How Can Changing Admissions Ruin a School?

Lowell High School’s admissions policy based on ‘academic merit’ has been a school-board level political issue for as long as I can remember (and I attended public schools in San Francisco from elementary school through high school). In recent years, now that Lowell has finally replaced ‘academic merit’ admissions with a lottery system, it’s become national chatter, or at least I find people outside of the San Francisco Bay Area writing commentaries.

I won’t discuss the legal issues (if you’re interested, you can learn about that here), or even the racial politics. I’m going to discuss: how does changing admissions affect the quality of education?

I’ve run into many comments like ‘the school board ruined Lowell’ just because of the admissions change. Not because they changed teachers. Not because they changed the curriculum. Just ‘admissions based on academic merit’ -> ‘admissions by lottery.’

How can changing admissions criteria ruin a school?

I attended a public high school in San Francisco other than Lowell. Students at other high schools have… negative views of Lowell. A few of my classmates were transfer students who left Lowell. They had the worst opinions of Lowell (they hated Lowell so much that they left). Yep, they were a heavily biased sample, but they made me doubt whether Lowell is such a great school. I also had acquaintances who attended Lowell. Their opinions were more positive, but they didn’t leave me with the impression that Lowell is The Absolute Best High School in the City.

The stereotype of Lowell students at my high school was that they were too obsessed with studying and grades and they ‘didn’t have a life.’ The reality of Lowell students is much more nuanced than that, of course. In fact, some would disagree with that stereotype.

With that out of the way, how can changing admissions ruin a school?

What is the purpose of a school?

Is the purpose of the school to help students learn? If so, how can a school help students learn? By hiring good teachers? By having a good curriculum? By having good administrators?

I don’t see how changing admissions can affect the curriculum, and the effects on administration feel too indirect, so I’ll only look at teachers. Teachers may prefer to teach students who are highly motivated to study (and pass academic-based tests) over students who skimp on studying to play games or hang out with friends. This may affect how many outstanding teachers apply for jobs at Lowell.

However, I never ran into anecdotal evidence that the teachers at Lowell were better than the teachers at other public high schools. Some were good, some were bad, just like at other schools. Some good teachers feel a calling to work at ‘underserved’ schools. Some good teachers don’t like high-pressure study environments and prefer to work at schools which are more chill. The people who yell the loudest about how changing admissions ruined Lowell have never, as far as I know, based their argument on attracting/keeping outstanding teachers. Whatever their concern is, it’s not that.

Students also influence each other. Selecting for students who study hard directs peer pressure towards studying hard and away from goofing off or distracting the class. This is a stronger argument—in fact, this is the only credible argument for how a change in admissions may affect how much students learn in school. On the other hand, Lowell has a reputation for being the public school for students who prioritize academic achievement. Even with the lottery system, I assume the students who apply self-select for prioritizing study. That may change given enough time.

Personally, I think goofing off and socializing also allow students to learn a lot, and may allow them to learn things which are more useful than what they learn in textbooks. But everybody’s situation is different. Some students are better off prioritizing academic achievement. Also, when I was in high school, I appreciated that the students most obsessed with grades had their own school, so they wouldn’t bother us.

So far, I’ve been assuming that the purpose of school is for students to learn. But I doubt the people who wail about how lottery admissions are ruining Lowell care about how much the students learn. What they really want from Lowell is social status.

Making the ‘cut’ for admission to Lowell increases a student’s prestige. This applies locally to parents who brag to each other about their kids’ academic achievements (though not to the students themselves, students from other high schools won’t respect you more just because you’re a Lowell student, I speak from experience). It also applies to college admissions.

I don’t care that some parents’ feelings are hurt that they can no longer feel proud that their kid got into Lowell. College admissions are something else. Much about the higher education system in the United States displeases me, but given that it is the way it is, allowing some low-income students who study hard to gain prestige which increases their chances of admission to a prestigious university is a reasonable goal. Therefore—in the absence of legal issues—I wouldn’t oppose restoring Lowell’s old academic-merit admissions criteria.

Few people are laying out the issue like this—precisely because so much of this is about social status. Openly discussing that this is about posturing threatens the very social postures people care so much about maintaining.

3 thoughts on “How Can Changing Admissions Ruin a School?

  1. I’m a graduate of a magnet school** with its own admissions trials and tribulations (**from the article you linked, it seems like Lowell isn’t actually a magnet, but your arguments apply to my alma mater as well), and I think that admissions to the school do play a very important part in that the learning environment is arguably more important than the curriculum for learning outcomes. Especially when you’re talking about kids who are applying to a magnet school–they’ll be just fine at their base school. In fact, it’s arguably better for things like admissions and scholarships to stay there and be valedictorian than get lost in a sea of bright lights. The thing that was outstanding about my education was not the teachers or classes per se but rather the way I was able to integrate into and be supported by a community, whereas if I’d continued at my secondary school I would’ve had a disconnected, marginalized four years. It’s true that a lot of my classmates are out there doing things I would describe as great, but that’s because they display confidence and leadership and citizenship and humility; they didn’t get there on the skill of “good at standardized tests.”

    So, it sounds to me from your description that the previous admissions policy was ruining Lowell. It sounds like they weren’t trying to bring in a diverse class who would build and participate in a vibrant student body, but rather trying to turn out successes within the narrow confines of “academic achievement” whose college admissions statistics would look really good in a pamphlet. I suppose it’s easy for me to say, but I don’t think that’s how you set a student up for either long-term success or personal fulfillment.

    • Lowell’s previous admissions process was complicated and I don’t completely understand it (especially since they tweaked it multiple times) but it wasn’t purely based on standardized test scores and grades.

      When I was in middle, Lowell admissions included some kind of score middle school counselors could assign based on things like ‘good leadership’ or ‘overcoming hardship’ or ‘good in teams.’ Each middle school could only assign a fixed number of points.

      In practice… the counselor at my middle school who was responsible for assigning the points made it clear that his goal was to get as many students from our school into Lowell as possible for the sake of our school’s representation, not to assign the points to the most deserving students. If a student’s grades/scores were so high they would get into Lowell without the extra points, they didn’t get points, even if they deserved them. If a student’s grades/scores were so low they had no hope of getting into Lowell, they got no points, even if they deserved them. The counselor only assigned points to students who were at the upper-end of borderline, and he didn’t care whether they deserved them.

      Looking back, I realize that lecture made me cynical about Lowell when I was in middle school, and may have persuaded me not to apply.

      There were aspects of Lowell’s old admissions process which were supposed to increase diversity… but there were a lot of disagreements/arguments about these as well.

      I agree that admissions systems which are aimed at building good communities would be good for learning outcomes, and that some magnet schools do this.

  2. Pingback: What Admissions System Would I Choose for a High School? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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