school. For what it’s worth, I fell in that category years and years ago.
Cool beans. What did you end up doing after TJ? Reports say the national merit organization doesn’t notify commended students. Only if you become a semi finalist so you can compete to be a finalist and winner.
These Commended student awards are more common, but that is not the issue. The issue is that some school administrator didn’t want to ‘hurt the feelings’ of the other students who didn’t win an award. THAT is the issue. It is similar to the “Everyone wins a participation trophy” issue. Academics is competitive, just as sports is competitive. People need to accept that not everyone can be a winner. Some people end up being better than others at certain activities either though natural talent, hard work, or both. That is life.
Oh the DEI police are coming for you. Don’t you know that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is all the rage these days. Meritocracy is so passe’, excellence is not recognized today, working hard is frowned upon, and the content of your character no longer means much these days.
All you have to do is prove “victimhood” are you’re in, in Universities, receiving promotions, gaining a government job, selecting a supreme court justice, qualifying for an administrative appointment by the President, and applying for a corporate job in Woke corporations, non-profits, hospitals, and even in religious organizations.
However, with all that being said, you’re going to observe, in the next federal election cycle, a return to merit, to excellence, to E Pluribus Unum, and the pursuit of the American Dream.
This conversation regarding merit and how to achieve success is focusing on academics with the exception of a brief mention earlier in the thread regarding apprenticeships. First, I value education. My extended family (African-American) had high academic standards for all their kids and none have nothing less than a four year college degree. (I also remember being on of the few African-American students in college prep classes and also being discouraged by certain teachers to take certain classes) However, obtaining a college degree is now seen as the only pathway to success; too many young people have been steered towards college who are not well suited, will fail, and only become heavily indebted. I work for the federally operated Civilian Conservation Centers that train youth in union affiliated trades, e.g. carpentry, electrical, heavy equipment operations, and welding in addition to conservation trades, e.g. forestry, expanded dispatch, wildland firefighting. For whatever reason, youth (many are what we call under-served/difficult to serve) enrolling in the program were not successful in mainstream schools or they have graduated with a high school diploma, (by itself useless if you want to advance in life), worked a series of dead-end jobs and realize they need additional skills for a shot at a decent life. American’s need to re-evaluate how professions and professions are viewed/valued. First, no matter what their race, the immigrants kids are generally hungrier and work harder. Part of my job is to tell students’ stories and all the following ones are particularly exceptionally and stand out in my memory, they are not unusual. These young people have the skills and training to work and eventually own and operate their own businesses and they do. Even if they don’t want to own/operate their own business, their skills command high salaries. I have tons of stories but just this summer, a young 20 year woman from El Savador enrolled on one of our CCCs who had been enrolled in college that turned out to be a degree mill (far two many minority students end up enrolled in these shams). But she was smart and determined. After googling “free education” she stumbled upon our program and, wasting no time, was enrolled within weeks. She decided to enroll in our expanded dispatch recorder trade which requires paid work-based learning during the training. She worked at dispatch centers across the country last summer and by month three she had earned $60,000 and the fire season was not even over. Two sisters, 19 and 20, as welders, accepted positions in the United Arab Emerites, immediately pulling down $100,000. Or one of the Lost Boys from Sudan who trained as a Pharmacy Tech and now owns his own pharmacy in Washington state. (by the way, we provide financial literacy classes to help students understand how to manage their money/file taxes, etc. after seeing too many Amazon packages being delivered on-center) Trades such as electrical and heavy equipment operations are equally lucrative and at minimum union apprenticeships are going to pay middle-class salaries. Our program is FREE with room, board, health, allowance, etc. Yet, our recruiters are rebuffed when they go into high schools to recruit young people. I joke that my master plumber has a good head start on paying his daughters college tuition if it its invested wisely. Over a multi-year house remodel (fixer upper) he has about $60,000 of my money. Americans need to stop looking down on and under-valuing these jobs.
Yes, I agree that Moore high school graduate should go into the trades. You can make good money within a couple of years of apprenticeship. The cost of college is egregiously. Hi now that everything is free.
Supposedly, only 3% of high school graduates go into the trades in America. The number is over 50% in Europe.
100% agree with you and thank you for your program! Apprentice ships and trade jobs are so important and critically needed! Its so egotistical and elitist for all the academics to think that college is the best option for everyone (I guess not that surprising though since the administrators of these colleges are paid from tutiton fees..)
