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Talent vs. Democracy

Rita Koganzon

In a realm as susceptible to fads and novelties as education, it can be difficult to perceive when the tectonic plates underneath us are shifting and really fundamental changes are taking place. Over the past decade or so, education policymakers have gone all in and then back out again on a bewildering number of reforms, including performance pay for teachers, “grit” and “growth mindset,” project-based and cooperative learning, social-emotional learning, mindfulness, restorative justice, anti-racism, and – coming any day now, we are told – an AI revolution. But just beneath all these exasperating empty efforts, a more consequential change has been underway in the slow-motion national rejection of the premises that have structured K-12 education since WWII.

These premises, emerging from the international tumult of the 1930s through the 1950s, were that the American regime, now dubbed “liberal democracy,” could be decisively proven superior to its competitors by means of its greater freedom, affluence, technological progress, and cultural attainment. To achieve this end, the educational system would have to be reoriented from its broad prewar purpose of “social adjustment”–preparing children to get along interpersonally and make ends meet in a complex, industrial society–to a new aim: identifying and developing talent.

According to this premise, future politicians and bureaucrats, engineers and industrialists, artists and intellectuals could be found anywhere. They were as likely to be born in a migrant shack in Bakersfield as in a genteel rowhouse on Beacon Hill. It was imperative, therefore, that they be identified and given every possible means of attaining their highest intellectual potential, without regard to the resources of their families or to the irrational prejudices of society.

Policies created new and extracurricular programs to find and cultivate talented individuals. Novel methods of evaluation followed, including the SAT and other aptitude tests, gifted and talented programs, and competitions for academic and co-curricular subjects like mathematics and debate. These changes occurred at both the local and national level. In time, colleges and universities, the final and highest receptacles of talent development, became more competitive and rankings-oriented.

We could, somewhat imprecisely and reductively, call this new paradigm “meritocracy,” as Jerome Karabel described the goal of the educational transformation of this period in his important history of elite college admissions. But this label tends to overemphasize the technocratic and psychometric aspects of the project while downplaying its central humanistic and civic aims. Moreover, while meritocracy is typically understood in opposition to affirmative action and legacy preferences in admissions, these were actually auxiliary elements of the re-orientation of the educational system around talent development.

The engineers of the new paradigm were varied in their own interests – there were psychometricians like Lewis Terman of Stanford and Henry Chauncey, inaugural president of the Educational Testing Service, which designed and administered the SAT. But there were also proponents of humanistic learning like Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago and the authors of the 1945 Harvard report, General Education in a Free Society, who spurned standardization and argued for a pedagogy of encounters with the “Great Books” and the liberal arts.

Of all the mid-century reformers, the one who epitomized the synthesis was James B. Conant, president of Harvard from 1933-1953, and so indefatigable in his efforts (and his promotion of his efforts) to re-shape both Harvard and the entire American educational landscape that the cover of Newsweek in 1952 described him as “U.S. Education’s No. 1 Man.” He combined the humanistic aims of proponents of great literature with the technocratic mechanisms of the psychometricians. What he characterized as Americans’ primordial “passion for freedom of the mind,” was to be pursued by means of “two other closely allied elements — namely, a belief in careers open to all through higher education, and a faith in universal schooling.”

The talent-development paradigm of K-12 education was well-suited to American ends throughout the Cold War. In this century, however, the pillars of Conant’s edifice have been wobbling. Elite high schools began getting rid of class rankings in the 2000s. Colleges slowly started going test-optional soon after. Schools began to experiment with new grading schemes that downplay academic skills like the Mastery Transcript and so-called equity grading. Venerable selective high schools like Lowell in San Francisco and Thomas Jefferson in Virginia changed their admissions policies in 2020. Progressive school districts dropped their advanced math offerings. Affirmative action was prohibited by the Supreme Court this past summer. Even extracurricular competitions like interscholastic debate are buckling under the weight of competing purposes and uncertain standards.

It is no longer clear whether we have a coherent view of what talent is or whether it exists. Even if it does, the unequal distribution of talent strikes us as suspiciously undemocratic. The result is that we’re dissatisfied with the old model, but also uncertain what can or should replace it. American education will be stuck in the same old debates until we figure that out.

Advanced Placement and the War on Talent

The assault on talent has mostly been waged in uncoordinated skirmishes since the end of the Cold War: articles showing racial and economic disparities in standardized testing and calling for its abolition, studies of the ill-effects of middle and high school tracking, concerns about the mental health of students pursuing selective admissions to college. Now we are in the era of thinkpieces and books tying all these complaints together to condemn the whole edifice of “meritocracy.” But what is to replace the talent paradigm and guide our national educational efforts?

