The Tragedy of Lowell High School

Across the United States, few high schools attract as much national controversy as Lowell High School. This elite magnet school in San Francisco is famous for its academic rigor, competitive culture, and demographically skewed student body (57% Asian as of this writing).

The front of Lowell High School
“This is what alumni get to brag about” — Ian Wang

Throughout California, it’s widely known as a place where you can get a private-school education at a public-school cost (i.e., free) – as long as you can meet the requirements for admission. This historically venerated institution has drawn even more attention recently due to Debbie Lum’s critically acclaimed documentary (Try Harder!), which follows five exceptional (but typical for Lowell) students as they navigate the harrowing college applications process.

Try Harder! film poster

For many Lowell alumni like myself, watching this film triggered something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and came with a myriad of emotions. For me, these included a profound mix of sadness, pride, pity, nostalgia, bitterness, joy, and anger. Ultimately, I concluded that the film’s takeaways were more tragic than anything else. However, my heart broke not just for the students in the film, but for the broader community of educators/parents/alumni involved with the school and frankly everyone else in modern society who will be affected by the debate over merit-based admissions that Lowell now represents.

The film illustrates three ways the ethos of Lowell High School causes grief: it pushes parents and their kids apart, it sets students up for failure (sooner or later), and it reinforces beliefs about meritocracy that both harm physical/mental health and lead to heightened cynicism/narcissism. Despite all this, the very same ethos has also contributed to social mobility, brought out the full potential of promising students, and remains a source of inspiration for many. After reviewing a few examples of these, we can attempt to determine whether the triumphs outweigh the tragedies in the grand scheme of this school’s narrative.

Warning: many spoilers for the film are ahead.

Straining relationships between children and their parents

In the film, Alvan Cai is the most upbeat and lighthearted of the five students while he is at school. But in practically every scene with his parents (especially his “tiger mom”), he becomes visibly despondent.

Alvan's mom receiving advice while Alvan looks on
Great advice from a teacher (Mr. Shapiro) being ignored by Alvan’s mom

It seems that his mom’s unrelenting pressure (e.g., making him stay up late to complete applications for colleges he doesn’t even care for) and constraints on his decision-making cause resentment to build up throughout the film. You can see his demeanor change over time as he references the metaphor his mom utilizes to justify her actions – the concept that he must be kept in a rigid “box” until he outgrows it. Early in the film, he happily accepts this and practices filial piety with few complaints. By the end, he finally questions the idea when he is more or less forced to attend a university that wasn’t his preference – culminating in what appears to be full-on bitterness in the final scenes.

Alvan in a car, not excited about moving to college
Not that excited about moving to college

The issues around “tiger moms” and helicopter parenting aren’t new, but the culture around Lowell exacerbates them to an extreme. One could argue that pure merit-based admissions tend to attract exactly this type of parent to apply (only wanting the best for their children of course), explaining why this phenomenon may be so prevalent at Lowell. But given that teenage years are already tense enough between parents and their naturally rebellious children, do we (as a society) really want to encourage more of this behavior and sow more intergenerational conflict?

As a side note, it was refreshing to see the film showcase at least one rare type of parent who described herself as the “opposite of a tiger mom” and her very appreciative son (Ian Wang) who did perfectly fine without the added pressure. Ironically, Ian’s mom was so lenient only because she herself was a recovering Lowell alum who didn’t want her son to suffer the same way she did!

Photo of Ian and his family
Ian’s mom is not your typical Lowell parent

Setting up students for failure

In a cruel way, Lowell’s environment of high expectations and blistering competitiveness prime students for moments of extreme disappointment. In the film, this is best highlighted through the herd mentality of nearly all the students aiming for Stanford as their top-choice university, despite the school only having a 4.4% acceptance rate. Even worse, it is revealed that Stanford has a suspected bias against students from Lowell given their reputation for being nothing more than test-taking machines. (Not necessarily an inaccurate stereotype from my own experience…)

Despite the odds, students like Rachel Schmidt are swayed into applying to Stanford from peers and parents alike – led to believe they’ll have a decent chance if they just… Try Harder! Certainly having high aspirations is a good motivator for academic achievement, but Lowell’s culture pushing everyone to have such unrealistic expectations that inevitably lead to letdowns seems like an unnecessary waste of energy and heartache.

