11/28/2012 01:55 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

How Equal Are We Anyway? Different Illusions of Meritocracy in Chinese and United States Schooling

Can you believe that Chinese parents bribe teachers to grade their children's homework?

Why not? American parents also give their children every advantage they can afford, from donations to private schools to test preparation and college counselors. It just goes beyond our imagination in China.

Claims have been made recently that China is a meritocracy, not a democracy, because its leaders have risen through examinations and testing.

A pointed debate on this has arisen, but it is one that has existed in China for more than a millennium: How should "the best" leaders be identified? Some claim that because of its 1400-year tradition of a civil service examination, China is a meritocracy.

What is a "meritocracy," anyway? What is "merit"?

Wouldn't it be ideal for a country to identify "the best" individuals, regardless of circumstance, and prepare them for leadership?

That is part of the original idea -- one of the ideas, anyway -- behind the SAT, once called the Scholastic Aptitude Test. One would get "aptitude" rather than learning, on the assumption that the test would measure the stable core of "intelligence" rather than what a person has had the opportunity to learn because of family background. The College Board, which runs the SAT, has given up the ruse that it assesses "aptitude," instead using only the abbreviation; decades of showing improvement through coaching has disabused all of us of the pretense that something innate is measurable. (The whole idea of "intelligence" as a single concept, testable and stable, has also long been exploded. Howard Gardner is one of the important figures in this field.)

But seeking able leaders is a worldwide, perennial task. It can be done by lineage (hereditary monarchies), by tests of ability (pulling swords from stones), or by other means. In the United States we are fascinated by the story of Abraham Lincoln pulling himself up by his back-country bootstraps.

In a New York Times editorial, Chinese scholar Zhang Weiwei, professor at Fudan University, defended the Chinese political system in part because of the long history of the Keju, examination, system. Canadian scholar Daniel Bell, sometimes called an "apologist" for the Chinese system, promotes it as well.

This system in principle identified "the most meritorious" men who could become officials. Most, of course, came from backgrounds that were already privileged but Chinese folklore is filled with tales of poor young men who received an education, supported by their entire clan, and became scholar-officials. (The Chinese system in general regards success as a result of effort, not innate ability.)

But like in the U.S., where SAT and college admission to elite universities tracks almost completely with socioeconomic status, in China the well-off have the means to pay the bribes that ensure school success all along the way. In contemporary times, the ultimate test, the gaokao, is somewhat less susceptible to corruption than its predecessor, and efforts to keep it untainted are enormous, but all the steps along the way, from kindergarten admission to location of students' seats, from after-school tutoring to high school abroad, can be smoothed with enough money.

As Dan Levin reported in the New York Times on November 22, "the going bribery rate for admission to a high school linked to the renowned Renmin University in Beijing is $80,000 to $130,000."

Lest readers feel too smug, reflect on the fact that tuition at the University of Chicago Laboratory School is $26,520 for high school during 2012-2013. This extraordinary educational institution prepares its students for a lifetime of success. So when those students succeed, is it because of merit?

I have many reservations about what schools teach and the inadvertent lessons learned (about competition, zero-sum games, passivity, a divided self, and more) but if years of schooling may lead to improved life chances for individuals (albeit credential inflation for the society as a whole), then one positive aspect of the US educational system is its offering of second chances, in the form of community colleges and their "developmental" courses, remediating what was not learned at earlier levels of schooling.

In the United States we have vacillated between believing that some individuals are more "gifted" than others and that everyone should have equal chances. We alternate between tracking and mainstreaming, between testing of "intelligence" and testing of "value-added." We have had academic versus vocational schooling, and then to ensure equal chances all around, have made all schooling academic, just in case every student wants to go to college.

Currently in the United States we are reinstating a kind of vocational ("work") preparation. China has that too, and students who finish with vocational degrees often earn higher salaries than students attending academic programs, but the prestige is much lower, so many parents invest life savings in academic educations.

But what of the parents who can't?

Like in the U.S., China now has student loans, so, like us, college graduates can have enormous debt burdens.

The children of the privileged can sail off into lives made smooth by their families, always scoring highest, getting into the best programs, and ultimately finding their way to the top leadership of the nation.

Sound familiar?

The days of Abraham Lincoln have passed. Instead we have Romneys with their generations of wealth. But at least we comfort ourselves with stories about equal opportunity. And we have an ideology of equality. As long as we don't fool ourselves into confusing ideals and reality, such ideals can be the standard to which we hold ourselves.

At least we can look at China and see how bad this system of educational corruption could become.