“We Cannot Mince Words”: San Francisco Education Official Denounces Meritocracy As Racist

Alison Collins, the Vice President of the San Francisco Board of Education, has declared meritocracy to be racist even in the selection of students at advanced or gifted programs. As we have previously discussed, this has been a building campaign in academia as educators and others denounce selection based on academic performance through testing. At issue in San Francisco is Lowell High School where top students were selected through testing and grades.  Most cities have such gifted programs or institutions, though we have discussed calls for the elimination of all gifted and talented programs in cities like New York.  Lowell had a majority of white and Asian students and only two percent of its student body were African-Americans. Collins and other board members want to abolish the merit-based selection in favor of a blind lottery system.

Collins’ remarks from a San Francisco Board of Education public meeting in October 13, 2020 were only recently posted by Sophie Bearman of San Francisco’s online publication Here/Say Media. In the meeting, she declared “When we talk about merit, meritocracy and especially meritocracy based on standardized testing…those are racist systems.… You can’t talk about social justice, and then say you want to have a selective school that keeps certain kids out from the neighborhoods that you think are dangerous.”

Collins made the statement in support of a resolution, entitled “In Response to Ongoing, Pervasive Systemic Racism at Lowell High School,” authored by Collins, Board President Gabriela Lopez, Commissioner Matt Alexander, and Student Delegates Shavonne Hines-Foster and Kathya Correa Almanza.

Newsweek quotes at least one Lowell teacher who objects to the elimination of the school as a place for top performing students and said that the system is blind on race and designed to reward “the hardest working kids in terms of academics.”

Gifted programs and elite academic schools are designed to allow students to reach their full academic potential with other students performing at the highest level of math and other disciplines. It is often difficult for such students to reach that potential in conventional settings. Teachers have to keep their classes as a whole moving forward in subject areas. That often means that academically gifted children are held back by conventional curricula or lesson plans. Those students can actually underperform due to boredom or the lack of challenging material. Many simply leave the public school system.  Moreover, students tend to perform better with students progressing at their similar level. Teachers can then focus on a lesson plan and discussions that are tailored to students at a similar performance level.

Moving to a lottery system at Lowell would obviously convert the school into a conventional academic program.  We can debate the value of having such schools to cater to the most advanced students. I believe such schools are important components to public education. We not only reward students for their considerable academic achievement but guarantee all students that they can progress as far as their interests and capabilities will take them. These schools are the source of pride in many cities in showing the full potential of high school students in science and other fields.

I do not agree that meritocracy is inherently racist. Students of all races benefit from such schools. While there is clearly less diversity at Lowell, the best solution is not to eliminate such programs but to work harder in the earlier grades to allow minority students to excel (and ultimately gain admission to such programs).

There is a need for meritocracy in academia and society at large. Indeed, such scores offer race-neutral systems for advancement. While subjects like math have been declared racist (and a University of Rhode Island professor recently declared all of science, statistics, and technology to be “inherently racist”), these are fields that allowed many intellectuals of color to advance.

We have to have systems of objective comparison in the ability and performance of students in academia. We use such tests and scores for the selection of students admissions to college and society uses such systems for business and professional advancement. The world is becoming a far more competitive place. Other countries are not abandoning meritocracy. They are pushing their most most talented students to achieve even more in specialized programs and advanced courses. We need to do the same if we are going to remain competitive as a nation. Eliminating elite programs like Lowell removes an opportunity not just for these students but our society as a whole.  These are some of the best developing minds in our country and they should be allowed to reach their full potential through special schools and programs.

I have been a huge supporter of public schools my whole life. While my parents could afford private schools, they helped form a group to keep white families in the public school system in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. They wanted their kids to be part of a diverse school environment. I also sent my kids to public schools for the same reason. I view our public schools as important parts of our society as we shape future citizens.

This efforts in San Francisco and New York will only encourage more families to leave our public school systems and potentially increase rather than reduce problems of diversity in our student bodies. The need to achieve greater diversity in top public high schools is real and needs to be addressed. However, the solution is to create better educational opportunities for younger students to lift them up rather than lower (or eliminate) entry standards at these schools. That is certainly harder than just imposing a lottery system for all schools but it preserves the opportunity for high advancement for students of all races.