Rachel filling out the Stanford application on a computer while on the phone with her mom
Rachel succumbing to pressure to apply to Stanford

Fortunately, Rachel is able to handle Stanford’s rejection relatively well. (Her mother is another story entirely…) Sadly, other students whose dreams were crushed fared much worse. Later in the film, Ian makes the poignant comment that many students feel their self-worth is measured in which university they attend. Another student notes that the process results in students feeling very cynical about the colleges they end up attending, feeling like they missed out on something better.

Student expressing grief about his college admissions results
A typical Lowell student reacting to college admissions results

As someone basically watching younger versions of myself go through this painful process, I sorely wish I could have conveyed the senselessness of all this agonizing and self-loathing. Your college does not need to define you, and you can have a fulfilling life no matter what you do after high school. Even more critically, traditional measures of “success” in life are actually dictated more by luck than by hard work – which means more future grief is in store for students trained to believe in the “Try Harder!” mantra.

This video explains that believing hard work matters is a useful delusion, but luck is really the key

In the film, it was refreshing to see at least one student (Shea Fairchild) evolve their thinking from “I have to go to a top-20 school” to realizing they could accomplish their life goals no matter what happens. This level of maturity is remarkable for a high school student, especially considering Lowell’s unyielding dark influence.

Shea walking up to take classes at City College while reflecting on the college admissions process
Shea realizing that in the end, it doesn’t really matter

Reinforcing unhealthy devotion to meritocracy

This leads to perhaps the greatest tragedy that stems from Lowell High School: graduating class after class of society’s leaders who have an unshakable belief in and affinity for meritocracy in its purest form. As is well-documented here, these graduates will go on to suffer burnout from overwork, grow more narcissistic and less empathetic, and actually believe the world operates as a true meritocracy where they stand near the top.

Sophia Wu is perhaps the textbook example of this kind of future Lowell graduate. Of the five students, she is portrayed as the one who works the hardest and has the highest aspirations. She also already exhibits much of the narcissism to be expected from someone who believes her achievements are earned solely through all that effort.

Sophia describing herself as the kind of person who enjoys being busy
Captain of the tennis team, editor of the school newspaper, AND after-school worker at Polly Ann Ice Cream

For better or worse, she gets a harsh dose of reality when she doesn’t gain acceptance into any of the Ivy Leagues and ends up attending UCLA instead. Fortunately for her, it seems this experience has granted her some humility – her recent reflections about her time at Lowell show she has significantly matured in her thinking. If only more alumni had the opportunity to watch a time capsule of themselves to undo a bit of Lowell’s harmful indoctrination…

Many Lowell alums’ slavish devotion to meritocracy have intensely colored the ongoing debate regarding whether Lowell should maintain merit-based admissions. Unlike some of these alumni, I believe a more nuanced approach (i.e., “holistic review”) is appropriate – students shouldn’t be judged purely on how they perform on tests, nor should we completely eliminate any semblance of academic standards. Unfortunately, when the righteousness of pure meritocracy is drilled into you as a Lowell student, it can be hard to see things any other way.

This issue further pervades the fight over affirmative action in U.S. federal courts. Groups like Students for Fair Admissions are attacking fundamental pillars of holistic review – despite glaringly unfair factors like legacy admissions that play a much larger role in undermining meritocratic ideals. Their choice of this hill to die on reflects the deeply unhealthy obsession with meritocracy promoted by schools like Lowell.

This video argues that those filing lawsuits in the name of the American Dream are actually the worst kind of Americans

The verdict

So in the end, is Lowell more of a tragedy or a triumph? Is it worth attending? Should students and parents even apply?

The answer to this question is complex, as are most things in life. On one hand, schools like Lowell offer upward mobility for historically disadvantaged students – fulfilling one of the core promises of public education and lifting well-deserving future generations out of poverty. Shea’s story was the perfect example of this. Some may take offense to the outcome that the only person in the film to gain acceptance into Stanford was a white kid, but this achievement was completely justified if one considered Shea’s extenuating circumstances (i.e., holistic review!).

Shea talking about how he only sees his dad every 3-4 days
Shea basically has to raise himself

At the same time, one cannot deny the magnitude of harm to both physical and mental health (multiplied across generations) that Lowell’s environment has caused. Is it all worth it? For those like Shea who are not prone to burnout and are doing the work because they truly love learning (as opposed to doing it for college applications or their parents), Lowell may certainly be worth it. Everyone else, however, should probably take pause and consider what they really value in their childhoods and how they would ultimately want to be shaped by their educational experience.

