I’ve been having some trouble with the concept of “merit” lately… the more I hear it, the more I want to scream. (!)

Really? You may be asking… what’s wrong with merit? Well, let’s start with a definition (via Google)

mer·it (ˈmerət/)

noun
  1. the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward.
    “composers of outstanding merit”
verb
  1. deserve or be worthy of (something, especially reward, punishment, or attention).
    “the results have been encouraging enough to merit further investigation”
    synonyms: deserve, earn, be deserving of, warrant, rate, justify,be worthy of,be worth,be entitled to,have a right to,have a claim to/on

    “the accusation did not merit a response”

Merit sounds like a good thing, right? It turns out I’m not alone in having problems with merit. Tom Streithorst writes in his piece “The Problems with Meritocracy“:

“Meritocrats accept inequality as proper. As long as opportunities are equal, outcomes need not be. Of course this ignores that opportunities are not equal but it also legitimises the increasing bifurcation of our society. Since the elite no longer live with the masses, work with them, socialise with them the concerns of ordinary citizens don’t register.”

Read more here.

This question is explored even more further in a book titled, The Rise of the Meritocracy, whose main points can basically be boiled down to two ideas:

  1. Our ability to measure merit is flawed. — In education, this is usually done using some form of “objective assessment” like IQ tests, state tests (e.g. our old STAR tests), and/or grades plus “effort”, which is measured by teacher or parent recommendations. In reality, the job of measuring has been shown to be highly subjective, as those doing the measuring have biases (both positive and negative) and the measurements themselves tend to be inherently biased as well.
  2. To whatever extent you can successfully identify merit and distribute resources accordingly, there are certain resources that shouldn’t be distributed based on merit— Education is one of these things. Add to this list health care, housing, police protection…

 Read more about these ideas here.

For these reasons, I am growing weary of the concept of “merit” as it is used in determining student access to educational opportunities. Lately, I’m hearing it again and again as its used to justify why our schools should reinstate honors tracking in our middle and high schools (via “accelerated” algebra).

What has made the concept of “merit” even more disconcerting is the fact that it is often defined as achievement on a standardized test. (Which is often given as a one-shot deal at a young age such as was the case with former GATE testing in 3rd grade or in 8th grade for high school admission to schools like Lowell.)

How does “merit”-based enrollment play out in SFUSD?

The concept of merit-based admission becomes increasingly troubling when you consider the number of black and brown students in selective programs and schools.

SFUSD GATE Percent Participation by Race

| Create infographics

GATE participation is currently being redefined based on new assessments (SBAC) and district “equity” initiatives. That said, in the past academic year of 2012-2013, we see big disparities by race. Clicking on the circle graph representing SFUSD demographics above you can see Asians are the largest ethnic group of students in our district at 44% of the population. If you click on the GATE graph, you see they represent 66% of the GATE population. While Black students make up 9% of the general population, yet only 4% of the GATE population.

How do these numbers square up? Why are Asians and whites overrepresented in GATE programs while black and Latino (and Samoan) students are woefully under-represented? Should we chalk this all up to poverty? Parent education levels? Cultural predispositions?

We see these disparities continue on in enrollment numbers for schools with competitive admissions policies. Last year, at SFUSD’s highly selective high school, Lowell, we see that African Americans make up only 2.6% of the student population there, while Latinos make up 9.7% of the population. This is compared to district-wide enrollment percentages of 10% and 23% respectively.

SFUSD is Not Alone

It turns out, SFUSD is not alone in grappling with these disparities. We see them across the country in other urban districts. New York City’s elite public high schools have long been plagued by a lack of diversity. In an article by Elizabeth A. Harris of the New York Times she notes:

“In 2012, a group of education and civil rights organizations filed a complaint with the federal Education Department that said the city’s admission process, which is based on the results of a single test, was a violation of the Civil Rights Act.”

Read more here.

As the case is investigated, many in NY question whether changing enrollment criteria (e.g. eliminating the test-in requirement) might increase enrollment for underserved groups. Unfortunately, any decisions around this are stalled as policy makers research the impacts of implementing other enrollment criteria, which by some estimates could actually make matters worse.

Others folks suggest it would be more effective to invest efforts in increasing the number of black and Latino students scoring successfully on the test, rather than by eliminating it. As Larry Cary, president of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation states:

“We are committed to maintaining the test as the sole criterion for admission because we believe that is the best system available to admit kids solely on the basis of merit,” Mr. Cary said. “We’re opposed to the use of the multiple criteria that would inject subjectivity into the process. With this in mind… let’s reflect on the term “merit”

(There’s that word “merit” again…)

What’s most fair?

So is “merit” fair or unfair? Is exam-based admission into an elite program objective or subjective. What does this all mean?

Rereading the definition of merit, you will see the concept doesn’t just communicate a standard, like the word “proficient”, it connotes a whole value system. Words like “deserving of praise” and “reward” illustrate the idea that somehow kids who meet the criterion of merit (e.g. achieving a certain score on a test) have somehow “earned” access to the elite programs for which they gain entry. Those who don’t score well, don’t “merit” or “deserve” to experience the specialized educational opportunities that these educational policies withhold from the larger student body. (The 99%, if you will.)

The fact that some children persist in failing schools despite ongoing substitutes, a lack of classroom resources and the burdens of poverty don’t seem to enter into this equation of merit.

As a former teacher, working in Bay View and Oakland public schools, I have to wonder… Who has more “merit”?

  • A child brought up with college-educated affluent parents, who has grown up in a home-full of books? with academic tutors, and ample opportunities for after-school and summertime enrichment?
  • Or, the child learning in a language other than their first language, struggling against the effects of poverty, neighborhood violence, financial insecurity? or interrupted schooling as a result of family responsibilities such as childcare, or translating for relatives who need help filling out social security forms, or helping parents navigate complicated bureaucratic systems to access vital social services?

I have known students who’ve come to my English class each day, despite the fact they had never learned to read. I’ve known students who’ve had to negotiate family responsibilities like watching a sick younger sibling in order for their parents to go to work. I’ve counseled and encouraged students to write essays about “hope”, “dreams” or “the future” despite the fact that they slept with gun-shots beyond their windows, or had visions of classmates, friends and family members gunned down before their eyes…

Ugh… So, what do we do?

OK. So, let’s agree that defining “merit” based on test performance is problematic… Even if it’s just semantics, the term “merit-based enrollment” just plain sucks!

That said, even if we changed the name (“performance-based” enrollment maybe?) it doesn’t solve the problem of access for underserved students. Looking at Lowell enrollment numbers makes me wonder: Should we just scrap the whole exam-based enrollment policy altogether?

The answer, it turns out, is far from simple.

I asked a colleague (an Educational researcher, and Ph.d no less!) to share some insights on the subject (thanks John!):

“What makes it a little complicated to consider is that for Lowell, you’d have to know how many of each subgroup applied (and whether or not they were encouraged to apply) and for the other schools, you’d have to know who applied and who was in a neighborhood privileged in the student assignment system, etc.

If the desired goal for the district is to have greater integration, then a choice system often works against that, both because people segregate by neighborhood and tend to choose schools with people who look like them. If the idea is that each student should be able to go to the school of his or her choice, the system also works against that, since there is a limited capacity at high demand schools. Regarding an exam school like Lowell, the optimal thing would be that everyone applies to get in and that other factors (such as average quality of a student’s middle and high school, demographic factors, etc.) are considered.”

Obviously… we’re nowhere close to an easy answer. That said, tough questions are still important to consider. Just because we may not answer these questions definitively, even possibly in our life-times, it doesn’t mean we should throw our arms up in the air and accept the status quo. I can think of other meaningful questions I’m glad humanity is struggling to answer: global warming, world peace, the cure to cancer… (you get the picture.)

What do you think we should be doing differently?

Does any of this make sense? What do you think we could/should be doing to increase more equitable representation of black and brown students in selective schools? What should we be doing as a district, as schools, and as individuals to create a more equitable schooling system?

Related reads:

Join the conversation! 53 Comments

  1. Economics are an advantage but your article is very simplistic. Some parents work harder than others and some kids work harder than others. Lowell is 43% free and reduced lunch. In California, Asian Americans put everyone else to shame in terms of merit. 60% of Kindergarten kids arrive at Kindergarten prepared by parents and knowing how to read and do basic math, vs. only 16% of whites despite the fact that for many, English is a 2d language. In middle and high school the average Asian kid studies 13.8 hours a week vs. 5.6 for whites and fewer for Latinos and African Americans. As a result, 33.5% of Asians qualify for a UC vs. 8.7% of whites.

    Go to any Kumon Center and see who’s there. It isn’t due to money, the Asians wear cheaper clothes at school but prioritize learning over flash. Go to a public library on San Bruno Avenue or anywhere in SF on Saturday. You see Asian kids there, even in a neighborhood which is mostly African American. The average American child watches 40 hours a week of TV including video games and studies under 6, which includes reading novels. As Obama said, you’re never so poor that you can watch TV but you can’t help your kid with their homework.

    Also Asians divorce far less, and studies show kids of married parents are more than twice as likely to get a degree and half as likely to be homeless or go to prison as kids of single mothers. However, most Americans think it’s wise to put happiness first. If you don’t feel love, divorce when your kid is five, even though there is an over 50% chance your next marriage will end in divorce, that shot at happiness is worth reducing your kids’ odds of a degree by over half.

