Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 20 2012

#51: Affirmative Action, Meritocracy, Privilege, and TFA’s Challenge

I’ve been following the Supreme Court case of Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas with a lot of interest the past month.  The case involves a now-22-year-old now-Louisiana State University alum named Abigail Fisher who charges the University of Texas at Austin of denying her admission based on her racial background as a white applicant.

At risk in this decision is the very policy of affirmative action as a means of leveling the playing field in higher education admissions and professional hiring practices.

I will define affirmative action as a policy which allows employers and colleges the right to consider race or ethnicity in hiring or admissions.  Affirmative action is not the practice of imposing racial quotas as it is done in Brazil, India, or elsewhere in the world.

If we are looking at this case as a referendum on affirmative action, then it fails to demonstrate damages or harm sustained by Ms. Fisher.  UT’s practice is to simply consider race or ethnicity as one of many factors and Ms. Fisher was denied entry to UT based on her subpar academic qualifications.

But her story illustrates for me the challenge to TFA to reconsider its meritocratic ethos, that students must demonstrate their worthiness to attend college and must be able to succeed in an apples-to-apples comparison with children of privilege.  TFA talks about “transformational change” which means, among other things, getting many more of our students ready for and into college.  As “transformational” teachers, we are to get our students thinking about what will look good for colleges and universities (i.e. extracurricular activities, SAT/ACT scores, GPA/rank) as we are teaching them content.  TFA and its allied charter schools (KIPP, Uncommon, IDEA) are singular in their focus on college-readiness and — conscious or not — are disciples of the meritocratic gospel.

The problem I foresee in a “race-neutral” admissions process is that our kids will rarely measure up to children of privilege, no matter how “transformational” we are.  First, I see higher education as a zero-sum game.  As long as there is a finite number of spots at prestigious state and private universities, kids and parents will compete for those spots and like most competitions, the team with the most money will win out(1).  Children of privilege do not work out of necessity as often as children from lower-income homes, they have transportation for extracurricular commitments(2), and they can hire private tutors, psychologists, coaches, SAT prep classes, etc. with greater ease.  Children of privilege grow up learning standard English from parents who are financially secure enough to live in one stable place for years at a time.

Second, the cost of college is outpacing inflation by a not small amount.  Without leveling the playing field, our kids will be expected to foot the bill primarily with loans.  This expense will discourage a great many student from even applying or thinking about college, but it will also mean that the students from our schools who do choose to go to college will be even more vulnerable.  Many will have to work, perhaps full-time, to finance their dreams.  This additional burden often compromises the quality of their studies while their wealthier peers have the luxury of devoting all of their time to school.  The latter group is more likely to graduate “on time” and enter the labor force with a credential at a younger age, thus starting higher on the career ladder earlier in life(3).

The third and perhaps most important issue with “race-neutral” admissions and hiring is the tragically-flawed premise that racism in America is over.  We’ve made incredible strides as a nation, to be certain, but the legacy of racial inequality haunts us still.  By denying the necessity of affirmative action, one must believe that all systemic advantages accrued to white Americans have vanished and that all obstacles in place for black and Latino Americans have been removed.  Choose your metric: average household incomes, incarceration rates, maternal age, dropout rates, college graduation rates.  These numbers have improved over time, but we are far from done in our quest for true racial equality.  Until that day arrives, affirmative action is a necessary policy to correct for the manifold structural deficits in our society.

The challenges for TFA are:

  • If we are to continue pressing so doggedly this college-bound destiny for all our kids, what is the organization doing to ensure that our kids can afford to get there and succeed there?
  • What is the organization doing explicitly(4) to combat the racial-backwardness of the Abigail Fischers of the world to ensure that our students will have college opportunities in the future?
  • If college-educating every high school graduate is such a great idea, how does TFA feel about students who enroll for-profit, private online universities which have a quadruple whammy of being expensive, providing lower-quality instruction, producing a substantially lower graduation rate, and having a much-smaller impact on employment opportunities?
  • What alternative opportunities for success after high school will we provide to those students who are dead-set against college?  Will those opportunities afford them a path to the middle class?  If not, why not?


(1) Reason #47 why any self-respecting San Antonian hates the Los Angeles Lakers.

(2) I cannot tell you how many students we’d lose on UIL competition dates because their parents did not them walking to school on a Saturday morning for safety reasons.

(3) And thus perpetuating the cycle of educational haves and have nots that is held to be meritocratic and fair.

(4) In other words, I don’t want to hear an answer to this question like “Our network of alumni  branch out into so many fields to help address this problem!”  Cool.  With your aid, your alumni  also become carpetbagging dilettante political figures who run against and narrowly defeat a pro-union candidate using beaucoups of outside money.  Maybe if I rephrase the question: Is TFA using its political muscle to support affirmative action in any way possible?

One Response

  1. Great post.

    I don’t think there’s any question except in the most self-deluding minds that there is not a level playing field in the US, and that the playing field is disproportionately steep among the demographic groups of various ethnic minorities. I would say, however, that I question the effectiveness of affirmative action designed to combat this that are based on the criteria of race without taking other factors into account – if admissions are based on all the usual academic criteria (SAT scores, grades, extracurriculars, etc.) plus a bonus for race, it seems to primarily favor minority kids who are already affluent and well-equipped to compete, rather than reaching the demographics it’s intended to reach, and therefore of limited utility in combating systemic inequality. While certainly affluent members of ethnic minority groups still face racism in various forms, affluent individuals of any ethnic background are generally already well-positioned to take advantage of higher ed opportunities, compared to those in poverty of any ethnic background. I’d prefer to see a heavier weight placed on SES factors than solely on race, for college admission-related affirmative action policies.

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