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Perspective: Lowell High School’s Merit-Based Admissions Policy is Not the District’s Real Inequity
Thursday, June 30, 2022

Perspective: Lowell High School’s Merit-Based Admissions Policy is Not the District’s Real Inequity

Patrick Wolff is the executive director of Families for San Francisco and a chess grandmaster and a parent of two children who attended SF public schools.

The merit admissions system at Lowell High School—San Francisco’s largest public high school, educating one-sixth of all SFUSD high school students—is a point of pride as well as a source of pain. Pride from the high-quality education Lowell offers, and the reputation it earns as a result. Pain because Lowell’s success highlights the failure of too many of SFUSD’s other schools to provide a similarly high-quality education.

The focal point for these feelings is Lowell’s merit-based admissions system. That system, which was the subject of much drama over the last two years, is once again up for deliberation at the Board of Education. They are being asked to consider extending the lottery for one more year and putting in place a process to review the long-term policy for admissions at Lowell. The review is reasonable if done well; the extension is unwarranted and should be rejected. 

Students walk the Lowell High School campus on May 25, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Lowell High School admissions process that was in place before the pandemic consisted of three pathways, or “bands,” through which students could enter. Roughly 70% of available spots each year were allocated based purely on grades and test scores, 15% were allocated based on the judgment of middle school staff, and 15% were set aside for underrepresented schools. 

The goal of this complex design was to preserve Lowell’s high academic standards while helping historically underrepresented Black and Latinx students gain admission. But in spite of these efforts, many people have been dissatisfied with the low levels of Black and Latinx students at Lowell—even though many other SFUSD high schools are substantially less racially diverse—and have called for a reexamination of Lowell’s admissions system as a result. 

It is right to be concerned about the low levels of Black and Latinx students at Lowell, but it is wrong to blame Lowell’s merit-based admission system. SFUSD’s equity shortfall is not that too few students are provided the opportunity to attend Lowell; it is that too many students, especially those who are Black or Latinx, are not well enough educated to reach their full potential, whether at Lowell or elsewhere.

The performance of the first lottery-admitted freshman class to Lowell shows the result of admitting students with an inadequate K-8 education into SFUSD’s most academically rigorous high school. The rate of Ds and Fs rose sharply this year, with Black and Latinx students substantially overrepresented among those struggling. 

Now Superintendent Vincent Matthews, in the last month of his tenure, has put a motion to the Board of Education to make the Lowell admissions system a lottery for one additional year, claiming it will ease the burden on SFUSD to do so. But the staff has plenty of time to revert back to a system it has administered for years, and a large majority of San Francisco residents want Lowell to retain some form of merit-based admissions. Most importantly, now that we know how much some of the first lottery class has struggled at Lowell, it would be irresponsible to repeat the lottery for a second year without pausing to understand the full consequences of the first lottery year.

Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews at district headquarters in San Francisco, California on Thursday, May 12, 2022. | Don Feria for The Standard

Matthews also put a second motion to the board to “Engage Stakeholders in the Lowell Admissions Policy and High School Admissions Criteria” in order to fulfill SFUSD’s equity mission that “every student has access to high-quality teaching and learning.” While this second motion is well-motivated, its singular focus on high school admissions is misguided. There is much that needs fixing in the lower grades: SFUSD’s third-grade reading levels rank near the bottom of California school districts, and SFUSD’s academic achievement levels in both ELA and math for Black and Latinx students also rank near the bottom in California. 

A thoughtful Board of Education would address the issues raised by Lowell constructively. It would revisit the admissions system by soliciting expert analysis and comprehensive community input. It would recognize and address the fact that the reason many families care so deeply about getting into Lowell is their dissatisfaction with many of SFUSD’s other high schools. Most of all, it would make its highest priority to improve education outcomes in SFUSD’s K-8 schools—especially for Black and Latinx families—so that all students reach their fullest potential, and all demographic groups of students are fully represented at SFUSD’s most academically rigorous high school. 

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The Board of Education in place before the February 2022 recall was not thoughtful. They spent their time on performative equity stunts like trying to destroy historic murals and renaming schools on the basis of careless Wikipedia searches. The reason San Francisco recalled half of the previous Board of Education was because they were so disgusted by its lack of focus on their singular job of educating students. 

The new Board of Education should now seize this opportunity to show San Francisco how a responsible school board governs. 

First, the board should refuse the request by Superintendent Matthews to extend the lottery admissions system to Lowell for one more year. The merit-based admissions system previously in place was the result of thoughtful deliberation, while the process that replaced it with a lottery was illegitimate. Any changes must start from the system previously in place.

Then, the board should appropriately revise the request by Superintendent Matthews about engaging stakeholders in a discussion about high school admissions. Whatever happens to the admissions criteria at Lowell and other high schools, the far more important issue is how SFUSD can raise the quality of schools at all grade levels. The way to make social justice a reality at SFUSD is to provide every single student an excellent education.

  • I couldn’t agree more. Raise the standards for everyone rather than lower the standards for anyone. So short sighted to destroy quality at Lowell so no one can excel. This does not make things equal. It merely kills excellence in its crib.

  • thank you. no reasonable person can argue that allocating the seats at Lowell is more important than fixing the rest of the educational system, so that students have a chance of going to Lowell…

  • Prior to coming to K-12 education, I taught college students. I am a Mayor’s Teacher of the Year. No matter what grade level I am teaching, I am responsible for creating the conditions so that all children can meet grade level standards. If my students struggle, that’s a me problem.

