I finally bit the bullet and paid 39 clams for a subscription to the Harvard Educational Review. I am now working my way through all the articles by Richard Elmore.
Here's his take on a high-performing upper-middle-class high school, which he calls "Belle Glade" (from Performance vs. Attainment):
My sense was that Belle Glade was cruising on its reputation and on the social capital of its community. When I said this to Kevin, the principal, he responded, "That's the world I live and work in every day—very mediocre teaching, very low-level work, mountains of mindless homework, and very flat student engagement and affect."
Elmore's observation about Belle Glade is that nobody cares about learning, as long as the kids go on to college, which he calls "attainment".
Attainment is the primary goal for Belle Glade's students and their families, and the one for which administrators are held most closely accountable. As a result, it is less important that the school provide high-quality learning for its students than that it (a) look like an attainment machine (hence the heavy-duty signaling to parents through the tracking system and the homework requirements for "higher-level" courses) and (b) provide a transcript that looks like one a college-bound student should have. In fact, since attainment is largely a function of social class, most of these machinations are probably unnecessary.
In the immortal words of Lily Tomlin, "... and that's the truth. Pblllt!"