    Some children study 40 hours a week outside of school, some 2-3. The average African American kid at 18 is at an 8th grade reading level for whites and 7th for Asians.

    It is more merit than class. Yes, income helps, but studies show there is no academic average after controlling for income to going to private school. There is an advantage to studying hard. We need to encourage hard work. The kids who make it into Lowell are more worthy of praise, merit, or credit than those who are rejected because they sacrificed more. They studied all day Sunday when their friends decided they didn’t feel like it. They paid attention in class. They stayed up doing homework while their friends slept, or played on their phones. They watched TV and claimed they were too poor to study.

    It is also easier to get straight As at the worse schools and 30% of Lowell is admitted based on low income factors, not purely grades, though they must have at least all Bs. Some kids work harder than others, and some parents work harder than others. Some put education as a high priority and some watch TV, do what they feel like, study a little and make excuses.

    These are the facts and they are undisputed.

    Reply
  2. By the way, Affirmative Action is illegal due to prop 209. The idea was we’d focus more on convincing underrepresented groups to spend more time studying, provide more resources, tutors, and focus on getting underrepresented groups to a higher level, having parent education, etc. None of that happened. Now they want to go back to making it easier to get in? In the 1980s and 1990s you got one point taken away if you were Chinese. If you were other Asian or white, you got what you got. Latinos got a bump of 7 points and African Americans a bump of 9 points, meaning you could be a B student. That’s why they made it 8 for an A, 6 for a B and 2 for a C, and 4,3 and 1, to knock out C students because they would flunk out and it hurt Lowell. When they put in the 2d and 3d tracks they required a 3.00 and all Bs to eliminate kids getting in who were really low performing.

    Let’s convince every parent to prioritize school and studying over flash, their personal lives, TV, etc. Let’s not cop out with race based quotas. Let’s convince all parents to follow what Asians are doing in this City, which is truly amazing.

    Your arguments about poverty ignore the fact that many Asians in public housing get their kids into Lowell. Good parenting and good students should be rewarded. That is merit.

    Reply
  3. Here’s a story from New York City. They offered a free class on Saturday for Middle School Students to prepare for admission to the elite 6 high schools roughly equivalent to Lowell. At first only black and Latino students were allowed to attend. Asians sued and won. Now anyone can take the test, but 43% of those choosing to give up their Saturday to study for the test in Middle School are Asian American, with most of the rest white.

    Here is the link and one key paragraph:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/education/a-grueling-admissions-test-highlights-a-racial-divide.html?_r=0

    The city began offering a free test-prep program several years ago for black and Hispanic students, but after a legal challenge, other ethnic groups were granted the same access to the course. Today, 43 percent of the students in the program are Asian. Three years ago, Ting Shi was one of them.

    See, Asians believe in merit and do better despite no evidence IQs are higher. They believe it isn’t genetic, but is hard work. Other groups, including whites, look for an excuse first. For instance many denigrate Lowell as too narrow so you can’t feel it’s a pure victory to get in, right, you must be worse at something else. I hear this from whites all the time. However they analyzed all the high schools and took out grades and test scores and AP Tests (Lowell is #2 in the world in this), and only judged them on extracurricular participation, sports, arts, performing arts, club participation, volunteerism/community work, cheer leading (#3 in Nationals this year), science competitions, debate contests, and other non-academic factors. Lowell came out #1 in the Bay Area. The kids at Mission and Washington and all the other schools didn’t use the time not studying, an estimated 20 hours fewer per week, to become better at sports or arts or to volunteer or join clubs. They mostly watched TV and played games. They weren’t more social (lower percentage attended proms).

    Character traits for academic success are similar to the others.

    Those willing to sacrifice a Saturday to self-improve and pass a test do have more merit than those who hang out or watch TV or do other things on Saturday. It is always more difficult to dedicate time to studying a difficult subject. Who makes the moral choice? Who makes the lazy one? If you are so stressed you can’t study, how can you watch TV? Or play video games? These are ethical and moral decisions. The issue is the middle class white community generally doesn’t work that hard either. Maybe they study slightly more due to privilege, but Asians and other immigrants are the role models in this.

    If you take away Lowell, you remove a reward for hard work and discourage it. In middle school they already praise the kids who runs fastest, jumps highest, is prettiest or most handsome, is a great dancer, is most popular, has the best fashion sense. Academics will make us stronger economically, but we don’t give much credit to those who excel academically. A brief praise to those who walk up on stage and got all As for 3 years at the graduation when it’s over. Let them at least have the pride of Lowell admissions. And let kids who love school go to Lowell so they can focus on school without being made fun of or criticized for academic success.

    Reply
    • Wow! I don’t even know where to start… Other than to say “thank you” for proving my point. You say: “Good parenting and good students should be rewarded. That is merit.” And then equate Lowell with a reward. Thus, based on your argument, anyone who doesn’t get into Lowell has bad parents and is a bad student I suppose? Or lazy? Or playing too many video games? Or has selfish parents for getting divorced? … Oh, and everyone should just “act Asian”? (whatever that is…)

      I am assuming your child goes to Lowell right?

      I highly doubt the beliefs you espouse are shared by all Lowell students and parents. Nonetheless, your views illustrate my point that even with an “objective” system like “merit”-based enrollment, there are many people who ascribe very subjective evaluations of the students (and their parents) who are able to gain enrollment.

      I think Jedediah Purdy stated it well when he said: “The way we pick “winners” in this country is a hybrid. First-generation meritocracy pivoted on tests like the SAT. It channeled high scorers into elite schools and positions…. Testing for talent is as good as the test–until people with wealthy parents start spending their summers with SAT tutors. A test makes the already privileged into champion test-takers….” (Of all the high schools in SFUSD, Lowell has the second lowest percentage of low-income students at roughly 40%.) Thus, he argues, “Wherever we see meritocratic extremism, the compulsion to pick and elevate winners (with the corollary of quietly calling the others losers), we should resist it.”

      I strongly agree.

      Reply
      • The fact that 43% of Lowell students are free and reduced lunch proves if you have a good work ethic and character, you can get in even if poor. The biggest difference between Asian American and Mainstream American Parenting is that most American parents see being a good student as an innate trait, how smart a kid is born, how interested in school they are, and how much they enjoy studying, while most Asians believe that hard work is a moral virtue and will make it more likely that you will succeed in school and in life.

        Americans tend to ignore it when poor people do find ways to get ahead and tend to emphasize things most of us do not control, such as poverty, moving, distractions, violence. Asian Americans in violent neighborhoods still go to the library with their kids on Saturday. Did you read the article about New York? These kids believe their own amount of effort determines their academic success. They are willing to sacrifice Saturdays to pass the test.

        Would you give up Saturdays to bring your kid to a free testing prep center if SF offered it?

        This has very little to do with money. In New York, it had nothing to do with money. The class was free, easy to get to and open to all. They opened centers near everyone’s home and offered it free. These aren’t rich kids.

        I see you give no praise to those who sacrifice time and effort to get ahead.

        With divorce, you are sending the message that the short term is more important than the long term. That the odds of your kids graduating college dropping by half is OK if you can be happier with a new lover, that your needs are more important than your child’s. Your romantic and sex life is more important than your child getting good grades. Asian Americans do less drugs and alcohol and watch less TV, and focus on goals which won’t show results for a decade or two, such as preparing their children for kindergarten evenings and weekends. Jewish Americans made similar sacrifices in the early to mid 20th Century and pulled way ahead of Irish, Italian and Polish Americans as a result of believing in themselves and demanding strong effort from their children.

        Lowell is a reward for the most hard working, the least lazy. Genetics is a factor, but it allows a poor kid, over 1000 poor kids in San Francisco to go to a school which statistically is better than private schools parents have to pay over 40k or.

        San Francisco is supposedly a liberal city, but white kids here are less likely to go to a school over 20% black and Latino than in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Texas, all supposedly conservative states. Why? Private schools and white flight.

        Lowell is good enough to attract rich whites who donate a lot, at about 25% of the school. It is the #1 school in sports, arts, volunteerism and club participation, with arts only second to SOTA. Kids can earn their way into an elite school, the oldest high school West of the Mississippi with many famous graduates. Lowell has some bad teachers, all public schools do, but the kids make it special, the moral values they bring in with them. They get into the school having proven they are hard working. They appreciate it.

        Reply
  4. And yes, my child goes to Lowell. It motivated me to teach them to read before starting Kindergarten, to supplement their education and to spend Saturdays and evenings reading extra books to the. I am not rich and my kids are Latino. All my kids will go there. I teach them to work hard. It isn’t money, it’s effort.

    Read the Triple Package by Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rosenfeld. Believing your actions determine your success causes you to work harder. Saying college admissions are a crap shoot or blaming poverty causes you to work less hard. You never gave any credit for those who are poor and don’t let it get them down and work hard, parents who stay together for their kids because their kids are #1, parents who emphasize education and hard work.

    I am proud of my child’s Lowell Admission and I will work hard and stay proud. I’m not a deadbeat dad who takes off on his kids. I’m not a guy who drinks at night or watches TV when his kids have homework. I don’t wait for a problem, I work hard to prevent it. I work harder as a parent than many and that is part of why they get in. Genetics and wealth are smaller factors than effort.

