Equality not meritocracy

Guest Column | What lies outside of the test

· January 31, 2013, 12:51 am

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We would like to respond to “Take a Chance” The Daily Pennsylvanian’s attempt to articulate the Penn community’s preference for merit-based admissions at Penn Alexander.

The DP “takes a chance” with the educational futures of countless West Philadelphia residents and risks the exclusion of children and families of lower socioeconomic backgrounds from the best elementary school in Philadelphia.

The editorial is correct: there is no perfect way to admit students to Penn Alexander.

However, the editorial wrongfully advocates for a merit-based system. This method is biased at best and prejudiced at worst. Meritocracy is a seductive myth in a country that believes in pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The DP, unfortunately, believes this myth, conflating merit with socioeconomic capital.

At age five, some children are more gifted than their peers, but most of them will do better on an admissions test not because they are smarter, but because their families can provide better resources.

The research supporting this claim abounds. In “Unequal Childhoods,” Penn sociology professor Annette Lareau studies students from different class backgrounds and concludes that “a lack of middle-class cultural capital for disadvantaged students” results in lower academic achievement.

Psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley tracked the quantity of words spoken to children of different social classes. This research demonstrated a “word deficit.” By the age of four, children from “professional” homes hear 32 million more words than those in working-class homes.

Imagine what would happen if five-year-olds from each social class sat down to take a standardized test. Students from more privileged backgrounds would do better and be overrepresented at Penn Alexander.

Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. For a child whose parents are not college-educated, cannot afford to purchase books, cannot be home to read to them or do not speak English, access to the quality of education at Penn Alexander could be just that — the opportunity to be on equal footing with peers of a higher socioeconomic status. The proposal put forth by the DP would do just the opposite. It would select students whose families have more social capital.

The message is a classist one: students of lower socioeconomic status will be disproportionately shut out of one of the best elementary educations in the city simply because of the circumstances of their birth.

What is most ironic and ignorant about the editorial is that it admonishes Penn Alexander for becoming “a school for people of affluence” and yet proposes an alternative that will exacerbate this problem. A testing-based system of admissions tells low-income students their level of intelligence is fixed, unable to be molded, thereby rendering their potential inaccessible.

Finally, the DP’s recommendation to expand the catchment zone suggests that improving the quality of education in West Philadelphia can only be achieved by changing the demographic makeup of the schools. This recommendation paints the current parents and families at Lea and Wilson, who are mostly working-class and black, as uncaring and culpable for the underperformance of their schools. We hope this was due to a lack of information and not prejudice against these families, and we invite all members of the Penn community, including the DP, to talk with students, parents and teachers who regularly advocate for their schools.

We urge the Penn community to think critically about Penn’s intentions at Penn Alexander School and the consequences for West Philadelphia students and families.

We urge the Penn community to reject short-sightedness and misinformation and instead think critically about Penn’s intentions at Penn Alexander School and the consequences for West Philadelphia students and families. Let’s not “take a chance” with the future of our community.

Lee Marcus, Pallavi Podapati and Allyson Even and Lisa Doi are College seniors. They can be reached at lee.evan.marcus@gmail.com.

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