To each their own. Some academics and philosophers are needed, but right now we also need highly skilled workers in multiple trades! Given the high cost, and pretty low prospects for academic faculty positions why not train in a skill and earn a great salary without all the academic BS!
Living in CA, being Chinese, and having 2 boys that’s growing into teenagers, I have already noticed this trend over the past few years. (and I am pretty worried)
What are some action steps you and your sons are taking to ensure that you get a fair opportunity?
Hi Sam ,
This is a great post . I have learnt some of these things over the years but never seen it thoughtfully put together in such a succinct way.
One of your best posts. So good! In DC they have covered the merit scholarship scandal, but it’s close to us. Disappointing the news didn’t spend much time on it elsewhere.
Bottom line these people are trying to force everyone to be equal by pushing the high performers down rather than raising up the low performers – bc that’s much easier to do. Not to mention that many low performers do not WANT to push themselves and do not want to be with the studious kids. Not everyone is the same and people should make their own choices! Asians need to realize that hard work is only one element of the formula – they need to apply some of this energy to getting involved and ensure their voices are heard and say “No we do not agree and we will not comply”. (Don’t take this the wrong way …) Or we will turn into China. I’m sick of everyone whining – get involved bc some patriotic Americans (mostly white but also some Hispanics) are fighting back and since we are becoming a minority we need your help!
We would lose to TJ tech in chess at playoffs every year too. They would let only 2 people from our county to attend. Some tried to change addresses to a relative to get in.
One of your best posts. I have sent it to my two daughters and several friends.
Being Chinese, doing your best at school is mostly expected, not just encouraged. Most of us do not question how important an education is to your future. Coming from a poor immigrant family, doing well in school is also the only way we know we can get out of poverty.
I talk about this because I went to a magnet high school that had majority native born African American students and probably less than 20% Asian students (most from Immigrant families). Despite this, every AP and Honors classes had majority Asian students and very few African American students. Same school, same teachers. Looking at the chart that shows how much each group spent on studying shows you why.
Creating equality is not just about who gets to go to the best schools, it is about improving the environment they grew up in and the family support they have. Kids can succeed if parents give them the time and help they need. Parents and communities need to prioritize education as a major step in future success.
I don’t feel there is a war on merit. However, merit alone will not take you where you need to go. I agree with you that emotional intelligence, empathy, and grit will take you a long way.
I wonder if there is a rational believe that there’s no need to study is hard because their family finances are actually fine. Or maybe the people don’t study as hard or OK with not climb in the corporate ladder and getting rich.
Because at the end of the day, everything is long-term rational. If you want more opportunities, you will work harder and figure things out.
It’s time to teach TJ administrators that they screwed up students lives and cost them a significant amount of $$$, in tuition and potential earnings. They should be sued into oblivion.
Thanks for the article Sam.
I think entrepreneurship is the way to go. If you do a good job, you reap all the rewards, but if not, you get nothing – a way to keep meritocracy alive!
Even so, you might still have to get “in” with government workers in certain industries (e.g. building inspector for real estate). So, maybe nothing is completely merit based.
So funny you mentioned being “in” with certain local government departments or employees. I was just having this discussion with my friend last night in regard to the tax assessments on properties in Sonoma County. Some of yearly taxes the off the charts..as in, you need two fat incomes so that one can pay the property taxes or you have a friend in the Tax Assessor’s office. Advancement and opportunity based on merit is ideal but I agree with you that there’s always a benefit to “who you know” as well.
Intriguing article, Sam.
To address your question, I would say that calling it a “WAR” might be a little extreme and inaccurate. The historically rich and privileged groups in this country are still rich and privileged (just look at any income and net worth data based on race and gender. You’ll see that wealth/income disparity is still alive and kicking).
However, It is understandable that the gatekeepers may feel threatened by the thought of sharing the food at the table with others.
Here’s a problem-case scenario for the masses. Whoever can solve this following problem, probably has the solution to the merit problem in our wonderful country:
Let’s say you are the parent of 5 wonderful children. They are 17, 15, 10, 5, and 3.
For the last 3 years, you have had the practice of, at dinner time, placing all the food on the table and telling your children “Dinner Time! The strongest and the quickest get to eat first!”