    I see you ignore all my statistics about hours studied per week, parental efforts and emphasis, and who goes to the library. I find it strange you feel that African Americans and Latinos not going to the library with their kids on Saturday is excused by all those exaggerated excuses you give, but Asian American kids who are just as poor and are in the same schools and same neighborhoods and get in, you conveniently ignore.

    It is clear to me that Lowell generally gets the kids who work the hardest and parental help is a factor. Putting your kids and education first is a big part of this.

    So should we ruin Lowell so the only way you can get into an elite high school is by having a lot of money? Will well off people send their kids to a diverse school or will this preclude any possibility for poor kids to go to an elite school? Yet, Chris Daly and Gavin Newsom (white flight), Nancy Pelosi and most liberal politicians (private school) and others will buy their way out of these schools.

    Give poor kids their due praise and a great opportunity. Encourage kids to push themselves to their limit. Keep Lowell as is. And praise effort. You did none of that. Do you teach your kids to work hard or not to bother because it’s all about genetics and wealth?

    Reply
  5. Thank you so much Floyd for speaking out on this issue. I was forwarded a link to this article and it makes me so upset. When I came to the US as a 6-year old I spoke no English, but by middle school I was getting straight As because I studied hard. I was a tiny Chinese girl in a school which was mostly black kids. They didn’t say good job when I got an A, they made jokes about me, ignored me. I wasn’t cool so I only had Chinese friends. I didn’t have any white or black or Latin friends until I went to Lowell except one black girl in Middle School who was an immigrant from Nigeria. When I went there I could be myself and be proud to study hard and work hard. I was a cheerleader and was in many clubs.

    I have 2 sons now. I put so much time into educating them. I work long hours and spend at least 1000 hours a year teaching my children. Most parents just do what they want and drag the kids along. I find activities which will help them. My husband works hard as well. I want my children to attend Lowell.

    You are hurtful to those who work hard. If everyone is the same, those who work hard are disrespected because they deserve more. The rich are very corrupt in this country and fewer people change quintiles than in the rest of the 1st world, mostly Europe. Some immigrants have found hard work pays. But we get no credit from people like you SFPS mom with your hateful comments dismissing hard work. I wouldn’t think of divorcing my husband in a million years. I had many men interested in me, many races, very funny, handsome, I didn’t marry them because I wouldn’t risk their leaving me. My sons are #1, we barely have time for each other. We both prioritize our children. I teach my children working hard in school is the most important thing.

    I am disappointed in your dismissal of my effort and my children’s effort. I work hard and my sons work hard. I am very proud. You look Asian to me but you have sold out on our values. We have found a solution to poverty, to failure in school, and it is so simple any American can adopt our solution. Most don’t, because it is more easy to watch TV and divorce and play games and get drunk and do marijuana and relax. Lowell gives a prize to those who choose the difficult challenge and who work hard to attain it. If not now, same later, UC Berkeley, etc. I am so saddened by your dismissal of my hard work and my children’s hard work. You are wrong. You are so wrong. You are hurtful and wrong. Your kids will be less successful if you pass this to them.

    Reply
    • Wow! You say: “But we get no credit from people like you SFPS mom with your hateful comments dismissing hard work.” I’m not dismissing those who work hard. I’m just questioning what we consider “hard work?” Testing well or showing up to school each day despite adversity? Don’t both deserve accolades for “merit”? How are we rewarding students who work hard despite adversity and parental support? And why is a “good education” a reward? Don’t all students deserve a high quality education?

      Reply
  6. I applaud parents who work hard to educate their kids, and certainly read to my kids and do many other things people say are good to do.

    Nevertheless, my question for Marie and Floyd is, is “meritocracy” defined by the students’ merit or the parents’ merit? An honest question: should a smart and capable kid be held back because their own parent is a single parent with two jobs and no time to teach them, or because their parents are alcoholic and abusive, etc.?

    There is no question that kids that work hard, are engaged, and well prepared for education deserve a good school. But the question is, how do we reward a child’s merit and potential, without simply rewarding a parents’ merit? Because as wonderful as it is for parents to do right by their children, the children themselves need to be the ones earning their place at Lowell, etc. And for some kids, that is a bigger leap than others.

    Reply
  7. Thank you so much Floyd for speaking out on this issue. I was forwarded a link to this article and it makes me so upset. When I came to the US as a 6-year old I spoke no English, but by middle school I was getting straight As because I studied hard. I was a tiny Chinese girl in a school which was mostly black kids. They didn’t say good job when I got an A, they made jokes about me, ignored me. I wasn’t cool so I only had Chinese friends. I didn’t have any white or black or Latin friends until I went to Lowell except one black girl in Middle School who was an immigrant from Nigeria. When I went there I could be myself and be proud to study hard and work hard. I was a cheerleader and was in many clubs.
    I have 2 sons now. I put so much time into educating them. I work long hours and spend at least 1000 hours a year teaching my children. Most parents just do what they want and drag the kids along. I find activities which will help them. My husband works hard as well. I want my children to attend Lowell.
    You are hurtful to those who work hard. If everyone is the same, those who work hard are disrespected because they deserve more. The rich are very corrupt in this country and fewer people change quintiles than in the rest of the 1st world, mostly Europe. Some immigrants have found hard work pays. But we get no credit from people like you SFPS mom with your hateful comments dismissing hard work. I wouldn’t think of divorcing my husband in a million years. I had many men interested in me, many races, very funny, handsome, I didn’t marry them because I wouldn’t risk their leaving me. My sons are #1, we barely have time for each other. We both prioritize our children. I teach my children working hard in school is the most important thing.
    I am disappointed in your dismissal of my effort and my children’s effort. I work hard and my sons work hard. I am very proud. You look Asian to me but you have sold out on our values. We have found a solution to poverty, to failure in school, and it is so simple any American can adopt our solution. Most don’t, because it is more easy to watch TV and divorce and play games and get drunk and do marijuana and relax. Lowell gives a prize to those who choose the difficult challenge and who work hard to attain it. If not now, same later, UC Berkeley, etc. I am so saddened by your dismissal of my hard work and my children’s hard work. You are wrong. You are so wrong. You are hurtful and wrong. Your kids will be less successful if you pass this to them.

    Reply
  8. I am as against standardized testing as anybody and agree that they ideally should not be used for admissions. It seems to me the current educational fixation with standardized testing is a huge waste of time and money and really only tests how well you are at taking whatever the test is.

    That said, I think there is value in offering advanced levels of education to the public whether that be in arts, STEM, english, or other. If you are going to have advanced opportunities it only makes sense for the student’s sake to make sure that they are A) interested and B) equipped for the task. For example, if you put me in an advanced music class I’d be lost and the experience would be completely without value. I think people accept this premise with something as clearly definable as music or language skill but balk at it when it comes to academics. The simple fact is, though, that some people, for whatever reason, are not in a position to excel in an advanced academic setting by the time they reach high school. I’ve heard that Lowell is extremely challenging (anctodectly more so then Berekely). To put somebody without the appropriate preperation and skills to suceed in that environment is to set them up for failure and does nobody any good.

    So rather then call admission into advanced programs merit based with the stigma that is associated with that, why not simply make the programs qualification based. Figure out what skills are neccessary to thrive in whatever the task is and a way to objectively measure whether or not somebody possesses those skills (easier said then done I know). Then let in everybody who demonstrates those qualifications. If there is more demand then spots then go to a lottery. If there is consistently more demand then capacity then increase capacity.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Scott for your commentary. I agree, we should offer advanced levels of educations for all kids that are interested, and at the same time expand the idea of what it means to be “qualified”. Figuring out qualifications for enrollment is tricky, but definitely worthwhile. And if lots of kids are qualified, a Lottery approach seems like a good one. If you are running for the Board of Ed, you’ve got my vote!

      Reply
  9. You really have no idea why I am offended? How are Lowell kids getting more of an education? Did you know Lowell gets far less money per pupil than any other school? Hard work in school is derided in this anti-intellectual nation with less class mobility than the rest of the 1st world. Lowell is a haven for an oppressed minority of kids who actually do work hard, don’t just say they do, without being teased and ostracized. Lowell gets far less money but the kids work hard.

    You say above you want to scream at those who believe their kids deserve praise for working hard in school. You really said that. When I was an immigrant and working very hard every weekend and staying up late to do homework I was screamed at by the other kids, mostly black kids, who thought it was so funny that a Chinese girl got straight As. This is not that long ago, class of 1994. So this is the late ’80s at Denman Middle School. It was so funny that I worked hard and they were so cool for not caring if they got an A or an F. I was called racist names, told I wasn’t white so I shouldn’t bother trying to get a good job from the evil white honkeys who control everything. I was yelled at. I was beaten up. And I was screamed at like you want to scream at those who teach their children to work hard in school. Yes, that really hurt my feelings and I had years of therapy to deal with that and now I stand up for myself and I tell you that I don’t like it that you expressed that you want to scream at me for believing in hard work. I feel you are being hateful. I was screamed at a lot for studying as a child.

    Now do you honestly think showing up at school deserves praise? That is a minimal effort. You can show up and space out, sleep, daydream, look at your phone, make jokes, make fun of kids who care and are trying. None of these things requires character or hard work. I teach my children to quietly listen to their teacher, take notes, read when told to, and focus during classwork. They also read the chapter before so they can be engaged and ask intelligent questions. They are alert and engaged. They are not spaced out and mocking of anyone who cares about the subject.