This question is evident in the most recent entrant into the war on talent, Annie Abrams’s Shortchanged, a critique of a familiar product of the talent-development paradigm, the Advanced Placement (AP) program. Abrams’s book consists of two somewhat disjointed parts – the first, a history of the origins of the AP program, imagined by Conant and hammered out in detail in two foundation-funded reports from the 1950s, the Blackmer Report and the Kenyon Report. The second part is a diatribe against the state of AP today, including a laundry list of complaints against the program’s undemocratic features: its reliance on testing and educational technologies, its curricular standardization, its high cost to families as well as the fact that many states offset that cost with public funds, and so on.

In Abrams’s telling, the original promise of AP was to “integrate high school and college education on a national basis, without having to standardize it,” and to offer the strongest students a means to move more rapidly between them and “eliminate inefficient repetition of coursework.” Although Abrams is critical of the composition of the committees that conceived the program–a small handful of “rich white men” at the helm of some of the most elite high schools and universities in the country–she enthusiastically approves their humanistic commitments to teacher autonomy and free expression and personal growth, as well as their suspicion of testing and other forms of standardization.

Abrams faults the original template only for being designed for the “elite” few, when ideally it should have been for everyone. But how would that work? Are all students capable of doing college-level work in high school? If so, is Advanced Placement really advanced after all? Abrams justly faults the College Board for speaking in corporate gibberish, but her own accounts of what AP should aim at are equally platitudinous: an ideal curriculum would “facilitat[e] meaningful communication about multiple missions and purposes and allow for a panoply of empowered communities to proliferate,” and it would “institutionalize an ethos of political cooperation across difference by teaching democratic skills and habits.”

At a certain level of abstraction, few would disagree with Abrams. But that very consensus suggests these goals are substantively meaningless. The basic problem in Abrams’s account is her evasion of fundamental questions of educational philosophy. Are there in fact talented students? And if there are, should our educational institutions offer them an accelerated curriculum to cultivate their highest potential—even though that means they move faster and farther than merely ordinary students? The complete omission of any consideration of this foundational tenet of the AP program is all the more surprising because, as Abrams casually mentions late in the book, the high school she herself teaches at is Bronx Science, one of the most prestigious and selective public schools in the country.

Two Strategies: Concentration or Distribution

The aims of AP and Bronx Science to offer special opportunities to a minority of talented students appear to be in perfect harmony. But a closer look at how our paradigm for identifying and developing academic talent in postwar America has evolved reveals an underlying conflict between a place like Bronx Science and a program like AP.

Since the mid-20th Century, we’ve generally pursued two ways of identifying and developing talented students. One way is to channel opportunities for talent development and talented students themselves through specific institutions like private prep schools, public selective enrollment schools, and a few unusually demanding public schools that draw from highly educated catchment areas (usually in proximity to a major university).

The second strategy has been to disperse opportunities for talent development across nonselective institutions throughout the country, to be taken advantage of by any capable student within them. Examples of this second approach would include programs like AP, gifted and talented classes, and national academic competitions like debate, the American Mathematics Competitions, the Intel science program, and so on.

Let's call these two approaches concentration and distribution, respectively. Each mixes elitism and egalitarianism in different combinations. Prep schools are expensive and exclusive, but their wealth permits them to offer remarkably high-level instruction and facilities, and a limited number of scholarships for gifted students with limited personal networks or financial resources. (The richer the prep school, often, the more generous its financial aid.) Magnet schools are only available to those residing within district boundaries. But they are free to anyone there who can score well on the admissions tests.

Distribution programs, on the other hand, reach students where they already are. Because they can be offered anywhere, they are also usually low cost. Even so, they are not completely egalitarian. After all, programs like AP exclude students who do not meet their standards.

Programs that distribute opportunities as widely as possible seem more democratic than programs that concentrate them in particular institutions and locations. AP is available to millions more students than Bronx Science, which accepts only three percent of applicants from a pool already minimized by New York’s residency and testing requirements. Distribution approaches allow smart kids to stay in their neighborhood schools, permit teachers to direct students to opportunities their parents may not be aware of, and give students multiple entrance points into acceleration. You can take AP Chemistry even if you don't take AP English or win debate tournaments even if you’re unremarkable at math.

Despite these rather obvious advantages, the problem with programs like AP is how visible their inegalitarianism is. Schools like Andover and Bronx Science stoke democratic resentment in the abstract, simply because they exist. But unless these schools become embroiled in a public scandal, those excluded rarely see enough of what goes on inside to envy them.

In a non-selective public school, by contrast, the hierarchies that gifted programs and AP classes create are constantly on display, including to those who may not be academically gifted but can perceive social distinctions perfectly well. In an episode of the sitcom Abbott Elementary, for example, the teachers start a gifted program and then immediately conclude that it's unfair and dismantle it, because the students not selected become unmanageably jealous of those who are. Distributional approaches are more egalitarian, but their inegalitarianism is also more visible.