After a few years of this practice, you notice that your smaller, younger children are starving to death. You love ALL of your children, so you realize that you have to do something different in terms of distributing the food because you want all of your children to eat.
What will you do?
Whoever comes up with the solution can apply that same practice to the USA……assuming, of course, that we love ALL of our citizens, and we want ALL of our citizens to eat.
The obvious solution is to let your malnourished children eat more. Try to treat them as equally as possible.
Too bad hundreds of millions of citizens in America are not all one family. It’s intense competition for survival.
If you’re a hardworking person from a poor immigrant family, I think you should be rewarded.
How do you think about merit for yourself and your children?
Alas Sam, you have identified the TRUE problem. We are a country. But internally, instinctively; we don’t consider ourselves a country of ONE.
“A house divided cannot stand”.
But to answer your last question. I am an educator by profession so, of course, I believe that students should be awarded for their hard work. I also believe that, for the health and future or our country, we need to find a way for all students who work hard to find success AT THEIR LEVEL.
One thing that’s not discussed in your post is that only about 30% of Adult Americans actually graduated from college. Therefore we as a country need to provide respectable living wages for our citizens that don’t graduate from college.
If we need to do that for non-college bound adults…..don’t non-college bound children deserve the same support?
Everyone in my family (Myself, Wife and 3 adult children) has a minimum of a Masters degree.
Apprenticeship can help immensely. Only ~3% of Americans go on to do apprenticeships after college. Yet, the median income of an apprentice turned worker is $70,000.
College is getting more and more overrated.
What do you and your children do?
I think that this is an excellent recommendation. I’m not sure why a college education is *always* ( or almost always) considered the gold standard. For many people an apprenticeship or skilled trade makes so much more sense! My children are all either in college or grad school right now, but we only encouraged them to go that route because their interests/abilities/skills aligned with something that necessitated a college degree (computer engineering, data science, etc).
Sam, if you want to travel with your children and still want them to learn to work hard and learn well, might you consider home education? I just finished 17 years of home educating as my youngest (twins) are now in college and it was a wonderful experience where we could travel with them and have a lot of flexibility while they were younger.
Love your blog and have learned much along the way!
Yes, we are a house divided, divided by ideals Wokeness vs. Individual freedoms. Wokeness turns E Pluribus Unum on its head — “from many one” to “from one, many”. It perverts the American Dream into an American nightmare in which the characteristics you inherit at birth determine who you are and what you can achieve.
In addition, we need to install mandatory “National Service” in our high schools, whereby all student teenagers not legal adults, over the summer volunteer their service for two-months to things like teaching, working with charities, police, fire service or army. This is not a summer internships with corporations, it’s public service. That way our kids will learn what it means to be an American citizen.
I don’t think forcing teenagers to spend their summers volunteering is a good idea. Many teens work for income out of economic necessity or are saving for college, etc.
Besides, not everyone has an interest in volunteering/working in teaching, charities, police, fire service or the army.
Somewhat fair analogy but not exactly on point. The ones proverbially “starving to death” in education aren’t going to do better regardless of the watering down on merit (unless we go real extreme here and absolutely destroy the point of education). Between the fastest child in the analogy and the second or third fastest, knowing that they will eat even if unequally, I assume there was a reason why I wanted to train them to come as quickly as possible to begin with. If the goal is to continue having them come over faster and faster (I.e., progress, advancement) I have to keep incentivizing them to do exactly that.
Family A has 1 million and 2 children.
Family B has 1 million and 1 child.
In one generation, Family B will be twice as rich as family A.
If the government redistributes assets to address this inequality, the response will be to have more children to get more money. This is exactly what you see in low income populations, many of them have multiple children to increase their share of government benefits.
Or maybe children are easier to raise and much cheaper than people think?
Your analogy is really flawed and twisted, but we can extend it and analyze it in other ways to learn more:
One way would be applying an ‘equality’ lens which would say all the different kids of different ages get the exact same amount of food. In this case the older kids might not get enough to sustain them and the younger children would probably get too much and waste it, so I think everyone would agree that this is not good, and is basically a socialism type of concept… Importantly here it is critical to understand that distributing a resource exactly evenly and equally is NOT the best in this case.