    Also, work levels are very different on weekends and during evenings. My kids work all day one day on the weekend, about 9-11 hours. They do workbooks which I correct, they read, they study. We go to the library and check out books. They make flashcards and memorize chapters ahead of time, do homework ahead of time if possible, and if I feel they don’t know the material I give them extra homework. They also spend 3-5 hours on the other weekend day studying or reading, and both play sports and volunteer. Every evening they come home, study before dinner, we have a 30-minute dinner and they study afterwards. I check their homework instead of turning on the TV.

    So yes, my children have more merit and deserve more praise as students than someone who just shows up. Most children don’t give anywhere close to their best effort. I do, as a parent, and my children do. We deserve much more praise than someone who just shows up. And I was poor as a child but I used every resource I could, free tutoring, libraries, you name it.

    You said “I’ve been having some trouble with the concept of “merit” lately… the more I hear it, the more I want to scream”.

    You also said measures were subjective. Maybe one class or one test is, but an SAT Test measures effort over an entire childhood. A GPA measures effort over a 3 or 4 year period. It takes far more work to get a 4.00 in 8th Grade than a 3.50 or a 3.00. Yes, there are variables, but saying you want to scream at children who feel they earned a 4.00 shows why there needs to be a Lowell and should be GATE Classes.

    Children do not deserve to be screamed at. If there is no Lowell, the smartest children will not only be screamed at, they will work hard and improve their school’s API Score and get no credit, they will be told they are unworthy and uncool, they will be ostracized, they will be beaten, they will be attacked, they will be robbed, they will be ridiculed.

    If black and Latino children really wanted to make more money than whites they would look at children like I was as a role model and try to emulate me. They didn’t, they made me a laughingstock. If Lowell didn’t exist I would have never gained any self-confidence. Lowell gets less money. Lowell is a refuge for children who are abused by the masses who believe, like you, that showing up and watching 40 hours a week of TV and studying 5.6 deserves as much praise as studying all day Saturday to prepare for a test to New York City’s top public schools, or to get into Lowell, to paying attention every day, to studying all Summer to prepare for the coming year, to studying all weekend.

    No, one deserves much more praise than the other. One made much more sacrifice.

    America is not a perfect meritocracy by any means, but eliminating Lowell will hurt those who are working hard.

    Your definition of people who show up as hard working shows you don’t understand what hard work really is.

    Did you prepare your kids for Kindergarten? Do you study Summers and weekends and every night with them so they can get Straight As in 7th and 8th Grade? Instead of wanting to scream at parents and children like me and my sons who work hard to do the right thing day in and day out, you should study with your children and send them to Lowell.

    If you do, you’ll see that in addition to grades and despite less money, Lowell is also # 1 in Sports, arts, volunteerism and club participation, despite our reputation as being narrow. You will see children who care and work hard, much harder than the children at other schools. You will see parents who put their children number one, not themselves, and children who work hard all Summer, every weekend, to make their parents proud. You will learn the true meaning of the word merit.

    Talk is cheap. Many children work much harder than others. 33.5 % of Asian kids in California qualify for a UC, vs. 8.7 of white kids. So maybe all Californians should look at what we do and emulate it. Then poverty won’t exist. True hard work can bring all of us to prosperity, but hard work includes childhood.

    Your comments that you wanted to scream at children who work hard was very upsetting to me and brought up a lot of bad memories. I Thank God for Lowell. I thank God I had a refuge at an important age. I did deserve it and so do my children. We sacrifice more than others.

    Reply
    • OK, I’m approving your post even though I don’t agree with a lot of what you are saying. I don’t scream at parents who like Lowell or who “teach their children to work hard at school”… that would be like screaming hard at myself. I’m just questioning a test-based enrollment system and the idea that “merit” should be assigned to a test performance.

      I respect the idea that you are a big supporter of education and making sacrifices for your kids to get the best education they can. I do that too, and it’s what my blog is all about.

      That said, the way YOU value education may not be the same as every family. And I don’t think it’s fair to say that African-American families DON’T value education as much as Asian-American families, and the proof is represented in Lowell’s enrollment. That’s just plain racist, ant I have to challenge that.

      Reply
      • On second thought… I also want to take a step back. The fact that you were called names, teased and screamed at is NOT OK. Whoever was your teacher, the administration at the school… they need to be held responsible. Kids do what kids do… but it is the teacher and school administrators job to make sure that they create a culture of learning and ensure that LEARNING IS RESPECTED. When I was a teacher at Galileo, Everett, and Hoover (all low-income schools in the 90’s) kids knew that whenever they were around me (even if it was outside of class) I had high-expectations for ALL students and anyone who messed with the “learning community” had to make amends.

        The fact that you were so traumatized by the public school culture is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Going to Lowell should not be the ONLY place where kids feel valued for learning. I quit my job so I could work full time to support and advocate for educational excellence for ALL kids… the experience you describe is not OK.

        That said, just because I’m questioning Lowell admission policies, doesn’t mean I’m opposed to supporting kids who want to excel. Kudos to you for overcoming such adverse circumstances and providing more for your kids. But, just because kids DON’T make it to Lowell, doesn’t mean they are lazy or their parents are bad. I’d like to think ALL kids have the opportunity to have a great education and if they choose not to go to Lowell (or try and don’t get in) they don’t feel like a failure for being a “bad student”.

        The intent of my post is to question how we evaluate “merit”: is it based on test performance, can we really measure it? And how can we increase opportunities for underserved kids?

        Reply
        • I strongly disagree Ali, with this comment you wrote:

          “That said, the way YOU value education may not be the same as every family. And I don’t think it’s fair to say that African-American families DON’T value education as much as Asian-American families, and the proof is represented in Lowell’s enrollment. That’s just plain racist, ant I have to challenge that.”

          Ali, this is a competition. In another post you say there should be a minimal qualification and then a lottery for Lowell among those who pass what, at least a 3.00? That changes what Lowell is and will reduce Lowell’s average AP Tests passed, national rankings (#1 school in CA of over 1500 students, #9 overall in the State, top 50 nationwide and top 10 of over 1500 students). It will change Lowell and not make it the reward for the best of the best.

          Also, you don’t get it. You’re saying it’s racist to speak the obvious truth. It is racist to have a different bar for different races and genders. It is not racist to show the results. Is it racist to say Chinese are shorter on average than whites or blacks? Is it sexist to say women are shorter than men, or that over 60% of Lowell is girls? Or that the NBA is 76% black?

          You set one set of rules. If one group makes more of an effort to sacrifice time and efforts to achieve and you then say it’s racist to note that, or to allow one group to get greater results they earn, it is really racist against the group that works hard to overachieve and is held back.

          You clearly are not paying attention to anything if you believe African American Families value education as much as Asian American Families. You can’t just say “I want my child to do well” and claim to value education. There is a lie detector and that is clear in your behavior. If one family spends every evening reading novels and doing workbooks and homework and another watches TV, the first one values education more. If New York invites any child to take a free test prep class for the 6 top schools and 43% of those who show up are Asian vs. 14% of the School District, they value education more than the average, which in New York is mostly black and Latino. When parents divorce and men don’t even see their kids once a week and don’t even marry when they get a woman pregnant, they are saying their sex life and freedom are more important than their children’s achievement as compared to a man who stays with his wife and children and helps his children with school work and reads to them, as my husband does.

          When a family buys $200 shoes and another buys cheap shoes at payless and spends $200 on Kumon classes, the 2d family values education more. When a family plays around all Summer and another has their children do educational projects to improve their children’s performance, the second family values education more. Girls value education more than boys, as proven by 60.2% of Lowell being girls. Asians value education far more than whites, Latinos and African Americans, though there are subset exceptions (Jews, Cubans, Nigerians, Lebanese, Russians, Persians).

          Lowell is a reward for the highest achievement. We have grade inflation. It removes meaning from admission to Lowell to have a lottery in lieu of a cut off. Lowell shows who the best are. As a nation, as evidenced by your comments, we are too easy on parents and children.

          We tell ourselves these lies:
          Everyone who shows up in school is trying. All parents love their children in different ways. Children are born hard working or lazy, interested in school or not.

          This is why Asians get no credit from the mainstream. We defy that. We believe all children can achieve more by hard work. Mainstream society lies. The father who never marries the mom and sees his child once a month or less loves his child in a different way. Children who study 5 hours a week or less are as hard working as children who study 30 hours a week including Summer, just in a different way.

          These are lies we tell ourselves to feel better. The truth is Asians prove by our actions, on average, with many exceptions, that we care much more than most Americans about our children’s education and our children prove, with their actions, that they want to excel much more than most Americans.

          To say African Americans value education as much as Asians is patently ridiculous. Some do, and there are always exceptions, but actions speak louder than words. Just like you probably supported social promotion, whereby children of vastly different skill levels all graduate and feel good, even though some are far more capable and will earn far more than others, you support trivializing true hard work by saying everyone who shows up is sacrificing.