    It’s strange to me that this author is so willing to indict the districts’ PK-8 educators for failure to teach every learner yet refuses to ask that Lowell’s teachers take accountability. We know from media reports, including in the New Yorker, that some Lowell teachers do not feel obligated to adopt data-driven pedagogy, adjust their practice to include neurodivergent learners, or do any classroom management at all. (Others, of course, take great care to maintain rigorous expectations while also pushing their own limits to teach every child).

    This author seems to believe that because Lowell has had a merit-based admissions process, Lowell’s teachers are themselves meritorious. If that is the case, I look forward to their reflection and public accountability as they develop their practice!

  • Does SFUSD place the same standards on the School of Arts? Can just any student attend there? Should the excellence and hard work of merit be dumped in favor of equity? Does equity produce equality of outcome? The answer to all of these questions is not at all. Dumbing down classes to all is not doing a service to anyone. We recall only the 3 radical ideologues on the Board of Education. We must vote out the other 4 incumbents, who were just as radical as those we recalled when their term is up! Equity does not equal equality. Not all people are created equally. There can only be equality of opportunity not equality of outcome. What these people have done to our school system here is beyond disgusting!

  • Equity can be helped by offering remedial classes or additional tuition. It should not come at the expense of all other students. Dumbing down the system doesn’t improve equity. It just makes everyone stupid. Needless to say a dumb population is a politicians dream come true. Hence the repeated desire by both Republicans to make education too expensive to afford and Democrats just make em dumb policies.

  • This is an excellent and extremely thoughtfully written perspective. I applaud the author for being clear about the issues and his opinions of the previous boards dismal performance. Yes, 70%+ of San Francisco residents voted to remove that board. He is absolutely right in shining the light on issues that need to be addressed at the K-8 level . That is the period we need to create a love for learning and create a challenging environment for kids to exceed state standards (not just academic but music, drama, all the arts, sports, garden programs etc,). This is how we ensure that all schools are high performing at the high school level and each has its distinctive character. Lets not further ruin this crucial public education system in America’s finest cities – San Francisco

  • Consider:
    “Providing equal educational opportunity to all of America’s children, including those that have been historically excluded from that opportunity, is one of the central challenges facing our nation, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education85 and more than four centuries after Black children began making their way to America. We must reckon with the role that the myth of meritocracy plays in preventing that opportunity.” Richard R. Buery, Jr.

  • A great school is founded on smart, hard working students. Admissions testing (70%), along with cherry picking based on potential (30%), was Lowell’s way to find these students. Not perfect but perfectly fair. For these students to reach their max potential, the teachers themselves had to be smart, good at teaching, and willing to challenge their students. There can’t be any disruptions or slowing down to go over basic concepts. The parents also have to be supportive of this no excuses environment.

    In contrast, “equity” is an all excuses all the time environment. Students and parents have no agency. Rather, they view “good schools” as a teaching resource to be redistributed based on one’s place in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression. They view tests and mathematical facts are inherently racist social constructs that need to be torn down so that everyone ends up at the same place. When this inevitably fails (see above), they’ll settle for revenge: destroying the school and any semblance of academic standards.

  • @John Stokes: Equity opponents have said “buh what about SOTA??” only a billion trillion times since this whole controversy started, and it’s still the same stupid canard as it was the first time they tried it.

    Even apart from the obvious legalistic problem with this argument (SOTA is officially designated as a “specialized school” under the law, while Lowell is not, and the two are thus not in the same category as far as the law concerning high school admissions is concerned) the claim is ridiculous on the merits, also. Like it or not, there simply is no reasonable case for creating a two-tiered, admissions-only system for schools with the only criteria for admission being the baseline academic subjects that California expects all its students to be proficient in. “You get to go to a better school because you are already good at math and writing” makes little sense if the system has set the standard that *all* students in its schools are supposed to be good at math and writing.

    On the other hand, SOTA’s criteria for admission are not based on the baseline expectations for all students. Nobody at Washington or Balboa has to be good at painting to graduate and excel in high school, so creating an exclusive high school for training students with artistic talent inflicts much less obvious harms on those who don’t actually have any talent compared to slotting students into a lower tier of school based on their aptitude in subjects that we *do* expect them to eventually become proficient in.

  • The suggestion that BLack and Latino students lack the educational background to be admitted to Lowell is based on the flawed assumption that the test scores matter. It blames the victim by further assuming that if they were admitted that they would fail.

    Your assumptions fly in the face of too many research findings and too many real life examples of success when given the challenge. The real problem is the assumption that Lowell can only teach children who do well on achievement tests. That is the learners’ failure only if you assume that teachers at Lowell are poor teachers.

  • Studies have shown that the future prospects, success/failure, and income of a newborn can be predicted fairly accurately by their zip code, their parent’s income and level of education. Meritocracy is not completely invalid, but it does have a very strong component of institutionalized racism and class-ism.

    Lowell is literally the educational equivalent of the suburbs: a way to keep out the poor and people of color…but in the guise of meritocracy so everyone can pat themselves on the back and feel good about doing well in life and passing the entry requirements. Pick the “worst” school in SF, require good test scores and grades to get in and in no time it will be “the best” school in SF. There are hard working children and families at Lowell, but it is not Lowell that lead them to be successful. The concept of Lowell is also telling your kids “you’re not good enough on your own, you need every advantage or you’ll fail at life”

  • Real question, I would like to understand.

    The vast majority of Latnos reject the use of Latinx. Why use that term when Latinos have rejected it?

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