So then under an ‘equity’ lens then the food would be distributed according to need so the older kids would get more to sustain their growth and the younger kids would get less because they need less, nothing goes to waste. This is what actually happens in real life and most families who can provide for their children. Importantly here it is critical to understand the food is distributed UNEVENLY and that is the best use of the resource! So just because things are distributed unevenly does not mean it is discriminatory, in fact it may be the ideal and best use of a resource.
Now a more twisted and discriminatory “equity” approach would be to say, ok, the 3 y/o is not developed enough and has been disadvantaged because he was born later and hasn’t developed compared to the 17 y/o. In fact our research shows that 3 y/o’s are a minority in the population! We are going to give the 3 y/o an entire turkey with all the fixings and the 17 y/o can just fend for himself or herself because he is well off already. Now the 17 y/o is starving and wasting away, while the 3 y/o gets fat and wastes tons of food. I think most would agree that this is actually the worst use of the resource and is even worse than giving it out equally. This approach is discriminatory. You should not fight historical discrimination with more discrimination.
There is no arguing that certain races and genders were discriminated against in the past. Affirmative action policies have been critical to reverse that imbalance. The real question is today after 20-30 years at least of equal opportunity acts is the current playing field even. How long should we keep these affirmative action policies in place? Do those from all races and genders have an opportunity to work hard and succeed based upon their merits and skills? I would firmly argue that in the United States today all races and genders do have an opportunity to work hard and succeed based upon their merits and skills. The United States still represents the best meritocracy where all people including immigrants, and disadvantaged people can succeed to some degree if they are persistent and work hard. Is everyone going to be a millionaire no! Are millionaires and entrepreneurs who took massive risks to build business all bad, no! Importantly it may take 1-2 generations, but success can happen in the US. Don’t have an idealistic naive view that everything should be perfect and only perfect harmony is ok. Life is difficult, and life is challenging, and that builds character and strength. People are inherently unequal. Some people are naturally better than others at certain things. We should encourage and support people who excel and succeed or are gifted in certain areas, instead of try to prop up people who may not be good at what we think we want them to be and do. Real motivation, drive, and excellence comes from internal motivation and many times initiates from adversity and challenge. This is life, this is evolution, and survival of the fittest and is the reason we are alive today..
You make some valid points. Some of which I totally agree with. As I said in my earlier post, everyone of my three children are college graduates. That didn’t occur because I believe in meritless rewards.
However, I don’t agree that my analogy is “twisted”. I never suggested that the answer to my case study was socialism. YOU made that assumption.
The only point I’m trying to make is this; if there is a so-called “War” on meritocracy, then who in the world is winning this war?? Surely you’re not saying that the poor and uneducated are winning.
Also, I never brought up the topic of race. You did. The majority of the people in this country are not college graduates, and the majority of poor people in this country are from the majority group (total number-wise. Not percentage-wise).
No because I think as a whole “community/country” we are all losing. If we chose to dumb things down to make everyone equal when we know “equal” is a fallacy then who wins? Who creates the innovation? I can say I want a very skilled engineer designing the plane I fly on or a skilled surgeon.
I personally am from historically disadvantaged/minority group x2. I grew up in a low income but two parent home that encouraged education. I am not from an elite group and I would say I am only a little above average intelligence but I was motivated to do and be more. One of the real problems is the culture within some of these groups. For example in my high school it was not cool to study. We need more mentors within these groups to encourage opportunity not entitlement. I do believe grit and work ethic can make up for a tremendous amount of limitations. The internet has been a great equalizer like the library during Carnegie”s time.
I appreciate how you assess the environment and strategize to win in this article because that is the reality. I was listening to a young person the other day complain that she could not get a job in sales but yet she had tattoos even on her face…the reality is she has a right to do with her body what she wants but it doesn’t mean everyone else has to accept it. She declared she was a victim…this a a cultural issue. I am afraid we have become a country of victims and we will continue to keep lowering the bar to accommodate this ideology.
What a great post!
Very good points. I feel like people of all backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed in this country, but some don’t recognize it or squander it. In my almost 50 years in the professional workforce (business/IT), I have worked with, and for, many ethnicities and backgrounds. They achieved their level of success, however measured, through internal drive, work ethic, and effort. Intelligence matters, but you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. You can outwork people and still be successful. Today, it seems that there are too many people being lazy, trying to take shortcuts to success, or trying to get something for nothing.
