How can schools justly ascribe merit?

According to google dictionary, fairness is “impartial and just treatment or behavior without favoritism or discrimination.” The combination of the words impartial and just can easily be misunderstood. Fairness can’t require equality of outcome, or else we would not be able to hold each other accountable for our decisions. For example, it doesn’t make sense for a person who is hiring an employee to be “impartial” with respect to candidates’ past behaviors, but we do expect him or her to be impartial and unprejudiced with respect to characteristics that are irrelevant to the the work to be done, such as race or sex. With respect to education, fairness requires attention to merit, like when teachers grade student’s work. In the end, not everyone who applies to Harvard will be accepted, but that doesn’t mean Harvard admissions are unjust. In fact, impartiality could contradict justice if Harvard failed to take into account students’ past academic performance. At the same time, fairness can be contradicted by giving too much weight to some factor for merit, such as by giving too much weight to standardized test scores. Studies have shown that average students from low-income and minority groups often struggle to perform as well as average students from wealthier areas. 

“The combination of the words impartial and just can easily be misunderstood. Fairness can’t require equality of outcome, or else we would not be able to hold each other accountable for our decisions.”


The challenge is to find realistic grounds for merit, so that one discriminates based on just criteria, and does not discriminate based on unjust criteria. At present, it is impossible to present equal opportunities to every person, and every student. So the challenge is to fairly judge the merits of individuals in very different situations. One could examine where an individual started and how far the individual has grown, and then compare that to other students. In this way it makes sense to give more merit to a young woman from the South Side of Chicago, who works to help her mother support the household, studies without assistance and scores a 1300 on the SAT, compared to the California tech giant employee’s son who has had access to professional tutoring and scores a 1500. 

But the system still has a massive flaw. After all, some are born with greater intellectual gifts than others, through no virtue of their own. Some of my classmates work half as hard as others and earn the same grades. It seems the system necessarily rewards people for their gifts, which they did nothing to deserve, and thereby withholds merit from those who have worked harder but without those intellectual gifts. Is this fair? I am not sure. It seems that the best we can do to be fair in education is to try to assess what students have made of the gifts they have been given. In the end, the world isn’t fair. Some are born with intellectual disabilities. Some are born with extraordinary intellectual gifts. I saw an image recently of two scenarios. In one, three apples hung from a tree at the same height. A tall man was able to grab one. The woman next to him could almost touch another, and the boy next to her wasn’t even close. The image read equality. In the next scenario, the woman and the boy were standing on boxes just tall enough to enable them to pick their apples. This image read equity

“But the system still has a massive flaw.”


I don’t think that equality of outcome is possible, but if we tweak the image just a bit it represents what I think of when I think of fairness in the world, especially in education: a truer form of equality of opportunity. The opportunities stretched above different individuals should reflect the playing fields these persons are on. The threshold opportunities for development should be reachable for everyone on the field, though it is up to them to climb toward those opportunities. Different people will end up climbing to different heights, and chances are that some of the people who started on hills will climb the highest, but the opportunity should be at least reachable by all. It is the responsibility of the tall man who could pick his apple to bend the branch so the others around him can do the same. In the end, the kid who has had his life handed to him on a silver platter and scored a 1500 on the SAT has a higher likelihood of getting into a good school than a kid with fewer intellectual gifts and fewer opportunities who worked hard to achieve a 1300. Merit can’t always be ascribed where merit is due, but if ascribed justly, it should reflect more than just a person’s gifts. Outcomes will never be equal, and impartiality is sometimes unfair. Justice does not mean getting everyone to the same place. Creating a fair society is the duty of those who started on the hilltops, to hand down the ladder of growth, development, and opportunity to those who started beneath them but may surpass them if given the opportunity. Everyone deserves a chance.

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