          Americans are way too easy on their children and believe lies, even compared to Europeans. There was an article called America’s Lazy Schoolchildren in the Economist a few years back.

          http://www.economist.com/node/13825184

          This is what you fail to see. Lowell makes children and parents work harder. Saying you work hard and care about your children’s education and putting a little effort in is far less than saying you do and putting a lot of effort in. My brother got a girl pregnant. He doesn’t love her at all. He married her and they have two girls and the oldest made it into Lowell and the second will. They both are Chinese and they both spend a lot of time helping their daughters in school. They don’t like each other much at all and I suspect both have arrangements with others, though I have no proof. They are not close. However, they work as a team for their children and neither would consider leaving for a second. They put their daughters first. They wouldn’t for a second cut their daughters’ odds of a degree in half to enjoy true love, statistically most likely another divorce.

          Asian kids of single mothers still study more than white kids of intact families. The emphasis on education is not at all close. You trivialize our achievements if you say that. I argue that it is racist of you to not give credit for harder work and say everyone cares. It is ignoring a tremendous effort and sacrifice.

          Asian children in middle school study nearly 3x as much as others in California, time they’ll never get back but time which will benefit them for the rest of their life. A Lowell diploma is a badge of pride which dates back to 1856. Those who work hard deserve it just as those who get into Cal or Harvard deserve it. How dare you trivialize our sacrifice?

          I challenge you, go to San Bruno Avenue and go to the public library on any Saturday and tell me who you see in that library sacrificing their free time to help their children’s education, and compare it with the neighborhood population. That alone is proof Asian Americans care about education far more than African Americans. My brother is a good father. Most African American men would have left and wouldn’t have even married the woman when she got pregnant, most whites as well. You give no credit for true hard work.

          Merit isn’t equal. Many parents deserve, or merit, much more credit than others, and it isn’t based on wealth. Lowell outperforms very expensive private schools with much higher average incomes. It is effort and sacrifice and respect for your family honor and your ancestors and your family name. Do not minimize our sacrifice. Do not trivialize it! .

          Reply
        • Ali you ignored the fact that Lowell gets less money per student. Marie, these people want to put half the kids in the city into a pool and have Lowell be random, which means kids won’t be able to brag they got into Lowell, it will become a random event and change Lowell forever. They don’t get that some are MORE qualified than others and work HARDER.

          You always want to play victim. My kids are Latino and I follow her ethics. If San Franciscans of any race choose to raise their children the way you or your brother or I do, their kids will make Lowell. However, many talk a good game and don’t back it up. They are indeed trivializing our sacrifice. Scott’s idea would trivialize the achievement of getting an acceptance letter. The day a child can get straight As and top 3% Test scores and be rejected from Lowell is the day Lowell loses it’s prestige and falls in the national rankings, AP rankings, etc. It will be a terrible day for Lowell. Lowell is special due to the moral and ethical choices it’s students make in middle school and continue to make in high school. That’s what makes it great. The phrase “I got into Lowell” will lose all meaning if it’s a lottery, and believe me they will really lower the bar a lot. It will be like a year ago when they started floating the idea of making it “just slightly easier” for black and Latino students to get into UC Berkeley and UCLA and the UC System, and then a couple weeks later they had proposals that would have made it like it was before 209 when it was WAY easier to get in for favored minorities and thankfully a few key Asian American state representatives blocked it. They tried to sneak it in by selling us on the idea that it would only allow a slight plus but then started talking about the percentages and saying it would be racist if they didn’t equalize the percentage of each race that got in or make it closer.

          Ali, races have priorities and cultures. Some races work way harder than others. I don’t know a lot of white kids who give their kids 300 hours of schoolwork to do over a Summer, but I know a lot of Asian families who do, to avoid Summer Learning Loss. Then those Asian kids have to sit there and review old material because the other kids didn’t make the same sacrifice, with a few exceptions. This is why there should be honors. Let kids who study in the Summer have a class where they don’t have to be dragged down by kids who don’t do their homework, don’t open a book all Summer and don’t care what their grades are. That’s merit. Any black parent can decide to give their kid work over the Summer and spend weekends helping their kids. If they don’t, that’s their fault. No one else can be blamed. If you want your kid to get into Lowell, work together as parents, hard, and put your kids above yourself. I respect Asian culture a lot and most non-Asians have no idea what real sacrifice is because they’ve never experienced it. I experience it with my kids, by my choice.

          Reply
  10. I spend much of my time with Chinese-American and Chinese parents.
    What I hear from them is different from what I tend to hear white parents say (to be really un-nuanced.)
    White parents want “progressive” education, which they can’t define but which seems to mean soft and cuddly but with kids still getting good grades, but also learning to talk in class and argue and think.
    Chinese and Chinese-American parents want them to learn. Spend time in a Kumon center (we went for years) and you’ll see how hard these kids and their families work on learning.
    They’re not wealthy and often not even middle class, but they put a tremendous amount of effort and energy into making their kids work hard. And they’re not shy about shaming their kids if they don’t do well.
    One mom told me when we were in fourth grade, “All Chinese parents want their kids working at least one grade level ahead of the class.”
    Now, that’s clearly not everyone’s ideal but it is a mindset out there.
    So when someone says that merit-based programs that let their kids do advanced work are unfair, they’re understandably upset. They’re not wealthy and they’re not entitled, they just feel that their kids’ hard work should be rewarded with the chance to do more advanced work. So that they get do well on the SAT and get into a good college and get a good job and lead a good and productive life.
    Remember, many of these families come from a system in China or Taiwan where your entire educational and life trajectory are governed by how well you do on one test, the gaokao, or “high test.” You take it at the end of high school and it determines where you go to college and pretty much where you end up in life.
    And that’s after having spend years working to do well on the zhongkao (middle test) which you take in middle school and which determines which high school you get into (which in turn has a lot to do with how well you do on the gaokao.)
    It’s a pretty darn merit-, or at least work-based, system.
    We have a “Friday night movie night” tradition in our family. My daughter’s friend had a “Friday night homework night” tradition, so she could finish all her homework and be ready for her 4-hour math lesson on Saturday and then her extra Physics lesson on Sunday morning.
    So how do you make it fair for those families, while also making it fair for kids who don’t have families that can give them that kind of support and push?
    It’s got to be fair to both ends of that spectrum. Check out all the Chinese families who are atheists or Buddhists who send their kids to Cornerstone Academy over on Silver because it’s a strict, academic environment that prizes “mastery” over the material.
    Somehow, SFUSD needs to find a way to meet these kids needs as well.

    Reply
  11. Goodness. I posted before I’d read all the comments, but after I read the blog post.
    I’d amend to say this: in a public system, we need to create possibilities for EVERYONE.
    What I think the author of the blog is saying is that our current system doesn’t create enough opportunities for kids who families aren’t able to give them the support and push that other families can.
    Which is exactly what a public system should and must do.
    My only addition is that there’s got to be a way to make it both/and, not either/or.
    Aren’t there districts where the kids who work hard get rewarded with the chance to do higher level work, without leaving everyone else to deal with the dregs?
    Our system needs to deal with the entire spectrum. What I read in the comments is that parents of kids who’ve been working like crazy for years feel that their kids’ effort is being ignored.
    (here comes my broken record part) If we ignore those families, they leave. And that’s not what public education is about either. It’s corrosive to our democracy and it’s corrosive to our city if we end up with a system where families feel that if you want strong academics, you have to go elsewhere.
    That can happen by SFUSD stepping up to the plate and showing parents they’re wrong, and that they’ll get them even in differentiated classrooms.
    It happens now in the merit-based system we have–but it’s being dismantled.
    I’ve heard people compare it with how Ronald Reagan dismantled the system of mental hospitals in this country (which were horrible) and said he’d replace them with a system of neighborhood-based, small care facilities with much higher quality.
    He got rid of the bad previous system but then didn’t fund the system we needed to replace it, which is why we as a nation now care for our fragile mentally ill on the streets.
    You can’t dismantle one system that’s broken and not replace it with something.
    I hear families saying they feel they’re losing something that works for their kids and they don’t trust the District to replace it with something that will continue to work for their kids.
    That’s the anger and the frustration.
    The District needs to deal with that head on. The Superintendent’s comment at the last School Board meeting, that the District has to be okay with people leaving as it makes these changes, is just WRONG.

    Reply
    • Thanks Elizabeth for sharing your perspective especially as it relates to the ways that Chinese and Chinese-American culture plays out in our educational system. I agree, kids that want and need challenges, should have them and far too often these opportunities are not afforded to them. I’m not suggesting we take that away as some of the other commenters seem to think.

      The question I AM trying to raise (and the comments seem to confirm this) is how we assign value (e.g. “merit” based enrollment is a “reward”) to successful performance on a test. Likewise we attribute character judgments to students and their parents based on this performance: “Chinese kids are hard-working, black kids are lazy.” or “Chinese parents are good parents, black parents are selfish.” There is a reason that Lowell is only 3% black even though blacks make up 9% of the general population. The reason students will succeed or fail in our education system is due to a variety of complex factors… and yes, I believe there is a LOT of structural racism in our current system. I am sure that culture plays a large part as well.

      That said, when we assign value-based judgments on wide-swaths of our community (basically ALL African-American kids and parents who do not end up at Lowell?) that’s just plain racist. In this way, our system legitimizes and upholds racist beliefs that black and brown kids get a poor education because somehow they deserve it. If we are going to truly give all kids access, there is no way we can do this if we don’t question our underlying assumptions about race and access in our schools.

      Reply
    • Elizabeth, this provides some really good cultural context. Thank You!