Long time reader here (I’ve posted in the past about my regret of selling my house in Florida instead of renting it when the company forced me to move)
I am a graduate of TJ. But a long time ago before this news came out that I was not aware of. I was definitely aware of all the national merit stuff though, because my PSAT was not high enough.
Meritocracy has been officially labelled a tenet of “White Supremacy”; as such, it must be squelched at all costs. (aside: who unilaterally decided like 5 minutes ago that “white supremacy” no longer means “a bunch of nimrods in pointy hats and bedsheets running around being a$$hats”, but now means all of western civilization? Sorry, not buying it.)
Kudos, Sam, for addressing this topic. It’s very ugly, and will only get uglier in the coming decades as things get dumbed down further and further in the service of “equity”. People do not understand that “equity” is not the same as “equality”. Anyone read “Harrison Bergeron”? Equity is in fact an intentionally anodyne term being used to cover up something genuinely sinister.
It feels a little gross to glibly discuss “surviving” the war on meritocracy; we should rather be raging against it. Think it through to its logical conclusion; major universities are ceasing to require SATs; law schools are starting to eschew the LSAT; and medical schools are also dumbing down their requirements. Will you want to subject yourself to the tender mercies of a surgeon who wasn’t required to excel in medical school?
Anybody paying attention to what’s happening with professional licensing boards? Have you noticed that what are effectively “loyalty oaths” to the new religion are being required to gain professorships or to obtain/retain licenses to practice? This story about TJ is the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
The impulse to aid those less fortunate is entirely correct, but murdering merit is not the way to do it.
When you eliminate meritocracy, what else do you have to fall back upon? Well, as Sam points out, one thing is your network, your relationships. How is that “equality”? And what is the logical conclusion of that approach? You got it– tribalism. And tribalism is precisely what the West has managed to rise above— not perfectly, but to a pretty amazing extent. We gotta fight falling backwards this way, tooth and nail.
Apologies for the rant, but having closely followed what’s been going on in the universities for the past couple of decades, I am genuinely concerned. No one would be more delighted than I if I end up being wrong…. but I fear we’re in a heap o’ trouble, folks.
Spot on here, completely agree.
One question I have and stuggle with is how do you challege or raise these concerns about DEI without being labeled a racist or jeopardizing your job??
I think this is really why these discriminatory equity policies have flourished unchecked because people are afraid or can’t figure out how to discuss legitimate concerns about them without being labled a racist. Any thoughts on this?
“How do you challenge or raise these concerns about DEI without being labeled a racist or jeopardizing your job?” THAT is the million dollar question, Andy. Sadly, many people of good will who have attempted to raise even mild objections or concerns have in fact lost their jobs; the internet is rife with their stories.
In a country founded on freedom, millions of people are self-censoring in the face of a rabid ideology that brooks no challenge to its correctness. Orwell nailed it. Ultimately, Sam is also right that your best defense is to own your own business, and rely on no one else to pay your salary. The ultimate defense: Have F. U. money.
I don’t think direct links are do-able here, but search for an article on The Free Press (thefp.com) entitled “How DEI is Supplanting Truth as the Mission of American Universities.” Sobering stuff.
An excellent organization offering help to people seeking to push back against unjust oppression for speaking out in opposition to illiberal ideologies is Counterweight (counterweightsupport.com). NewDiscourses.com also provides encyclopedic information about this stuff.
And remember: Coerced uniformity of opinion is the tactic of tyrants.
How is it possible to engineer equal outcomes for students?
I believe it comes down to really getting to know the student – what is his/her passion, natural talent, skills, ambition, intelligence, etc. It’s ok to not perform at the highest level in every skill or quality but I believe that everyone has some innate abilities that make them a top performer. These innate abilities, combined with interest, are the areas students should work on growing. The end goal is for everyone to feel that they are a success. An artist can be happy creating beauty for others to enjoy and a doctor can be happy for the lives he/she has improved/saved.
I’ve heard so many stories of successful people where they share how they didn’t do so well in school/college but you wouldn’t know it from the businesses they created and the impact they have on the world. Many of these individuals had loving parents that encouraged them along the way. For those without parental support, there was a mentor that encouraged the talent they recognized.
