Ron Isaac’s Commentary: No Merit, No Pain?

Sep 13, 2021 by

The New York City schools are historically the jewel in the crown of American education, but if the Department of Education carries out its plan to essentially ban the recognition of student merit, it will forfeit its prestige, enrollment will plummet and the pandemic will not be to blame.

Doing away with honor rolls and class ranking in order to spare lower-achieving students invidious and mortifying comparisons that supposedly might harm their egos and disincentivize their ambition is simplistic and an overreaction. 

Students in pursuit of excellence do so for its own sake. It is internally driven and not dependent on external symbolism, gestures and tokens, no matter how flattering.  Doing away with them will cost nothing but neither will it accomplish anything.  The kids who have fallen beyond or are “success-delayed” won’t feel any better and the front-runners in the academic rat-race will move on unphased.

But the DOE goes further. 

It is dancing on quicksand by trivializing the meaning of grades by substituting for objective assessment of subject content retention “contributions to the school or wider community, and demonstrations of social justice and integrity”. 

That is an open door to intellectual ingenuousness and anarchy.  Critics charge it smacks of progressivism on steroids  It would be fine with me, if the solution were not invalid and destructive to all students.

According to a New York Post report, the DOE “also wants teachers to cede some authority over learning goals and proficiency markers to students and parents”. 

What exactly does that mean and how would that be accomplished?  It could mean anything and take any form and is an enticement to corruption.   It is, from the standpoint of philosophy and policy, a cynically crafted cop-out. A re-invention gone awry.

Unfortunately, there are some undesirable members of the coalition opposed to the DOE’s proposal and they mar the argument by their bigotry, arrogance and sarcasm.  An example is the New York Post’s recent column entitled “Woke Lessen Plan for Mediocrity” ( The Post has always been good with plays on words, since its headline “Headless Corpse Found in Topless Bar”). Its author likes words like “star” and “queen” as self-esteem condiments for his daughter.  Their editorial “War on Excellence” paints not so much with too broad a brush as one whose bristles are made of the wrong, abrasive material.

In the wake of the Post’s story, editorial and opinion piece, they published letters on the topic, some of which make a cogent point.  One remarks on the fact that students are sometimes given awards just for attendance or as a bribe to get them to be compliant. Another writer notes that some awards do not reflect actual learning and are based on shallow, fluid and inconsistent criteria, suggesting that they are symptomatic of the “dumbing down” of standards.

One letter writer recommends the Department of Education change its name to the “Ministry of Victimhood”, because the Agency appears to champion those children who are not grade A and favors those of us who “whine about social justice” and supposedly don’t care whether we leave a generation of students wholly unprepared for real life”. 

 Yet another correspondent urges that the same rules that apply to academic performance should be extended to sports and other areas also.

There are critics whose views are driven by bigotry or at least absence of charity.  The DOE’s plan are playing into their hands.  But this is problematic, not only because such narrowness and unkindness if unacceptable to a system that purports to be inclusive and embracing, but also because the truth is that the DOE’s plans are not realistic, conducive, or even permissive of educational growth.

Perhaps it is just a matter for “fine-tuning”.  The road to hell is paved with righteous-sounding sophistry.

Ron Isaac

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