Critics overlook Preuss School’s strong achievements

The recent calls for Preuss School’s funding to be distributed to other outreach programs are surprising and demonstrate a lack of understanding of the benefits that the school brings to not only the students who attend it, but to California’s much maligned K-12 education system. Many critics believe that the school doesn’t deserve the disproportionate funding it receives, arguing that the money spent on educating a relatively small number of students could be more effectively spent on other forms of outreach, such as the Early Academic Outreach Program.

Unfortunately, this argument completely ignores a fundamental aspect of Preuss School’s mission: Besides enrolling low-income, non-native-English-speaking children whose parents never received a college degree (generally the students least likely to go to college) and sending them off to prestigious universities, the school also field-tests educational practices with hope to improve K-12 education in California. Policies that the school is testing out include more instructional days, smaller class sizes and a structured curriculum to support low-income students. Many of the school’s students are also underrepresented minorities, meaning the state can apply any results about what does and does not work to deal with the root cause of the university’s low minority enrollment. No, it’s not Ward Connerly, Proposition 209, insufficient outreach funding or the vast right-wing conspiracy — it’s because our primary and secondary schools do a poor job of educating low-income and minority students. On the other hand, EAOP and other programs that critics argue should receive Preuss’ funds focus more on educating low-income high school students about how to become eligible for college. While that is certainly a very important task and an effective short-term means of improving minority and low-income enrollment rates, it’s more of a Band-Aid than a structural improvement. From that perspective, Preuss School is a much better investment in the long term.

According to a study sponsored by the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence, Preuss School isn’t exactly failing at its other job. Preuss students completed more UC A-G eligibility requirements by grade 11 than the students rejected by the school, and every student completed the requirements by graduation, probably the result of the added instructional time that the school’s extra funding helps cover. Moreover, the idea that Preuss students perform no better than rejected applicants is patently false. The study clearly reports that Preuss students scored “significantly higher” on the history section of the California Standards Test. Instead of cherry picking the test results that show that rejected applicants perform as well as Preuss students to justify taking away the school’s funding, perhaps it would be more constructive to allow the school to continue to function and determine why its history teaching methods are so effective and apply those lessons to its entire curriculum. After all, that is the sort of thing the school was established to determine and disseminate to other schools.

Those results don’t even consider the school’s impressive showing when compared to other San Diego and California high schools in spite of its disadvantaged students. According to the report, the school scored the highest Academic Performance Indicator scores in San Diego County among schools composed of at least 80 percent students eligible for federal meal assistance, as well as in the top 10 of all San Diego schools. Ninety-eight percent of Preuss students also took the SAT I in 2002, compared to 37 percent of California high school students in general and 49 percent of San Diego County. On average, the students scored 984 compared to the California average of 1012 and the San Diego County average of 1003 — although lower than average, it is impressive considering the statistic includes all Preuss students compared to only the top 37 percent of Californian students. The top half of Preuss students averaged 1122.

Asserting that Preuss doesn’t improve students’ college admissions rates is also problematic because it doesn’t adjust for the kind of schools that Preuss students applied to. The study states that four-year colleges accepted Preuss students and students whom Preuss rejected at roughly the same rate (90 percent). What we don’t know about the rejected students is which colleges they applied to or will attend. In the relatively short history of the school, alumni have already matriculated to such highly selective universities as Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dartmouth and the University of California. While it’s impossible to know for certain without further research, it’s plausible that Preuss students apply to, on average, more highly selective universities, making their 90 percent acceptance rate potentially much more impressive.

The study in question even concludes with, “The students of the Preuss School have already made some impressive strides,” and sees Preuss as a “school that has high average achievement in spite of the relative socioeconomic disadvantage of its student population,” making an argument for cutting Preuss’ funding even more untenable. The study itself cautions readers from jumping to conclusions based on its relatively limited data and states that C.R.E.A.T.E. hopes to gather additional data in the future. Given the results already achieved and the potential benefit to California’s broken K-12 system, it would be foolish to pull the plug now.