Your comment about understanding and emulating the gate keepers was spot on. Ditto maintaining friendships. Excellent advice. As you move up the organization, people skills matter more than technical and connections are everything most of the time.
I had the benefit of it early on but did not realize it. I still worked hard but did not see. Identified it later in my career. Until you are near retirement, time spent networking is well worth it. It after all will impact your pay and benefits which carries through to your retirement pension assuming you are lucky enough to work for an organization that has one.
It is hard to realize what we don’t know. We are explained things when we are young, and perhaps don’t comprehend or bother to listen. Then, only when we are older do we recognize the wisdom in such explanations.
Life can be so much easier if we listen to those who’ve experienced what we will go through.
Agree. Oftentimes we go through the “school of hard knocks” needlessly.
I am blind, Hispanic, grew up in a poor home, and despite these disadvantages, I’ve done well for myself. It’s always appreciated when people give me a chance to prove myself, but the idea that I would be granted an opportunity just to meet someone’s quota would be offensive.
This is why I am politically conservative. My Republicans have a lot to improve upon, but we don’t try to win over the masses by promising the sort of equality and diversity policies that only serve to further divide society. And, to be clear, I mean liberal leaders. The average person, on either side of the aisle, already felt the … let’s call them unintended consequences to give benefit of the doubt … of these “woke” positions. What the school did was spiteful. And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s something conservative media reported.
The irony in all this is that the minorities for whom these policies are fashioned are, or can be, every bit as racist as the people against whom the policies are supposed to protect. Bring back merit. The answer is not giving everyone a trophy, but rather, encouraging the trophy winners to help others learn how to be just as successful through mentorship.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Joe. I’m glad things have worked out for you.
It’s an interesting situation right now, because we can view the equalization of everybody from two lenses:
1) for our future
2) for our children’s future, which also affects how much time we spend teaching them now
It’s interesting, because if our children get closer to equal outcomes, then parents can kick back more. Parenthood has kicked my butt. Unfortunately, my kids don’t seem to be in the right group for extra help. But we don’t need the extra help. It just would be nice if we didn’t get punished for being who we are.
I do like the idea for everybody to get a smart as possible and as wealthy as possible so they don’t have to face goalkeepers for too long of their lives.
You ROCK, Joe. Spot on!
Whoa! Mentioning the PSATs was a blast from the past. I took them 40 years ago and got some recognition for my score, but no scholarship so I didn’t pay much attention to it. Well, I was the first in my immediate family to go to uni so we didn’t know just being “commended” could have led to such things. Kind of makes the point that gatekeepers can keep people out without them even knowing they’re being excluded.
Yeah, I didn’t understand the national merit scholarship the either until this report. I heard about it, but I never scored high enough to get close to the top three or 4% of test takers.
I went to Barnes & Noble’s as a kid and just skimmed through the books and then I went to the library to get those SAT prep books which already had the answers! So I doubt they helped me too much. Those books probably gave me overconfidence until I got my crappy scores.
It would’ve been nice to be able to afford $2500 Princeton review SAT test prep programs. Alas, we didn’t have the means to do so, but I think this is one of the reasons why SAT tests are becoming more optional.
Fascinating. I hadn’t thought of this in a rather long time. Nothing about any of this was secret at my public high school.
I was called to the school’s office and told I was a semifinalist. I had no idea what that was. I barely remembered taking the PSAT. We had four semifinalists in my school and what I found amazing was that the other three were people I considered to be serious ‘brains.’ They were the 4.0 students in all the advanced classes and so on, while I was an indifferent student with middling grades relegated to classes shared with jocks and cheerleaders.
Oddly enough, I soon found myself propelled into the same classes with those three, and quickly became an ‘A’ student myself. It never felt like I was doing anything differently. I know for a fact that I never even learned how to study until after I’d been at college a couple of years.
All I can attribute it to is that the perception of me held by my teachers and guidance counselor had been drastically altered. Granted, most kids didn’t go to the library on their lunch hour and cruise through the encyclopedia, or chew through every astronomy book they had. But those are things I was doing long before the PSAT scores came in. Nope, pretty sure it was the changed perception of me, due to those test scores.
I never saw any prep books or courses for any of this SAT related stuff. Later, when I was an assistant professor, and regularly conducted scholarship interviews of high school students, I did note it had become a full-blown industry.
