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Column: Suddenly, ‘I flunked algebra’ is a ticket to success

A man gesturing in front of microphones in an elementary school classroom
Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses the media at Arminta Elementary School in North Hollywood about his children’s book on dyslexia and his struggles with it.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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Jackie Goldberg, the president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, said publicly last month that she was so turned off by high school that she nearly quit after 11th grade to take her GED, rather than stick around for a diploma.

Rich Leib, the chair of the UC Board of Regents, recently told a reporter that when he was in high school, he scored in the bottom 2% on his SAT subject tests in math and English. That, along with his less-than-50th-percentile score on the general SAT, helped lead to his rejection by UC Berkeley, he said.

In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom described himself as an unhappy elementary school student: “I couldn’t read, and I was looking for any way to ditch classes. I’d fake stomachaches and dizziness.”

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Even President Biden has acknowledged that he “did not do very well” in college, mustering only a 1.9 grade point average at the University of Delaware.

Opinion Columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served 11 years as editor of the editorial page and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

What’s with all these admissions by public officials about how awful school was and how badly they did? What happened to flaunting whatever educational credentials you have, and putting your best academic foot forward? Is Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) the only public figure left who bothers to lie about his educational record?

This willingness to embrace underachievement is relatively recent. Just two decades ago, when George W. Bush was running for president, it was still considered embarrassing that he had graduated from Yale with a C average. A common question during the 2000 campaign: “Is George Bush smart enough to be president?”

And back in 1987, long before acknowledging that he “did not do very well” in school, Joe Biden tried to claim exactly the opposite. He told reporters, among other exaggerations, that he’d graduated in the top half of his law school class — only to backpedal madly when it turned out he’d graduated 76th out of 85 in his class. “My recollection on this was inaccurate,” he confessed.

Today he’d have “76th out of 85” at the top of his resume.

Something is going on in the way we look at merit and achievement, the way we measure success. Being a top student is no longer necessarily a better story to tell than having struggled through school.

California’s governor is seen as a son of privilege. But he’s been experimenting with reframing his life story around adversity and humble beginnings.

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In some cases it may just be pandering by politicians seeking to pass themselves off as relatable, ordinary Joes. I suspect there’s some of that with Newsom, who’s long been tagged as an affluent guy born with countless advantages. He’s been seeking recently to recast that narrative by showing that not everything came easily to him, including school.

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In other cases, it is probably less cynically calculating. I believe Jackie Goldberg and Rich Leib are honestly trying to find ways to connect with the students they serve, using their own backgrounds to make the point that kids facing obstacles in school can overcome them. That’s a valuable message.

But I’d argue that there’s something more at work here, a growing sense that the old markers of achievement may not be as significant as we thought they were. Suddenly, academic prowess — such as graduating at the top of your class, doing well on standardized tests and going to an Ivy League college — are being viewed less as signs of accomplishment and more as indications of privilege.

The United States is supposed to be a meritocracy. The story goes that if you work hard and play by the rules, especially with regard to education, you can compete, rise and succeed here. That upward mobility is both possible and admirable.

Rich Leib bombed the SAT but now heads the University of California’s powerful Board of Regents. Top priorities: wider student access, more diversity, research support.

Feb. 6, 2023

But Americans are realizing that’s not always the case. The playing field just isn’t level.

In 2020’s “The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America,” three education experts argued that America’s top colleges and universities primarily perpetuate the country’s elite, benefiting students from the top 1% at the expense of the rest.

In “The Tyranny of Merit,” Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel argued that the myth of American meritocracy and what he terms “credentialism” have been proved false, and that they’re unfair to boot.

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Today, many Americans understandably believe that the system is rigged. That standardized tests are biased. That elite schools are — elitist. That public schools have too often been allowed to deteriorate and public colleges to be underfunded. That people with money can buy the credentials they need, “Varsity Blues”-style.

It’s absolutely right to see structural racism in the fact that affirmative action remains fiercely controversial while wealthy students are admitted as “legacies” or because their parents shelled out donations.

A dozen community groups have signed onto mentoring effort, for which L.A. Unified will provide an organizing hub, including background checks of mentors.

Feb. 4, 2023

All in all, it’s good that the country is rethinking what constitutes success, how it’s measured, who are its gatekeepers and whether it is truly available to all of us. We should reconsider the dominance of Ivy League schools, the role of testing, the value of a college education and the obstacles some students face.

It’s healthy if our leaders are honest about all their experiences of school, and don’t merely recite their achievements. Expect to hear more in the years ahead about the difficulties and indignities they faced.

But not from one notable abstainer, former President Trump, that self-described “very stable genius.” In 2015, according to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump threatened legal action against his high school, college and the College Board if any of them released his grades or SAT scores.

Even in an era when academic struggle has become discussable, he must feel he’s still got something to hide.

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@Nick_Goldberg

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