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What SFUSD gets wrong about Lowell’s admissions policy

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Lowell’s admission process has come under fire for perpetuating what SFUSD’s Vice President Mark Sanchez calls “systemic racism,” as well as violating state law. The argument for systemic racism is utterly preposterous, as awarding admission based off a meritocracy has absolutely nothing to do with “racial superiority,” especially considering that the vast majority of those admitted to Lowell are minorities. SFUSD, along with the rest of the nation, has increasingly moved towards more affirmative action in an attempt to correct for the racial injustices of the past with little success. However, the legal argument against Lowell is relatively solid.

Lowell has been known for its academic rigor and excellence; we rank 96th in the nation (although we’ve previously ranked much higher), churn out thousands of APs every year and boast a 97 percent graduation rate. There’s a reason why San Franciscans know the name of Lowell, and why our Urban Dictionary definition reads “academically, the best public high school in San Francisco.”

For a school with this much notoriety, its academic rigor must live up to its name. Lowell is no place for the faint of heart. Students brag about how late they stay up studying or doing the mountain of homework that various teachers who shall not be named have set out for them.  Lowell expects a lot out of its students, and we generally meet those expectations as evidenced by our high test scores. Lowell receives no Title 1 funding (federal funding for minority-heavy low-achieving schools) since we’re not low-achieving, and we truly are a magnet school.

Lowell has successfully created a cycle: Better students become better alumni which lead to better acclaim which creates more funding which leads to better teachers who support students and so on. This is the same cycle every school wants to achieve, and why schools like Harvard stay at the top of the pecking order for so long. However, the key part of the cycle is that it needs to start with the high-performing students being brought into the school. Without this key component, the whole system breaks down. That’s why it’s a cycle.

The reason why Lowell is so highly ranked and why its students are able to keep up with the workload is due in large part to our application process. In order to get into Lowell, your scores need to be good enough. Your middle school GPA, standardized testing scores, as well as your extracurricular activities all play a part in deciding your admission into Lowell.

According to Lowell’s tiered admission policy, Band 1 focuses on the applicant’s scores in “English, Math, Social Studies, and Science from the entire 7th grade and the 1st semester of 8th grade.” This accounts for about 70 percent of admissions. Band 2 looks at the applicant’s GPA and standardized test scores, accounting for 15 percent of admissions. Band 3 is basically Band 1 with a lower threshold, but the applicant must be attending a Band 3-identified school, including schools like Marina, Presidio, and Mission Dolores. These numbers are indicative of how well you will do at Lowell; if you can’t handle middle school, you’re not ready for Lowell.

In addition, Lowell’s application process is, in essence, reflective of the future after high school. In order to apply for college, you certainly need to have the numbers. Harvard doesn’t take those with 1.97 GPAs and 900 SAT scores; at that point, you’d need to have found a cure for cancer if you want to get in. In order to get a job, you can’t have zero experience. No amount of affirmative action is going to make you a surgeon if you’ve never been to medical school. Those who are qualified deserve the positions and admission. If you worked your butt off in school, put in hours where others partied or partook in other frivolous choices, you will succeed and you should. The Olympic team doesn’t take those who don’t match up. Musicians don’t automatically become successful. Artists, lawyers, engineers or whatever career or profession you choose, there will always be rewards for those who work harder and achieve. Even if you believe that Lowell’s admission process is racist, the answer is not to punish those who have worked hard and rob them from the opportunity to have a great education. The reason why Stanford and Harvard are the best of the best is because they take the best of the best. They are magnets for those who are passionate about learning and teaching; they are hubs of thought and intellectual stimulation. While Stanford and Harvard do have affirmative action programs, that is not the reason they shine. The vast majority of private colleges have affirmative action, and yet only a select few are the cream of the crop.

Now, of course, there’s the argument that minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos, do not have the financial resources to be able to afford tutors and or study materials in order to succeed in middle school, thus Lowell’s admission process is racist for favoring those with the numbers. If that were true, which it isn’t, 40 percent of Lowell’s population would not be economically disadvantaged (29 percent on free lunch, 11 percent on reduced lunch). It does not take loads of money to pay attention in middle school. Lowell’s population is certainly not affluent, give or take the few people that walk around wearing Supreme hoodies and Yeezys, which exist at every school, rich or poor.

