I’ve been puzzling over how to write this post for several days. The issue of student assignment is so complex, and so intertwined with equally complex topics like closing the achievement gap, and how to use the tools of program placement and transportation to support our academic goals (not to mention doing this effectively in what is the most brutal budget environment anyone can remember). Lisa Schiff has done an excellent job of summarizing the various issues in her School Beat column this morning, saving me the trouble (thanks Lisa!). So instead, what I’m going to do here is post my reactions to Monday’s discussion and staff presentation (Powerpoint).
Much of the discussion at the beginnning of the meeting was consumed by an update on the work our staff and our demographers (Lapkoff and Gobelet) have been doing. We also reviewed the problem: our current assignment plan does not support our central objective of closing the achievement gap. Some people don’t agree that student assignment has anything to do with achievement, but after reviewing reams of data on school quality, school composition, and student outcomes, the Board decided early this year that assignment is a factor in school quality, and therefore, student achievement. It’s not the only factor (and it many not even be the most important factor) but it’s a factor and so we have an obligation to bring the system in line with our central goal of closing the achievement gap.
That obligation aside, the current system just doesn’t do what we had hoped it would do. Since our all-choice system was introduced in 1999, many of our schools have resegregated. Our attendance area boundaries have not been revised since the early 1980s, and in those decades we have closed, opened, merged, and redesigned schools. Some schools are underenrolled, while others are packed. And finally, different groups participate in the process at different rates — so the system does not provide equal access.
The Board has already settled on three central goals for a new assignment system:
- Provide equitable access to the range of opportunities offered to students;
- Reverse the trend of racial isolation and the concentration of underserved students in the same schools;
- Provide transparency at every stage of the assignment process.
So, Monday night, the staff posed the following questions to narrow down the work going forward:
- Should the new system focus on assignment areas or zones?
- Should the new system emphasize one diversity characteristic (e.g., predicted academic achievement OR one of the poverty indicators we now use) or multiple characteristics?
- Which combination of strategies — diversity, proximity, or choice — should we use, understanding that some strategies (e.g., proximity vs. choice) might conflict with each other?
To help us answer those questions, three possible options were proposed (the discussion quickly centered on elementary and middle schools, with a majority of board members saying that they favored broad choice at the high school level):
- Option 1 – attendance area schools throughout the city;
- Option 2 – attendance area schools with some “controlled choice” mechanism;
- Option 3 – some form of attendance zones, which would be areas containing multiple schools with some mechanism for deciding which students attend which schools within the zone.
In retrospect, (and I take some responsibility for this because I went first), the board’s discussion was not at all about probing the various benefits or disadvantages of each of the three options; instead, we spent most of our time “voting” on which options we liked the best or hated the least. I feel bad about that, but I also think this is such a hard and multi-faceted problem that it is almost impossible for me to keep focused on a theoretical framework. I keep wanting to jump to specifics, to figure out how a particular proposal would actually work for families! As a result, I really only answered the first question, while providing a few insights into my answer to question 3. I forgot to answer or deal with question 2, but then, so did everyone else.
On sight, I rejected Option 1. It is too hard for me to think of constraining families into schools they might not want and giving them no way to work with the system to find a better option. For all the families I know who would love to be assigned to the school closest to them, there are others I’ve heard who have expressed a preference for being able to choose what works for them. Choice, for all its unintended consequences, has encouraged families to look for a fit and work with schools they might otherwise have never considered. I believe in my bones that the system we have had in place for the past nine years has helped us improve many of our schools for many of our students. Still, as I said above, it has also had negative effects.
Likewise, the staff (in my opinion) did everything they could short of waving their arms and shouting “Danger Will Robinson!” at the Board to discourage us from the zone concept, which, I’ve since been told, was only included because board members (including me!) had specifically asked to see what it would look like. Here’s what I heard by “listening between the lines” of the presentation: If you create a constellation of small zones, the more it costs to offer equitable program options and sufficient capacity to families located in each zone. If you create a few large zones, you begin to incur huge transportation costs (you can’t honestly expect families with no transportation to figure out how to get over or around Twin Peaks every morning and afternoon). Not to mention the whole hassle of figuring out, over a massive swath of the city, which student should be assigned to which program to maximize diversity. If you allow families to choose schools within their zone, and honor their choices, you end up in the same situation we are in currently. And if you assign them arbitrarily, you get a logistical nightmare and a likely political firestorm. Finally, you still have to move a number of programs to ensure equitable access to programs in each zone. In the staff’s strong judgement, Options 1 or 2 get us closer to our goal than Option 3, and much more efficiently.
In the end, I keep coming back to this fact – of all the times I have been to community meetings, talked to parents, and heard public comment at Board meetings, I have never heard anyone say to me: “I trust the district to send my child to a school that is best for her.” I have heard people speak fervently in favor of neighborhood schools or choice, but inherent in both of those diametrically opposed positions is the truth that parents feel they know best about what is right for their children.
So that’s why, in my comments, I voiced support for Option 2, which I think marries the need for certainty with the option to look for a better fit. There are a lot of questions and details which need answering and fleshing out, but, with the caveat that no system is perfect, I think this is the best option to pursue.
Two board members agreed with me, while the other four said they continued to want more information about how zones would work, and whether they would get us closest to our goals.
The next meeting on student assignment is Monday, Oct. 19. Come on down! It should be a good discussion.