Sign asking students whether they're looking for an education or a status symbol
Signs like this posted at Lowell nowadays are thankfully changing the narrative

Try Harder! is currently available to stream online for free through PBS Independent Lens. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in public education, parent-child relationships, the American college application process, the effects of meritocracy on mental health, the Asian-American experience, racial profiling, and so much more.

Caveats: Not all Lowell students have the same experience, and there are admittedly many generalizations made in this piece. The film actually does a fantastic job of showcasing how varied the effects of Lowell can be on different kinds of students. Furthermore, just being aware of the issues discussed here will likely inoculate students against the more negative aspects of Lowell to some degree – so please share with any prospective student or parent who may be feeling conflicted!

5 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Lowell High School

  1. Great movie recommendation! Got a chance to watch it and where I may disagree with you a bit is I found the problem mostly coming not from Lowell itself, but from greater society.

    In many ways, Lowell is quite academically and demographically similar to the honors cohort at my own high school (Mills in Millbrae) – and we also experienced plenty of college admissions drama. Part of it comes from the mistaken belief (which Shea explicitly narrates early) that there is high long term return to selectivity, when it’s probably a lot weaker (https://www.nber.org/papers/w17159), as well as just the sheer difficulty of getting into the top colleges. I suspect if these kids were less concentrated at Lowell, they’d still find their own local pressure cooker, high academic achieving environments and feel pretty similar (and Tiger Moms like Alvin’s existed at my school a plenty too). The most interesting effect of Lowell might be on making middle school more competitive (people trying to get into Lowell, even though it also has unclear return to selectivity as well), though that was not covered in Lum’s documentary.

    Also a few subtle details:

    Other than Jon Chu, Shea might have been the strongest student academically noted in the video for a STEM major. I only recall his and Rachel’s test scores, where he was slightly higher (1500 vs. Rachel’s 1460 SAT equivalent) and he was notably taking Physics C as a junior (that was quite rare in my high school — I could count the students doing that on one hand – and it was a sign a student was very strong in math (it effectively required taking calc by junior year if not sophomore) – I believe every junior in my Phys C class got into Berkeley).
    Lowell actually had a partly holistic admissions scheme when this documentary was made. 70% of students admitted by merit; 30% with socio-economic affirmative action-type considerations (https://thelowell.org/6456/features/who-gets-in-opening-up-the-lowell-admissions-controversy/). This is actually quite similar to Berkeley’s when we applied (I believe it was 50% auto-in by pure numbers; 50% holistic — it’s now 100% holistic).
    SFFA’s lawsuit isn’t per se about meritocracy vs. holistic review – it’s strictly just about banning consideration of race. Some on the SFFA side might want that for more “merit” based admissions; others actually want more economic considerations just without race (https://tcf.org/content/report/achieving-better-diversity/).
    There’s an interesting parallel to high school academic tracking (either within a school as is done normally or school itself like Lowell) and the university system itself (which explicitly tracks). Granted this was out of scope for this documentary.

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    • All good points! I especially appreciated the 2011 paper from Dale & Krueger that basically confirmed what school you attend doesn’t really matter, at least in terms of future monetary earnings (except for those with disadvantaged family backgrounds who may benefit more from the expanded networking opportunities).

      That also dovetails with your point that ambitious/competitive students and their tiger parents will always find a way to stress out along the way to excellence… Perhaps my lament here is more that schools like Lowell seem to become engulfed in this culture to the point where they end up being defined by (and amplify the worst effects of) the debates over meritocracy.

      The article from The Lowell (which I find covers these issues so much better than professional press!) illustrates the ongoing war well. I think it’s notable how the admissions policy has been making stilted moves towards becoming more holistic over time, with ever-increasing pushback from parents/alumni.

      mid-1960s: purely GPA-based
      1985: added 40% cap on any race
      1996: 63/69-point single academic entrance criterion w/ 20% from public assistance programs eligible above 50/69 points
      2001: Three Band policy
      2018: Added unlimited students from Willie Brown Middle School

      Ultimately, I think the worthiness of considering race comes down to how much one believes that race is just a social construct versus how much race directly influences the range of one’s available opportunities. The reality is, per usual, nuanced / something in between.

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  2. This recent podcast from the New York Times (“The Daily”) provides a closer look at how current Lowell students are handling the more diverse incoming classes after a temporary shift to a lottery-based admission system – and it’s not pretty. As the research predicted, egotism and the accompanying lack of empathy have resulted in what many perceive to be an even more ‘racist’ environment.

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