The differences in strategies for talent development create different political incentives.

Concentration institutions don't depend on distribution opportunities like the AP program because they claim that, due to their selective admissions, everyone there can excel in an advanced course like AP. Since every course they offer can be taught at an advanced level, AP itself seems unnecessary for their students to attain or demonstrate exceptional skills. Concentration institutions can thus claim a kind of superficial solidarity with advocates of equity and join them in attacking programs like AP, which draw distinctions within schools rather than among them.

This is exactly what they’ve been doing in the past decade. Many selective public and elite private schools have dropped the AP program, along with traditional grading, in favor of exotic assessment systems like the Mastery Transcript, or their own advanced elective courses. Abrams, who cheers these moves in her book, reassures her readers that when the Sidwell Friends School went this route, it first obtained assurances from selective universities that “this change will not result in any negative repercussions” for the admissions prospects of its own students.

But this confirmation illustrates precisely why concentration institutions and distributed opportunities are at odds. Sidwell Friends and Bronx Science are well-known quantities in college admissions offices, where the relative strength of their students is clear regardless of the course titles appearing on their transcripts. If a Sidwell student does well in a course called “Slavery in America” rather than “AP US History,” colleges will have no difficulty weighing this information. But that is hardly true for the vast majority of the over 20,000 secondary schools in the US that might offer similar courses but are not selective or famous. The partial standardization of the AP Program that Abrams laments is precisely what allows the best students at these less well-known institutions to make their achievements legible to the world beyond their own schools.

A Democratic Dilemma

The problem isn’t limited to Abrams’ book. Hardly anyone is willing to face our conflicting educational aims squarely. As Freddie DeBoer points out in The Cult of Smart, our recurring frustration when a program designed to increase access to advanced educational opportunities only ends up calcifying some new elite arises because what we demand of education is simply contradictory: that a fundamentally hierarchical institution designed to reward excellence should somehow issue in equality at the same time. “We expect education to both sort our young people into different levels of ability–grading them, assigning them to different reading groups, numbering them in a class rank–and to create equality.”

When ‘democratic’ critics of Conant’s vision grapple with this tension between equality and education at all, it is with similarly evasive gestures. Michael Sandel and Daniel Markovits, in their respective books, blame “meritocracy” for distorting education, and for either producing or being the product of a labor market and reputational economy that rewards academic credentials in lavish disproportion to their value. But even as they fault schools and universities for creating winners and losers, they refuse to confront the underlying questions. Is talent—that is, differential ability—real? And if so, does it justify special educational opportunities and resources?

By contrast, DeBoer forthrightly concedes the difficulty, and admits that not only is academic aptitude real, it is essentially unimprovable. Barring substantial childhood deprivation, you will perform at the relative academic level you attain in early childhood for your entire life. The only thing that will reliably raise your relative performance, according to DeBoer, is the systematic kneecapping of your peers. DeBoer endorses generous social transfers to the losers as the solution to this inevitable inequality, and this is at least a logical response to the democratic dilemma that advanced education undermines equality. If we want both, Deboer proposes, we will require external compensation for education’s inegalitarian results.

The Limits of Redistribution

It is one thing to see the contradictions of the premises of our talent paradigm, but quite another to resolve them into a workable response. The “compensate the losers with welfare checks” approach to patching up the shortcomings of the talent paradigm admits the challenge of unequal ability. But it’s warmed-over Rawlsian liberalism that would require an enormous degree of political willpower to restructure the labor market or enact subsidies to favor the academically untalented.

Such willpower is not forthcoming, however, partly because no one is eager to accept being a loser. Rawls suggested that his redistributive vision would ensure that “the disposing conditions for envy are removed.” Those who press for greater equalization of post-educational outcomes today share this hope. But a wounded pride can be as politically virulent as an empty stomach. It may even be the case that it’s precisely when stomachs are full that status differentials feel most intolerable. Think again of Abbott Elementary, where the mere perception of inequality was enough to kill the gifted program.

Much of the left turned to diversity as an alternative to redistribution, especially after the courts determined that it was the only constitutional justification for affirmative action in Bakke. But diversity is a parasitic addition to the talent paradigm that still seeks to develop talent but requires that those identified as talented be superficially “representative” of the nation at large. The arbitrariness of the personal qualities requiring representation in this scheme–race, sex, sexual orientation, but not equally constitutive qualities like ethnicity, religious and political belief, or personality traits–and our lack of control over them has long chafed against our sense of fairness. More to the point for education, diversity is devoid of curricular substance. It offers elaborate arguments about who should get to study at elite institutions, but tells us almost nothing about what they should be taught. Because diversity as an aim developed within the talent paradigm, it remains oriented toward the production of hierarchy, now multi-hued but equally inegalitarian.