In addition, a lot of people argue a major reason why Lowell lacks African American students and Latino students is because many of them attend under-performing middle schools and thus don’t have the backing of a school name to support them in their admissions. Looking back to Band 3 for Lowell admissions, there is a distinct presence of schools (Aptos, MLK, Mission Dolores, Visitacion Valley, Everett Middle School, etc.) that are under-performing in comparison to other middle schools and have high populations of both ethnicities. Band 3 is specifically looking at students from under-performing schools. This means that Lowell specifically pulls people from these schools. Not only does Lowell not discriminate against minorities because of their school, but we actively pull from under-performing schools. Just because you attend an under-performing school does not mean that your application to Lowell will be hurt. In fact, if you are truly a good student, it’d actually be beneficial for you to stand out amongst your peers.  

The question of bias when it comes to admissions also comes in on the legality argument. Sanchez said that Lowell’s application process might be in violation of the state education code, which reads that the selection policy for a school must ensure “that selection of pupils to enroll in the school is made through a random, unbiased process that prohibits an evaluation of whether a pupil should be enrolled based upon his or her academic or athletic performance.” However, just two lines down, the code reads: “This subdivision shall not be construed to prohibit school districts from using academic performance to determine eligibility for, or placement in, programs for gifted and talented pupils.”

Here, Sanchez actually has a legitimate argument. While in my eyes Lowell is essentially a program for the gifted and talented in and of itself, our status as a public high school doesn’t exactly put us in that role. The second quote more or less applies to organizations like Shield and Scroll which look at academic achievement to determine eligibility. Looking at it from a purely legal view, Lowell’s admission system has been in function for long before (1856) this law was signed into effect in 1993.

However, the law itself is flawed. Essentially what it’s saying is that all high schools should randomly choose its applicants, regardless of previous successes. That makes zero sense. Schools that require admission testing should choose those who have shown a yearning to learn, and those who have put in the most effort. Now, that isn’t to say that everyone who has low test scores hasn’t put in considerable effort, but it is a very good indication. It doesn’t take a far leap of logic to say that those who put in more time will yield better results than those who don’t. Can you imagine what the world would be like if every job position, every college admission, every and any thing worth competing over were reduced to a mere lottery system? That’s nothing but robbery from those who have put their sweat and blood into achieving their dreams.

As a final note, changing Lowell’s admission policy isn’t going to eradicate racism. The true question is how do we get African Americans and Latinos to perform better, not how to make it easier for them. How do we bring them up, instead of how do we bring everyone else down. The problem starts at the elementary schools and the middle schools. Helping students at the lower levels, regardless of their race or economic standing or any of that, will help them succeed later on in life no matter where they go, Lowell or not. That’s the ultimate goal of education. Just because certain students aren’t doing well doesn’t mean you have to hurt those who are. We should be focusing on a natural progression towards increased diversity by increasing student support at all levels.  

My name’s Chris Ying, and you’re watching Conservative Channel.

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I bought a Labrador and named him Kodak, so I can say I own a Kodak Lab.
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6 Responses to “What SFUSD gets wrong about Lowell’s admissions policy”

  1. Nathan Yee on January 23rd, 2019 10:29 pm
  2. Vladimir on January 31st, 2019 11:38 pm

    Why in this country always the same problem: how to help Latinos and African americans? I am an immigrant myself, my daughter went to Lowell high school and no one helped us to educate our daughter. It is not fair to other immigrants who came to US, had no support but always tried to achieve the best for their children, those who is not Latinos and African americans but honest workers. We are not asking for privileges for us, but struggling for better lives of our children, but our children now have to face another obstacle as Latinos and African americans children who somehow without struggle MUST have advantages based on race. Isn’t it racism?

  3. Christopher Ying on February 1st, 2019 6:21 pm

    Thank you for sharing your story. I certainly have no doubt that you and your family went through hardships in order to support your daughter and for that, I have nothing but respect for you. I would also like to share my story, or rather my parents’ story. My parents came to the United States in 1995. Like you, they also had no support in raising me. My father crammed at night school, and my mother worked at a laundromat. They shared a 2 bedroom house with the rest of my entire family (coming from a Chinese family, I guarantee you there were a LOT of people). I was born shortly after. But despite their economic situation, my parents never once asked for privileges for them or for me, much like you. Immigrants are some of the hardest working people you will ever meet in this country, especially immigrants with low economic standing. Why am I telling you this? Because hard work does pay off. Did my parents have a harder time than other more wealthy families in paying for my education? Of course. Even then, I turned out to be an outstanding student. But here’s the thing: there are poor people of every race, color, creed, gender, sexuality, you name it. I dare say some white families may have had it even harder economically than my parents did. Ultimately, school admission MUST have a way to measure and compare students. It is an honor to be admitted into Lowell, and reflective of the hard work that students put in. I am not alone. Forty percent of Lowell students are economically disadvantaged. Money may make it harder, but it CERTAINLY is not the end-all-be-all to your education. Your education is ultimately what YOU make of it. A star student will always shine, no matter where you put them.