All four of us became finalists, and all four of us knew my subsequent SAT scores were the highest in the school which, initially, I might have liked to think they were chagrinned by, but in actual fact they turned out to be pretty good people as I came to know them better and spent some time in their circles. I was still pretty shocked when various ivy leagues, including Harvard, invited me to come meet with them (I didn’t go, my dream then was still the Air Force Academy).
And yes, you are spot on about the emotional quotient. I still recall being surprised, at my first job after college, that simply being the best at most things didn’t get me much — certainly not compared with the guys that played on the department’s softball team. Took me years to figure that one out.
I would say there is definitely some people who are better test takers that others. Some don’t have to study very hard or try very hard to get the grades or get grade scores. I was definitely not one of them. Matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get straight days or above 1,200 on my SAT.
So considered yourself a blessed genius!
Aside from having teachers that are convinced your aptitude for taking standardized tests entitles you to high grades, I never realized the true “secret” of 4.0 students until I was teaching at a university.
I knew the GPA of all my students. I knew that some were 4.0 students. And I wondered how they did that because, in my own experience, just bad luck getting a lousy professor could end that.
These students would come to me, individually, outside of class, and ask questions. These weren’t questions about what was being taught, not precisely. Instead, they would ask me about, say, an upcoming paper that was coming due. They would be asking specific questions about what it should do and what an ideal effort would look like.
Slowly and gradually they would pin me down on the precise specifics of what I would need to see addressed in order to declare that paper worthy of an A. In effect, they were creating an informal contract with me. If they fulfilled it, I would have no basis for awarding less than an A. They were really, really, good at this. Then they would deliver precisely what we had agreed upon and they stayed 4.0 students.
I kept tabs on many of them after they graduated and they’ve all gone quite far.
Also, there are probably well over 20 aptitudes (things you do well and that you enjoy–it has to be both). It’s quite possible to be a genius in one and an idiot in another. The tv show, Big Bang Theory, had endless fun with this. Many geniuses have too many aptitudes, and flit between them too much to really have the impact they could have.
I believe the most successful people tend to have only a few aptitudes (or only a few that they allow themselves to fully indulge) and if these are in the right combination, and at the right point in history (and or the business cycle), voila!
“ Slowly and gradually they would pin me down on the precise specifics of what I would need to see addressed in order to declare that paper worthy of an A. In effect, they were creating an informal contract with me. If they fulfilled it, I would have no basis for awarding less than an A. They were really, really, good at this. Then they would deliver precisely what we had agreed upon and they stayed 4.0 students.”
Fascinating, logical, and brilliant! I might have to make a post out of this.
Can you summarize your background so I can properly describe you in a potentially upcoming post? Thx
I often see a response such as yours as to why a student did not do as well on the SAT or other standardized testing – because they didn’t have the wealth. If wealth is what provides good scores on exams, then what was the basis of the Varsity Blues scandal? Surely all of those parents were considered wealthy and at least one dad only wanted his daughter to get a score of 18 out of 31 on the ACT! I believe wealth does correlate with high test scores, but when it comes to Asians, this correlation is not so straightforward. For example, looking at Stuyvesant High School in NY, the majority of the Asian students there are free and reduced meal students. I have noticed impoverished Asians’ academic accomplishment is basically never acknowledged, as it doesn’t fit in with the U.S. narrative to explain the lack of academic success.
Here’s a data point. Top 12 ranked Senior class at an ok public high school where I live applied for early admissions to hpysm caliber schools. Most of these students were asian. One kid, ranked 6 with less impressive extracurricular activities compared with the others was the only kid who got early admission (at Stanford). As far as we know, he wasn’t meaningfully disadvantaged either. The only differentiator we can speculate on is that he was of a particular racial minority.
Great Post. It is pretty clear that merit and test scores are being devalued or not even factored in at many colleges and institutions of higher education. It is really a horrible trend and totally misguided. Many of these schools find that after they drop requirements for test scores that their academic achievement scores and graduation rates tank! It’s ridiculous. Math is not racist. Life is challenging.
