The Myth of the Meritocracy

By David Shenk

NewYorkcover.jpgI strongly recommend this week's New York magazine cover story by Jennifer Senior about the foolishness of allowing intelligence tests to determine the educational fates of four year-old children. 


It's a very human story. But I especially enjoy how Senior brings the science to life. Here's my favorite moment:

I wrote to [University of Iowa psychologist David] Lohman and asked what percentage of 4-year-olds who scored 130 or above would do so again as 17-year-olds. He answered with a careful regression analysis: about 25 percent.

The implications of this number are pretty startling. They mean that three quarters of the seniors in a gifted program would no longer test into that program if asked to retake an IQ test on graduation day. So I wrote Lohman back: Was he certain about this?

"Yes," he replied. "Even people who consider themselves well versed in these matters are often surprised to discover how much movement/noise/instability there is even when correlations seem high."

School administrators, writes Senior, understand best of all that intelligence tests for young kids are "practically worthless as predictors of future intelligence....Rather than promoting a meritocracy, in other words, these tests instead retard one. They reflect the world as it's already stratified--and then perpetuate that same stratification."

Senior is friends with my brother Josh and was kind enough to mention my book a couple of times in passing in her piece. Actually, I was at first a little let down she didn't give the book more play. But after nursing my bruised ego for a few moments, I saw the huge silver lining: there's almost no scientific or journalistic overlap between my book and her well-researched story--and yet, they resonate almost perfectly with one another. Virtually every piece of science and every quote in this piece gibes perfectly with the lessons from my research, the central lesson of which is nicely summed up by the University of Pittsburgh's Robert McCall: "Education and mental achievement builds on itself. It's cumulative."

Intelligence is a process, not a fixed, gene-determined, thing. This process begins very early on, before we can even really see it, and we therefore often confuse these early, invisible stages with some sort of innate giftedness. Then we test kids and report the results as innate differences--this one is gifted, this one is not. This one has extra promise; that one does not. We send the "gifted" ones to good schools with small class sizes, better-trained teachers, better infrastructure, better relationships with parents, and higher expectations. We send the apparently-unpromising kids to under-funded, teach-to-test schools with minimal expectations. 

And then we tell ourselves that we live in an educational meritocracy. Jennifer Senior's piece helps expose that fallacy.

Photo courtesy of New York Magazine

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/02/the-myth-of-the-meritocracy/35371/