      Meanwhile, yes, Reagan and his deregulation and dismantling of the health care system. The proverbial chickens have now come home to roost. I think a lot of what we’re dealing with can be traced to his policies (and yes, I’m 51 so I remember those days well!)

      I couldn’t agree more about investing in our education infrastructure. Public schools should meet everyone’s needs. Some of our children are dealing with things in their home life that no child ever should, school is sometimes the only safe place for them to be. I understand why, when dealing with those challenges, it’s hard to worry so much about the child who has all the needed support systems in place because it’s clear that child will thrive no matter what.

      I understand that and I also understand why taking care of these kids are (and my opinion, should be) a priority.

      That doesn’t mean we can’t multi task though.

      There is frustration when the families who are concerned about challenging kids are dismissed as elitists or entitled. As many comments here point out, many of the families are not wealthy.

      We need to invest in our schools, we’re not. This city in the past few years is overflowing with cash. We have Facebook, Google, Twitter, all in our backyard. Yet we’re not seeing this translate in to improvements to our schools.

      I’ve loved our public school experience but I think the District (*not the school site*) doesn’t listen as well as they could to families and the past couple years I’ve felt at least it’s gotten even more glaring.

      Reply
  12. A new SF Chronicle report on our public schools:
    http://www.sfchronicle.com/schools-desegregation/

    Reply
  13. I’m not white. My kids are bi-racial. I personally don’t feel this is a race issue as much as it’s a cultural one. I think across the board society in general doesn’t respect or invest in education the way I believe we should. Our 24 hour media circus makes a lot of money on the backs of those who don’t know how to critically think. Intellectualism is bandied about as an insult.

    That said? I think this current reliance on high stakes testing is hurting creativity and we’re losing some exceptional people in the cracks because of it.

    My son goes to Lowell. It’s working out for him. My daughter will be in 8th grade next year. I asked the assessment office how Lowell was going to handle the standardized portion of their admission requirements next year.

    In previous years a portion of admission was based on the 7th grade CST results. Last year there was a field trial for the SBACs so all applicants to Lowell took their admission test they usually only administer to private or out of state students. This year is the first year the SBACs will be graded and I was concerned that they’d use them for admission next year, they will not. Everyone will be taking their admission tests in early 2016 (8th grade).

    Does my daughter want to go there? I don’t know. I think she wants to go to Washington. If she gets in will she go to Lowell? Yes.

    Do I think Lowell is a good idea? I am so torn and feel like a complete hypocrite on this.

    I never cared about GATE. Especially in elementary school. We went to a “hidden gem” with an average API which has since evolved in to one of the most requested schools (Grattan). So I admit I watch with bemusement when people rely on test scores to choose elementary schools.

    I believe in differentiation through Elementary through Middle. I am not upset that we’re losing honors tracking, even though both my kids were in honors. That said, I strongly strongly disagree with the SFUSD in their 8th grade Algebra philosophy. Common Core supports and recommends all middle schools offer qualified 8th graders the opportunity to take Algebra but currently the SFUSD is refusing to budge. I do not agree at all that this has anything to do with so called merit or tracking any more than I think qualified children should be denied the opportunity to play varsity sports or sit in the first chair in band.

    I think differentiation is great in the early years but as they get older kids are going to gravitate to their own interests.

    Is it a good idea to, forgive the word, skim off kids and put them in a place like Lowell? I don’t know. It’s working for my son, he’s never been as challenged as he is here, he’s gotten his first B and frankly I think that’s been a good experience for him. Is he missing other valuable experiences he would have gotten at Mission, which was our 2nd choice after Lowell, or Washington or wherever? Yes. I believe he is.

    This is where I struggle with myself. I think the challenges are good for him. He has opportunities to take classes he wouldn’t elsewhere. Do I wish all the schools had these opportunities? Yes. However they don’t.

    I think there is a danger in dismissing concerns like algebra in the 8th grade or people who send their kids to Lowell or SOTA as elitists who don’t care about the under served populations. In my opinion at least, we are all in this together. Nobody has the magic answer in all this. For every “expert” one side uses to bolster their arguments, the other side raises them their expert.

    I wish we could discuss these things civilly without condescension and understand that we all have best intentions, not only for our individual children but for all the kids. We don’t live in bubbles. These kids will be determining our future in 20 years as they get in power and it is in our own best self interest to make sure as many of them are as educated as possible.

    Reply
    • Thanks Maya for your comments and for sharing your kids experience. I agree, we are all in this together and it’s important to ensure all kids get access to challenging curriculum and feel affirmed not matter what school they go to or what race they are. I also agree that there are no easy answers. That’s why I believe if we really want to ensure ALL kids (not just OUR OWN kids) have opportunities, we need to be diligent and ask questions about who has access and what we can do systemically to create access for more of our underserved kids. I think this is especially true if we have the privilege of being college-educated, or English-speaking or middle class.

      Reply
      • Yes. We do have to ensure ALL kids have access. However, does that mean at the expense of SOME kids? I don’t think it should.

        It’s a huge mistake, in my opinion, to dismiss people as only worrying about their OWN kids.

        I offered my child’s experience to illustrate that families who send their children to Lowell aren’t as blind to the rest of the community as you might think.

        I think we need to do better across the board in taking care of ALL kids.

        The question about access is very important. All children theoretically have access to Lowell. Not all kids have access to SOTA, you have to audition which makes it a lot more subjective. However, I understand why and understand there is value in the model.

        Lowell is numbers. You get all As in 7th grade and the first semester of 8th grade, you’re mostly there. The standardized test portion of admission isn’t weighted as highly as the report cards.

        The problem however is some of OUR kids (i personally look at the SFUSD as OUR kids) live in very stressful and difficult circumstances and they need OUR help.

        How do we do this? It’s not either or. We should be able to address this without sacrificing because, frankly, this city has the resources. It’s just not being used toward education.

        Reply
  14. From a CURRENT Lowell student’s perspective, a test is the fair way. That way every Lowell student is held up to the same expectations and we can look at each other as equals knowing the majority went through the same process.

    I would like to give you 2 scenarios:
    Student A comes spends hours studying and has parents who are willing to forgo vacations and free time so their kid can get ahead via summer classes/programs and tutoring during the school year. Student A is a grade ahead of his peers.
    Student B is a hard working student but because of adversity (single parent or neighborhood violence or what have you) struggles in school and does not have as good grades as student A.

    Who do you think will do better at Lowell? Granted student B is hard working despite challenges to his academic career but those challenges won’t go away once at Lowell. If he/she couldn’t even get good grades in middle school, how is this student going to survive Lowell.

    It’s one thing to get in, it’s another to stay. Even with our admissions process, so many ppl transfer out after freshman year because of the intensity of the school.

    Also while we are talking about intensity, what’s wrong with competition in schools? It prepares us for the real world and competitive universities like Cal. Not everyone can get a trophy in real life.

    Reply
    • Thanks for adding a new perspective. I like the scenarios you present because they add another level of complexity. Just to be clear, I have friends who have worked at Lowell or who’ve had children there. I respect the work they do and also the choice of parents and children to choose Lowell. It is an excellent school for many.

      That said, the situation you present is interesting because it highlights the problem with the Lowell model. We can probably both agree that there are good and poor teachers and students at all schools. Nonetheless, the Lowell model presumes that if a student isn’t doing well, “they just aren’t up to the cut.” It’s OK to let the child fail and then council him/her to go to another school. The same teacher at a “low performing” school would be held to task for student success. “What are you doing wrong as a teacher that so many students are failing?” we ask, while at Lowell, we say, “Oh well, just another example of a kid that wasn’t up to snuff.”

      The Lowell model is a false model in that many attribute the “success” of its students to an excellent educational model, when in fact its success is predicated on “creaming”. Aaron Pallas says in a blog post about the effect of “creaming” in the charter vs. public debate: “Even if this attrition [of students] is not driven by the school intentionally pushing students out, those who are left are the product of a creaming process.”

      When I was a teacher at Galileo and it was considered a “bad” school (over 15 years ago) we got all the kids that were “counseled” out of schools like Lowell. We were still expected to teach them. In this way schools like Lowell not only guarantee their own success, they make it harder for other schools to succeed by overloading them with “problem” kids… or to be more clear, the kids with the most learning needs.

      Read more about the idea of “creaming” in this article on the Diane Ravitch website: http://ny.chalkbeat.org/2009/02/17/toward-a-new-definition-of-creaming/#.VVd9UhPF_ng

      Reply
      • Yes, it does becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. I also worry about the child living in violent circumstances who gets those Bs middle school who has far more immediate concerns which is usually basic survival. They should have the same opportunities in whatever high school they go.

        I just don’t know if getting rid of Lowell is the answer to fixing any of these issues.

        As for Lowell’s model? Why not hold the teachers accountable for the students the same way they would be at any other school?

        Again, I think a lot of this is a by product of under funding. Teachers are over extended. There aren’t enough hours in the day. Lowell has a lot of students.

        If we funded all our schools the way they should be and gave our teachers the support they needed, be it a LSP or more counselors, or tutors, SPED support, etc, we’d be much better able to serve ALL the student body.

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        • I agree on all counts! (BTW: I’m not arguing for getting rid of Lowell, just questioning the model itself and asking how it might be improved.)