There has been a concerted effort for decades now to help underrepresented minorities and other disadvantaged people. This is great and was much needed. However because admissions to competitive schools and programs are not unlimited if you give an advantage to one applicant solely because of race, gender, or socioeconomic status then you are disadvantaging or discriminating against another applicant likely unfairly. I listened to the Supreme Court arguments recently as they debated this issue at the highest level. It was said very plainly that certain programs amount to “putting your thumb on the scale” in attempt to right an imbalance, those programs when they were instituted were given a set time limit to expire otherwise they would amount to a permanent unfair advantage for certain people.
We have really come such a long way in terms of equal opportunity in this country, when you consider that school desegregation was really enforced starting in the 1970’s. I believe that the pendulum has swung too far though so much so that some races are again being discriminated against, for example there are some schools that have a quota of top faculty professor positions set aside only for underrepresented minorities and no other races will be accepted. That is discrimination and is illegal, ironically under the same law and act that was initially used to fight discrimination! Namely, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 including Title VII which: “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, sex, color, religion and national origin”. In many cases these programs have to be challenged by lawsuits and some of which are under consideration by the Supreme Court now.
Society is ever changing.. I feel that we are in something of a dark era where education and intellect is being discouraged… hopefully that trend will correct because I think a broad education is key to understanding and empathy and the realization that we all have so much more in common than we think.
It’s the bigotry of low expectations. I would seriously be offended if other people thought I wasn’t smart enough to compete on an equal footing. Bring on the hardest of hardships, I will compete, and I will succeed!
Right on Derek…I will succeed also….honestly though with quite quitting? It’s like many young people, are sent very mixed messages. Socialism and downright Marxism is taught and preached. I will succeed also but society is making it more complicated for me and my kids
Whenever I see something called “the war on […]” it takes on a politicized “us vs them” vibe (like “the war on christmas”). It’s usually followed by cherry picking a few examples and then extrapolating to a full on crisis. I’m not really seeing evidence here of a “war on merit”, but I do think its healthy for us as a society to maybe become a bit less obsessed with individual talent and success both at school and later at work. Some of the biggest challenges we have will require emotional intellgence and team work to solve. And some of the most toxic people I’ve worked with have also been the most “successful”.
Don’t worry- the US is one of the most cut throat, individual success above all else countries on earth. That’s not going to change anytime soon despite some students not receiving national merit recognition. But if it takes a “war on merit” to get the pendulum to swing slightly back toward teamwork and working together as a society…so be it.
What is the politics? We’re focused on the correlation with work and reward and whether working super harder is necessary anymore. What are some solutions you would suggest and how do you think about the situation for your kids?
I think you are right that life has become pretty easy now for many people. Therefore, the need to grind as hard in the past is not as necessary.
I’m personally taking it easier for 2023 that’s my main goal. How about you?
Yeah my comment was directed toward the “war on” phrase you used in the title. Just pointing out that when you use phrases like that it carries political undertones- if you haven’t noticed that has become a popular thing for right wing politicians to say “there’s a war on such and such”!.
As for my personal goal, I’m trying to be more deliberate in how i spend my effort and time this year; not just do stuff because I feel some sense of “should”.
It’s exactly these kind of actions that amps up the race to bottom and I do think the rat race in high school is exactly that. The more you try to hide and erase competitive differences , the more people end up finding yet another thing to compete and differentiate themselves in.
If you are already set for life, I wonder if it is strategically wise to encourage a race to the bottom? This way, you get even further ahead by not having to do anything.
I understand having no-scoring soccer games for preschoolers. But taking away the rewards of merit for high schoolers is ludicrous and frankly quite sad.
How are they going to learn the joys and rewards of effort, learned and innate talent, and setting and striving for goals? These are all vital skills and traits they need to succeed long-term in becoming adults, in building their future careers, building and fostering relationships, and in achieving financial independence.
Welcome to Socialism!
We keep voting for it… So it should be of no surprise that its symptoms are showing up everywhere.
Very scary… and very sad….
Sheesh that school withheld info on students doing great and getting National Merit Commended ranks?! I would be livid if I was the parent to one of those students.
This reminds me of the analogy of someone who needs surgery and there are two people would could do their surgery. The first went to medical school but failed to get their medical license. The second went to medical school, got their license, completed their residency, went on to specialize further and also got top recommendations from their time in residency and beyond. Why should they both be treated as equal options to perform the same surgery?
We need to recognize academic achievement and career achievements. Otherwise the world is headed toward a very bad and dark place where no one will care about trying anymore.