Webster's defines meritocracy as a) a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement, or b) leadership selected on the basis of intellectual criteria. Neither definition has characterized the American public education system for a very long time.
Using various metrics, educational assessments have broadcast increasingly lopsided comparisons of American secondary students and their international counterparts over the years. The United States began to have a flaccid showing in the mid-90s and since then it has been a slippery slope to educational mediocrity.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development put the United States at 15th out of 29 OECD nations in 2003 in reading; in 2006 a printing error at the National Center For Education Statistics invalidated that year's score. The UN's Human Development Index, which ranks nearly all independent states by life expectancy, GDP per capita, literacy and educational attainment, places the US between Kazakhstan and Lithuania with a steadily decreasing score.
Many culprits have been singled out for flagging student performance including the ubiquity of mobile technologies, truncated school years, unaffordable higher education and the wholesale dumbing down of public educational standards. If Obama's policy talking points are to be believed, one of the primary drivers of poor student performance has also been the standards to which we hold teachers.
The president called today for a merit-based system for teacher pay. Since teachers are the ultimate catalysts for inspiring learning, the thinking goes they may be better gatekeepers to success than externally imposed standards in No Child Left Behind, which Obama promises to hold over from the Bush years. It's unclear whether Obama will have the opportunity to test his meritocratic ideas in the classroom. The American Federation of Teachers and other unions have voiced their resistance to pegging teacher pay to teacher performance.
Aside from recklessly discounting the future by graduating a generation that cannot correctly conjugate an irregular verb, an educational system on par with those in post-Soviet states will not be a major selling point for continued American hegemony in the world.
College Board President Gaston Caperton said as much when he visited Big think and commented on flagging academic performance. If you have ideas to supplement Mr. Caperton's, or ideas to augment public education in general, let us know.