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      • I do agree that Lowell could do more counseling for students who fall behind. When I was a freshman going on sophomore, I was saddened that more couldn’t be done for my friends. However, as a senior, it really wasn’t Lowell’s fault. We have the highest student to counselor ratio. Our counselors only have 24 hours in a day and that’s not enough to do half of their work. Sending kids to other schools with lower student to counselor ratios is just the better albeit lack luster option. This process isn’t creaming on Lowell’s part (that’s what the admissions process is for). Also, creaming isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A lot of people can’t handle Lowell and our admissions process is to make sure kids who can’t don’t go. it does no kid a good service sending him/her to a school only to have their transcript ruines by poor grades and therefore less opportunity when it comes to applying for college.

        Also, unfortunately, many of my friends were Band 2 or 3 kids. The Bands made to increase diversity at Lowell and that target underperforming/low income schools.

        Reply
        • I think we also need to make sure that kids in all high schools have similar access to the variety of classes available at Lowell.

          In my opinion, this is a result of under funding. The other high schools have to allocate more of their budget to things which Lowell doesn’t. Is this an unintended result of the merit based model? Probably, because highly motivated focused kids are at Lowell and usually that is because they have the support system at home (not so much money but parental support regardless of fiances).

          I’m sounding like a broken record of old but this city really needs to prioritize the SFUSD and fund it better than they have been in the past. The schools need so more support staff than they currently have. The teachers are juggling too many things and there just isn’t enough time to do all the things they are asked to do.

          I just don’t know that removing the merit criteria is the answer here, because what does that solve? It’s not going to change the circumstances that some of our kids live in or even give kids more opportunity because Lowell’s model is based on self-motivated kids which frees up resources to offer what they do.

          As I said, I feel that more resources need to be allocated across the board but especially at schools where there are many high risk kids. So many schools operate with a skeleton crew. When I was on the SSC at the kids’ elementary school it was amazing to see how bare bones the budget is.

          We need to make sure high risk kids have counselors and that the teachers have support, be it assistant teachers or tutors to help students who need it. Currently we don’t have much structure in place.

          Meanwhile, Congratulations on graduating! Good luck at college and everything you do going forward.

          Reply
  15. I don’t like this conversation. I am Russian. In Russia everyone studied a lot and I moved here at 9 and Russians still studied a lot and Asians and some others, but most kids not so much. I agree on money. San Francisco spends less money per student than cities like Manteca with a tenth or tax revenue per student. Baltimore spends more than twice as much. The problem is they set the amount around 1970 and many cities put general fund money into their schools, but San Francisco has a bond once in a while, but they find new money to spend on everything else and never put general fund money into public schools. We are easily rich enough to spend 20k per student and barely spend 10k. We should tutor and indoctrinate childs with bad parents who don’t care about the school. We should teach every kid to work hard. Many kids do not study very much or pay very much attention in class. Yes some deserve a lot more than others. Our funding tells us they are throw away people. I tutored black kids. Some see all the white kids in private school and figure society wants them to be poor. It isn’t true because Asians and Russians are poor equally and do well in school but they think it. It is sad. SFUSD should pay for tutors and motivators. These childs need to be motivated. A child in Russia is told they are very, very bad and very very lazy if they do not at the least study and do homework and ready every day a few hours. Childs here think they are fine living like that. Merit is due to childs who work more hard. Thank you for time.

    Reply
    • Thanks Arthur, your comments are right on when you say: “Our funding tells us they [students] are throw away people.” It’s true. Our education funding should reflect our value of education and our students. Funding in CA is improving, but it is still far below other states (and what it should be overall.) For example, in 2012-2013 California spent roughly $11,601 per student (in average daily attendance) as compared to Vermont which spent $31,035. How can we give kids equal opportunities when we have such big disparities in spending?

      Reply
      • To be honest, I don’t think that’s possible. Given low funding, parents with the means will always step in for their children via PTSA donations or by sending their kids to private schools with more resources. Unfortunately, public education is bound by the laws that govern public goods. If the state is not willing to put in the money, the private sector will always step in. I think this is why there are so many private schools in SF. Even if students stay in public, parents with the means will always find other ways for their kids. I’ve heard a few people say that some parents at certain middle schools are trying to pool money together so their kids can be tutored in CCSS Alg1 in 8th grade so they can take the placement test or go to private high schools. SFUSD will always have inequity unless we can have more funding.

        Reply
        • It often feels like increasing funding is impossible. That said, I grew up in the 70-80’s. I vaguely remember a time when CA led the nation in education spending (I think we were somewhere around 4th). We had school nurses, reasonable class-sizes and librarians, etc. When I started teaching 20 years later in the mid 90’s you were lucky if there was a counselor for 400 kids. At that time we had sunk so low were at the bottom (49th!). We are climbing up now with Brown’s new education spending formula (LCFF). There are no excuses for why CA should NOT have some of the top education spending in the nation–we have a better economy than most world nations. Unfortunately, when middle/upper income families take their kids out of the system, they are less likely to advocate for public school spending. So with more folks leaving the public school system, it’s unclear where all this will end up.

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  16. One interesting side note is the ongoing discussion in that it’s really not about Black and White in this district. Look at our experiences in Mandarin immersion schools. White parents (I’m one of them) get a ton of criticism from a subset of the Chinese parents (born in China, not Chinese-American) for not being willing to push harder on our kids academically. We’re the slackers. I’ve been told multiple times “Just because you’re not willing to make your kid work hard, why should that hurt my child?” and “You people really ruin this program. You should just leave if you can’t deal, so our kids can learn.” It can get quite heated.
    And I have to say, I agree with them. The program needs to be balanced so their kids get what they want, full literacy in Chinese (which takes tremendous amounts of work.) But instead it’s weighted towards the desires of non-Chinese speaking families so the literacy level in Chinese is frankly far too low.
    So it’s kind of fascinating to be on that end of the discussion, especially as my white friends think I’m a total tiger mom.

    Reply
    • That’s really interesting. In my research on “kindergarten readiness” I also found there were wide disparities in what various folks believe the purpose of kindergarten is for. On a really basic level it showed me that we all have very different expectations for our education system. When we have to make tough choices because of time or money, and we have diverse expectations, that’s where we have conflict. It’s not wonder in a city as diverse as ours that we have very heated debates about where our priorities should be.

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  17. I think there are many conversations like that. Talking to lowell/non lowell parents at high performing middle schools, there seems to be a consensus that SFUSD teaches to the lowest common denominator to achieve “equity.” So many people have told me they think SFUSD is always trying to push the top high achievers down instead of bringing the bottom up to close the gap, a move that does not benefit anyone in the long run and will only push parents into private schools. One of my close friends who teaches at a catholic school says that transfer application numbers from publics has increased dramatically and that her school has had to do more in terms of support to get them to the level as their original students. The sad part is that as more people leave public schools, PTSA donations are likely to decrease only making matters worse for those still in the system.

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  18. PTSA donations are so important especially since we as a city spend so little per student. Lowell is heavily underfunded, but we can have so many amazing programs like our UCSF science research program because of PTSA donations and Alum donations. Without either, we would have to cut so many programs and maybe layoff a few people.

    Reply
    • PTSA is important, but it shouldn’t be the only way schools make important programs happen. My girls go to Jean Parker ES where can only raise 1/10 of what more affluent schools like Sherman and Yick Wo do. We get a bit more due to the weighted student formula. Nonetheless, we could never think of raising money to actually pay for staffing.

      Reply
      • Lowell gets way less from the district. The thing is, it’s frustrating if you are a diligent parent who stays married and spends lots of time on schoolwork and makes your children read and do work in Summers and evenings and weekends, and prepared your child for kindergarten. Of course I sacrifice money doing so and could have more short term money, but then poorly parented kids hold other kids back. Some jerk leaves his kids and the wife turns on the tube despite being on welfare and not having to work, doesn’t use free libraries, so then my kid has to be held back in 8th Grade Algebra so some guy can have a new girlfriend in bed. Now my work doesn’t benefit my kids for 20 years, costs in the short run. Preparing kids for kindergarten cuts income in the short run and takes time and energy, but it’s the right thing to do morally and helps my child and other children. I don’t like it Ali when you say there are different ways to support education. Let’s all be honest. Watching TV is not a different way. Leaving your wife (or husband) and just taking our kids for a few hours to ice cream once a week is not a different way. Kids not studying or reading all Summer is not a different way. It is a way which helps you and your kids hedonistically in the short run and hurts them significantly in the long run, and hurts the other kids in school with your kids and society as a whole. The vast majority of American parents are very lazy compared to the average Chinese, Indian or Korean American parent. My wife is Latina and she sees homeless people and thinks, if only I could have their ability to speak proper English. Most Americans don’t appreciate what they have and look for excuses to not give their all in educating their kids. So let’s hurt the smart, honest, diligent and sacrificing kids many politicians say, let’s close Lowell, let’s talk down Asian American achievements and have a quota on them in the Ivy League so it let’s us pretend we’re doing OK, let’s dumb down Algebra to give time for kids to catch up who aren’t even willing to do their homework and turn off the TV. Even if it drives a large number of rich kids into private school as is happening now at Presidio.