On the other side, many conservatives hope to rescue or reinstate the institutional infrastructure that supported the talent paradigm. They understand the US as locked in a Cold War-like competition for global technological and economic dominance, now mainly with China. Winning that competiton apparently requires even more intensive talent identification and cultivation than before. What this effort has going for it is that it accords with the persistence and even intensification of college admissions competition over the past 20 years. Even as public rhetoric disparaging this competition has intensified, the revealed preferences of the American professional class betray its egalitarian talk at every turn.

But the conservative hope of rescuing the talent paradigm faces difficulties from two directions.

First, where they have already been discarded, policies like tracking, letter grading, ranking, and standardized testing have proven difficult to recover. Conservatives have had some success reversing decisions on magnet school admissions and advanced middle school math curricula in California. Nationally, though, private schools and universities have not returned to pre-pandemic testing or tracking policies abandoned in 2020. The Students for Fair Admissionsdecision only increases the incentive for universities to prioritize subjective, opaque, and unquantifiable application components, which will in turn sharpen the focus on such qualities in secondary education.

Second, and perhaps more fatally, the new conservative emphasis on education is more aggressively technocratic than Conant’s embrace of psychometric means for humanistic ends. The new meritocrats aim to defeat their Chinese competition by more closely resembling it rather than exemplifying an alternative political vision, as educational Cold Warriors hoped to do. Except for a fringe that openly embraces neo-feudalism, however, technocratic talent-seekers still understand themselves as citizens of a democracy. But they have no clear use for the inevitably large number of Americans whose academic attainments will be insufficient for success in this regime and might even be insufficient for any useful contribution.

Americans have long found the idea that some students naturally lack talent politically unacceptable and effectively unspeakable, but they could at least be persuaded to admit that some had extra talent requiring additional development. Now they are rapidly losing their taste for even this limited acknowledgment of inequality, which seems to apportion extra resources to advance “smart” students who will then go on to leave them in the dust economically and to misgovern them politically. Both progressives and populists want education to stop “laundering privilege,” as Musa al-Gharbi puts it, and to be genuinely democratic, but what that would really entail is unclear.

Back to Jefferson

When Conant synthesized the postwar paradigm, he understood it as a consummately democratic revitalization of the Jeffersonian ethos. His “belief in careers open to all through higher education” and “faith in universal schooling” drew directly from Jefferson’s educational vision, in which a hierarchical series of educational institutions would identify “youths of genius” from lower-level schools and train them for political leadership, while those not selected would receive the civic competence necessary to keep these leaders in check. Conant’s vision is not a perversion of Jefferson or democracy, as Abrams and the opponents of meritocracy on the left and right today allege; it is an entirely plausible interpretation of them. Without an account of education that admits some positive purpose for distinction in democracy, education and democracy will remain at odds.

Abolish AP, cancel the SAT, end letter grading and class ranking, shut down all the selective schools of America–none of it will erase this fundamental tension. Even if all schooling were reduced to vocational training and abandoned all aspirations to the “liberal arts,” it would still distinguish the best plumbers from the worst ones. Democratic equality presupposes that simply by virtue of our shared citizenship, we are all already equal, not that we require additional educational attainments to achieve our equality.

Education has the opposite premise: that some learn and consequently know more than others. Jefferson hoped wide access to education would neutralize “artificial” distinctions. But he was prudent enough to see that academic talent would create distinctions of its own. The only antidote to these distinctions would be limit all Americans to a minimal education, ensuring that no one could demonstrably surpass anyone else. But that would require an extraordinary curtailment of freedom—and the prosperity and innovation Americans admire.

What made Conant’s synthesis of psychometrics and the liberal arts a successful national paradigm for almost 80 years was its coincidence with (or attunement to) a labor market that had expanded both the purview of and dividends to advanced technical skills. The talent paradigm hitched high schools and universities to this expansion with the claim that they–and they alone–could impart the skills this market demanded. This market is changing, and many of the universities’ monopolistic claim on preparing workers are dissolving.

It’s possible that a decoupling of higher education from the labor market will push universities back into the hands of eccentrics in pursuit of unremunerative erudition and moot the present conflict between education and democracy. But at the most selective institutions, where the tension between cultivating talent and sustaining equality is most glaring, the opposite looks more likely for now. So those invested in democratizing education will have to come up with a more coherent reconciliation, one that addresses rather than evades the problem of talent. Otherwise, they risk toppling the creaky architecture of opportunity with nothing but the natural aristocracy of wealth and family and Philips Academy to rule in the breech.

Rita Koganzon is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston. She is author of Liberal States, Authoritarian Families: Childhood and Education in Early Modern Thought.


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