David Offers Goliath Some Tutoring -- Mission Beats Lowell

Norman Matloff

San Francisco Chronicle Op-Ed
Monday, April 24, 2000


MISSION BEATS LOWELL! Athletics? No, it was brains, not brawn -- a mock trial competition. The lawyers-for-a-day at Mission High School, regarded as one of San Francisco's academically weakest schools, recently triumphed over their counterparts at Lowell, putative home of ``the best and the brightest.''

The incident gives Lowell students a chance to see that learning consists of much more than, say, memorizing vocabulary lists for the SAT. What counts is how one uses vocabulary, formulating a well- reasoned argument, and so on. Being merely a ``grind,'' devoid of insight and creativity, falls far short of what is needed for success in the professions.

For their part, some Mission students may discover that, contrary to the jobs society has ``assigned'' them to, they too can aspire to professional careers, provided they strive for good grades and take those SATs.

But the most salient lesson may be to once again call into question the gatekeeper role of numerics, such as grades and test scores. We advocates of more broadly- based admissions policies have long claimed that numerics do not fully describe an applicant's potential. Mission's victory is a fine illustration of this.

Lowell has been the center of an admissions controversy. An earlier court decree imposed an upper bound on the percentage of any particular racial/ethnic group. The result at Lowell turned out to be an upper limit on Chinese-American enrollment there, sparking a lawsuit by some Chinese-American parents. They and other critics say that ``merit'' (meaning grades and test scores) should be the only criterion for admission.

Yet Mission's victory shows that grades and test scores do not fully describe real ``merit.'' And the obsessive attention paid to them results in what engineering professor Chen Lixun calls ``the phenomenon of high scores and low ability.'' In other words, there is actually a destructive aspect to an overemphasis on those scores.

A few years ago, I proposed a lottery- based system of admissions for Lowell. Admissions would be done by random selection from the pool of students having scores above a modest threshold. In this way, numerics would still be used, but not abused.

Though in the racially-charged atmosphere of the Lowell controversy such a proposal sounds radical, it is actually just a commonsense, equitable solution. In the Walnut Creek School District, admission to their magnet program, the Parkmead Active Learning School (PALS), is done completely by lottery. Why aren't Walnut Creek parents complaining that this policy ignores ``merit''? One reason is that the stakes are lower, since PALS is at the primary-school level, but another factor is that in mainly-white Walnut Creek there is no racial issue.

In other words, if San Franciscans can get past the race issue, some kind of lottery system may be workable. It would be a race-neutral solution, thus satisfying those who object to the race-based caps. And given the keen interest in Lowell among Chinese parents, more would now apply, so that the numbers of Chinese kids at Lowell may actually rise, thus mollifying the activist critics in that community. (The policy would be particularly helpful to immigrant kids who still have not mastered English as well as a native speaker.)

If Walnut Creek can employ a lottery for its magnet school, can't San Francisco give it a try? The judge who issued the original consent decree may find it appealing, too.


Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at UC Davis. He formerly chaired the university's faculty affirmative action committee.