  4. Adam Michels on February 14th, 2019 8:10 pm

    When we speak about having a level playing field for admissions to Lowell or Harvard, we need to consider that there was never an even playing field to begin with in the United States. This country was built on slavery, which was protected in the original Constitution. While slavery is a thing of the past, unfortunately racial oppression and vast inequality of condition and wealth are still with us. The United Nations Human Rights Council just condemned the United States as having the most economic inequality of any nation in the Western world. The response of the Trump Administration was to withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

    I suppose merit is defined by some as the highest test scores and grades. End of story. However, if you ever want to change inequities that exist in society, you have to challenge these deceptively simple assumptions of fairness. The fact that some students can achieve higher grades or higher scores on a test does not necessarily mean that they have merited admission to Lowell. For starters, who said that anyone deserves entrance to Lowell based solely on those two criteria? Of course we want students who are up to the task of succeeding in the most academically rigorous classes at Lowell, but we also want to consider what obstacles that student may have faced and the qualities that make him or her exceptional.

    It may be that Lowell, much like Harvard, believes in “the profound importance of assembling a diverse student body—including racial diversity—for its educational mission.” Diversity, Harvard argues, “encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths,
    and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world.” Harvard president, Drew Faust, said, “A diverse student body is fundamental to the educational experience. Bringing together students from different backgrounds and walks of life challenges students to think in different ways about themselves, their beliefs, and the world into which they will graduate.”

    Philosopher JohnRawls has observed that many of the characteristics that society perceives as merit based are actually due to arbitrary factors that have accrued because of the accident of birth. Rawls argues that we while we should not hold back those with talent, we should also strive to adopt policies that benefit the least well off in society.

    The fact that I was born in a white, privileged, stable family with significant income made it much easier for me to achieve high grades and high test scores than some kid who grew up in the projects and has to raise his siblings in a single parent household. If I want that kid to have a chance to break out of the cycle of poverty, perhaps his GPA and test scores do not need to be as high as mine to merit a spot at Lowell.

  5. Max Ho on February 16th, 2019 12:48 pm

    Quick question for Chris: what do you think explains the disparities between the achievement of African American and Latino students, and Caucasian and East Asian students?

  6. Christopher Ying on February 16th, 2019 9:19 pm

    Hello Mr. Michels,
    Thank you for sharing your view and taking the time to compile evidence to back it up. I appreciate the dialogue.
    When you mention that there was never an even playing field to begin with, I agree. African American poverty rates are much higher than that of white families. An African American family earns $57 for every $100 that a white family earns. For every $100 that a white family owns, a black family earns $5. I think both you and I can agree that that’s far less than ideal.
    However, I would like to point out the fact that the playing field for other minorities wasn’t even in the past either. Asians faced massive amounts of systemic racism in the United States back in the day, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese Internment to SFUSD not allowing Japanese students to attend schools. The poverty rates of Asians during those days were nothing to be laughed at. Despite this, Asians now outearn their non-Hispanic white counterparts. According to data from the US Department of Labor, for every dollar a white man earns, an Asian man earns $1.17. US Census Bureau data estimates that Asians with similar degrees to their white counterparts outearned their white counterparts. While wealth certainly plays a factor in academic success, it is not the only factor.
    Lastly, in response to your last sentence that if you want to break a child out of the poverty cycle, then perhaps their GPA and test scores do not need to be as high as yours, I dismiss that notion. I believe that rather than making it easier for these kids, I think a more worthwhile question to ask is how do we ensure that these kids are hitting the level that they need to hit? These are skills that the child, regardless of race or income, will need throughout their entire life. To dilute their education and deem their scores “good enough” is a disservice to not only the students who were rejected who had the scores, but also a disservice to the student who got in on a lower threshold. Not only would other students look at said student with disdain and “oh they only got in because of affirmative action, not because they’re smart or anything”, but it’s also robbing the student of a more meaningful and ultimately more impactful education in the long run. Sure, they got into Lowell. Congratulations. But are they going to be happy here where the tests are now going to be even harder? Not at all.

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