Lowell High School and meritocracy

Lowell high school is one of the top high schools in California and until a year ago admissions to Lowell were competitive. Students who wanted to attend had to take a standardized test and then the top students were selected. That system resulted in a school that was majority Asian (51%) despite the fact that Asian residents only make up 29% of the district’s school population.


Last February the San Francisco School Board ended competitive admissions at Lowell and replaced them with a lottery system (competitive admissions had been temporarily suspended during the pandemic but the board made it permanent). The decision was made by the same members of the school board who were just recalled. In fact, the change to admission policy at Lowell probably helped drive the recall as much as anything else including the effort to rename schools.

One of the leading voices in that effort was the then VP of the board, Allison Collins, who said that meritocracy was a racist system. How could a school that is 51% Asian be racist? Collins got in trouble for some old tweets in which she explained that many Asians “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead.'”

As mentioned above, Collins and two other board members were recalled but the decision on admissions at Lowell was allowed to stand, at least for this year. Monday, the New Yorker published a lengthy story about the first semester at Lowell under the new lottery admissions system. The piece is too long to summarize but it contains some interesting observations from teachers:

After class that Friday, [teacher Rebecca] Johnson told me that more kids than usual were struggling: “There are a couple of students I really worry about—because of the comprehension, but also because they give up.” On Wednesday, she convened the seven other World History teachers to compare notes. They gathered in Room 255; outside, the drum corps was practicing, and the eerie music-box tinkle of a glockenspiel came through the windows as they spoke.

“I thought this would be a good meeting to talk about the number of reluctant learners,” Johnson said. She was requiring each freshman to schedule a “binder check,” to make one-on-one contact. The meetings were illuminating. One freshman who she’d thought was slacking off turned out to have a third-grade reading level: he wasn’t truculent, just petrified. Slipping so far through the cracks was a new problem at Lowell, but she’d alerted the boy’s homeroom teacher and got him connected to tutoring.

“I feel as if this year we’re getting kids at a very early curve,” one of her colleagues said.


When the first round of grades for the fall semester were entered, teacher’s noticed something else had changed.

“I have three times as many students as usual failing—instead of one or two, I have three to six,” Wenning, the biology teacher, told me. “I have some students who have done no work the whole first grading period.”

Wenning had contacted students, parents, and counsellors. He’d offered extra-credit points if kids came to see him for tutoring; when they showed up, he’d let them elect to retake one test. He tried to help organize study groups (only one student signed up) and circulated a list of Web sites, podcasts of his own creation, and other resources.

“I’m at the end of my rope in what I can offer,” he told me. “I don’t think some of these students would be doing well at any high school, which makes me wonder why they wanted to come to Lowell.”

As the months pass, the story suggests there were signs of clear improvement among the struggling students:

Yet things were looking up. Several of Wenning’s struggling freshmen were doing better. In World History, Johnson was leading her students toward the big picture. What were the two I-words? she asked. “Industrialism” and “imperialism.”…

“In the past, we would ask, you know, Are these kids ‘Lowell’?” She paused in what looked to me like awe. “They are Lowell. These are Lowell students. And, to me, that says that anybody can be a Lowell student.” It just required good support and attentive work from clever teachers. And time.


Again, I don’t want to oversimplify here but the author is clearly trying to tell a story about how students who wouldn’t have made it to Lowell under the old “meritocracy” system overcoming initial difficulties and thriving.

This week the Lowell School Site Council released the grades for the fall semester. What they showed was that students in the freshman class were 2-3 times as likely to have a D or F grade as students in grades 10-12.

In other words, the lottery students are struggling compared to the students previously admitted based on academic merit. I wasn’t able to find a published source for the data but I did find this in the published minutes for the last SSC meeting: [emphasis added]

Students are confused about what closing the achievement gap looks like at Lowell. Ms. Johnson agrees that because we don’t have 2 years of data, we don’t really have a means for assessment. We can look at grades, but those are not perfect, or accurate measurements. Based on data from this year alone, we do have an overrepresentation of Ds and Fs in our freshmen class, and any group of high performing vs sub group of underperforming students for that matter. Principal Dominguez reports that the students are rising to the occasion, and are abundantly successful, but there is a gap of a small portion of students who do need support so that we can close this achievement gap. Ms. Reller would like to see something along the lines of: “Keep the top engaged, but energize the underperforming.”


So the data on underperforming freshmen (those admitted by lottery) is real. I’ve seen some suggesting that maybe the pandemic played a role here but the fact is that all of these students were out of school for 18 months. All of them faced the same difficulties with remote learning. But there’s clearly an achievement gap between the upper classes and the lottery students.

Of course it’s possible that some of these struggling students really will do better in the spring or next year but that remains to be seen. And even if that is the case the data still suggests that the idea of meritocracy has, well…merit. Kids who were driven to learn and succeed in junior high (those with academic merit) are in fact better able to succeed at Lowell than a random lottery of students from the same district. The unfortunate result of the new system is that some students who clearly weren’t prepared for Lowell took slots away from students who, under the previous system, would have tested in and done well in their first semester.

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