        The average American parent is very lazy. The Tiger Mom’s book, a rare attempt by Asians to spread their advantages to all Americans, though not the only one, was dismissed by nearly all whites. She did some crazy things, but that was a small part of her book and all the media seized on. The average American parent is very lazy by Asian and even German/Danish/French/Dutch/Polish standards, and ultimately this makes parents and children who do work hard suffer.

        We need to research which parenting causes kids to be the most successful educationally and economically and get all parents to do this, to work hard at it.

        It takes decades to pay off but it always does. What Asians have achieved would not be possible if this were not true!

        Reply
  19. What we need is better transparency as to allocation of district resources and credentialed staff. The “everybody should get a gold star” cheerleaders and “black students are discriminated against because we send them the worst teachers and fewest resources” ought to use relevant data to make their point. It is my understanding that teachers at CTIP schools actually earn a pay bonus and that there are in fact extra district resources diverted to predominantly black & brown schools. That despite discriminating against white & yellow kids, no significant effect on student behavior has been achieved.

    My parents came to this country with nothing. The Communists burned their homes to the ground and forced them into slave labor camps. Now Communists at SFUSD are taking away my children’s opportunity for an intellectually stimulating education by eliminating advanced math & sciences. The gold star crowd should stay home and enjoy watching shiny images on an iPad… something that wouldn’t exist if not for the curious engineers who aren’t suited for classrooms filled with jocks, cheerleaders, hippies, bullies, and dumpsheets.

    Reply
    • I’m “allowing your comment to be published on this blog because I believe it highlights the kids of mean spirited name-calling that underlies this debate. We don’t have to agree, but calling SFUSD leadership “communists” or insinuating those who support inclusive and diverse classrooms are stupid (watching “shiny images on an iPad”… really?) does nothing to further understanding on either side.

      I agree with you on one point, ALL students should NOT get a gold star for just sitting at a desk… that’s what standards are for. Kids and parents should know what students are expected to learn and get honest feedback about where they are in meeting these expectations. That said, all kids should FEEL VALUED for what they bring to the classroom. Honoring educational excellence doesn’t mean putting dunce caps on students who learn slower or differently than high performing kids. And, for your information our system has NOT discriminated agains white and “yellow” kids (I prefer the Asians).

      Here’s a quote from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) “The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2004) also found that low-income schools were more likely to suffer from cockroach or rat infestation, dirty or inoperative student bathrooms, large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers, more teachers who are not licensed in their subject areas, insufficient or outdated classroom materials, and inadequate or nonexistent learning facilities, such as science labs. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/apr08/vol65/num07/The-Myth-of-the-Culture-of-Poverty.aspx

      Reply
  20. Educational opportunity should never be a prize doled out to some kids at the expense of others. Decades of financial neglect and “starve the beast” attacks on public education have pit kids (and parents) against one another. The problem isn’t that special kids get better educations, while average kids get good educations. The problem is that most kids will not get a good education unless they special. We all want our kids to have a golden ticket: cultivated talent, extraordinary effort, financial resources, home location, SAS lotteries, supportive families and communities, etc. The coveted prize shouldn’t be a rarity. Every kid deserves access to a great education. Every kid. Even the kids ditching class and getting stoned right now.

    I think too many kids are encouraged to specialize early. When kids attend narrowly focused schools, they make significant sacrifices in terms of diversity of class offerings and diversity of learning community. Pulling the conversation a bit back from Lowell, you see this at arts schools or specialized academies. Sometimes magnet schools appeal to families more because they offer a chance at a good general education than a specialized focus. Then in sports, exhausted kids are popping ibuprofens every day to keep playing sports they’ve grown to hate in hopes of earning a ticket to a good education.

    Diversity is undervalued resource, too easily sacrificed at highly focused schools. While we need to question the assumption that high achieving students benefit from homogeneous ability groupings, we also need to make sure that we account for the costs of lost diversity. Diversity isn’t just important for kid’s social emotional development. Different points of view enrich students’ academic experiences, especially in project based learning environments. I think there is a lot of overlap with discussions of school and class size. The orthodox view used to be that small classes and small schools are better. Recently, research has started to identify the benefits of large schools and large classes that have small student:teacher ratios (e.g., larger classes with co-teachers). Having attended both large and small schools, this idea resonates with me. I hope that emphasizing that diversity benefits everyone would benefit with a lot of SF families. After all, we’re all trying to make our lives work in one of the most costly cities in the world. We wouldn’t keep at it if we didn’t value the diversity of urban life.

    Reply
    • Thanks Emily for adding a new dimension to the debate. I agree diversity is an undervalued resource and we too often limit our thinking about what makes a good learning environment. I like the idea of lower student:teacher ratios as a way to both support teachers and meet the needs of diverse classrooms. This is something I had never considered before, and it is a good example the NEW WAYS we should be thinking about how to best support instruction in our schools.

      Reply
  21. Maybe this will shock you but I feel I got ZERO benefit from being in school with black and Latino kids, and my elementary and middle school were mostly black and Latino in the ’80s. I studied hard and got good grades and had to learn most myself from books because most of class time was taken up by outbursts, yelling, and insults to me. “Ching chong chinagirl. Chinese Japanese each of them have two of these.” I had a couple teachers who actually would praise the few kids who got an A on the test and I would hear screams and laughs and jokes and become the dunce. I was the dunce for studying and being smart. I was harrassed in the yard. I went to Visitacion Valley MS. They didn’t learn from my diversity, they didn’t say wow, maybe nonwhite people can grow up and own a home and make a big income if they stop these stupid jokes and obnoxious and rude behavior and study on weekends. I came from China and spoke better English than they did within a few years. I got zero benefit. I ended up trying to fit into their culture after my father died when I was 17 and I went from being a point from getting into Lowell to drawing graffitti and trying drugs and drinking and one of my fellow students at Wilson, which thank God was eventually shut down, ended up pimping me out. I made him a lot of money which he wasted on shoes and cars and drugs. He made money for a long time and still does. He is broke though, no savings, I see him, women working for him and he has nothing in the bank and not a college unit.

    I thank him though because I was stronger than he was. I left him after a year and went to AA and used what I learned to do the same thing independently and keep ALL my money and pay for college. I went to CCSF, got into Cal, paid for a great education, bought a house and have no mortgage. If I’d stayed with that culture I’d have given my body to many needy men and not had a penny to show for it. It was only when I completely rejected that culture that I was able to keep the money I earned by sacrifice and hard work and study long hours and get good grades at Cal and get a job.

    I would have benefitted by being at a school which was all white and Asian and only had blacks and Latinos if they rejected their core culture, like Lowell is limited to those who reject the destructive parts of their culture. At Lowell it would be OK because there are few and they reject that.

    I plan on living in San Ramon. I want them to learn to study hard and sacrifice and compete. I want them to to reject ghetto culture and proritize hard work, sacrifice, doing whatever it takes and education. They will not say they did their best and look at a stupid I-Phone for hours. They don’t know the meaning of it. So stupid. I didn’t claim to be a victim when my dad died. I was a beautiful woman who was smart and had studied hard many hours and I looked at what I did have and how I could use it and I graduated from Cal with nearly a 4.00. I have a good job now. I do not value my children knowing every race. They will know mostly Asians and some whites and I am fine with that. They will not become smarter by knowing blacks and Latinos. I was not made smarter by that. No I was not. I was ridiculed, harrassed, beaten, laughed at, and made fun of and robbed blind. I blamed myself and I found a way. Black people rarely blame themself. They generally blame someone else. These are cultural differences and will never change. My kids will be very angry at themself for a B. They will internalize pride and competitiveness. I’m Chinese and very proud, but we honestly aren’t any smarter than anyone else, but we don’t stay in poverty long because we blame ourself and work hard. I don’t want my kids in a school learning the diversity of some kids saying let’s ditch school, try a drug, be cool, take a mental health day, call in sick when you’re not like most SFUSD teachers do 11 times a year, complain, don’t study all weekend and blame racism when you flunk a test on Monday. My kids can live without that type of aimless diversity. Everyone knows what it takes to succeed but few have the honesty and integrity and work ethic go do it.

    Reply
    • OK. So… what your describing is a horrible educational experience. I am truly sorry that you had to go through so much in your life. No young person should have to overcome this. For this reason, I’m approving posting of this comment, even though there is a lot of what you say that I find offensive.

      I went to a public schools k-5 with mostly Japanese and Chinese American students and was discriminated against on a regular basis. That doesn’t mean I believe all Asians are racists. Like ALL humans, some Chinese people are racist–it doesn’t make me value the Chinese culture any less or make me want to segregate my kids from their Chinese friends. In the same way, I encourage you to look beyond the hurtful people you have known and expand your understanding of black culture. I am black, and neither I nor my cousins (and I have many) grew up in the ghetto, did graffiti, or doing drugs. As a black person, I think I should have a say in how my culture is defined.

      Ultimately, your story says less about black and Latino students than it does about how miserable some of our public schools were (and are?) and how groups who get spit on by the system unfortunately seek to spit on others that have less power to make themselves feel better.

      As your story illustrates, you don’t raise yourself up by putting others down–you just end up lowering yourself.

      Reply
  22. One hesitates to throw fuel on what seems to be a fire, but I did find this to be an interesting article. The question becomes, how do we overcome cultural biases that keep kids from striving to achieve?
    http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21650164-hotshot-economist-lessons-baltimore-and-other-trouble-spots-hood

    Reply

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Life-long Learning, Social Justice Parenting

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