Reflecting on student assignment

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:

  1. Should the new system focus on assignment areas or zones?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


12 responses to “Reflecting on student assignment

  1. Hi Frank – there has been some effort put into determining why some groups are less likely to turn in their paperwork, mainly input from groups like Parents for Public Schools, the Parent Advisory Council and Coleman Advocates. In general, the answer is, all of the above. Undocumented families are worried about submitting official paperwork to the district (though it does not get reported to immigration authorities), so that’s a discouraging factor. Many other families are so consumed with the day to day struggle of getting by that they don’t realize that kindergarten admission deadlines come along quite early in the year. Many of our schools have launched great outreach campaigns for their students transitioning to middle- or high- school, so the problems seems mostly centered around families whose children are eligible for kindergarten or who are new to the district.

  2. While I see the attraction of overhauling the current confusing system, I’m afraid that we’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater. With the current “choice” system, over the last 10 years, the number of “acceptable” schools went from 5 to, what, 25? That’s great! Parents are engaged and excited about immersion and some of the other types of schools offered by the district.

    I see the main problem with re-segregating schools is the fact that only around 50% of African-American and Hispanic families fill out the forms on time for Round 1. Of course they’re re-segregating! Anyone who doesn’t fill these in will have their 5-year-old assigned to a low-demand (and likely low-scoring) school.

    Has any work been put into finding out why these groups aren’t submitting the paperwork? Is it too complicated? Are parents afraid of deportation or other legal trouble? Do they not know about the deadline in time? Something else?

    The demographic data in that PowerPoint presentation is enlightening. But no matter how great the school sign-up system is, parents who don’t sign up in time will be left out.

    I see Option 3 (zones) as just cutting up the current situation into three similar ones. It seems like more work without any strong benefit.

  3. My nine year old would like to point out that San Francisco has no MOUNTAINS. We have HILLS.

  4. I appreciate how difficult this is but two thoughts:

    1. Has anyone looked at the schools that have no achievement gap (are there any?) and tried to understand the ‘like’ characteristics? My guess is strong teachers; involved parents and good school leadership. Is busing kids around really going to foster a community with these key ingredients? Look at KIPP – yes a special case but shows there are other answers besides having our kids dispersed all over town that work.

    2. Beware the law of unintended consequences. Detroit in the 70s tried busing. What happened? People who could leave – left. It was the last straw in a system that wasn’t supporting families. It is a tough and delicate subject to talk about but if families who have the means leave – how economically diverse will our schools be in the end? This can already be a tough city to raise a child in – astronomical housing prices; impossible to navigate school choice system….I suspect the Zebra system will push families over the edge – those who can leave will.

  5. Jed –
    Clearly. The schools that underserve students are a major focus of this effort. And student assignment is not the only lever we can or should use to fix this problem.

  6. Hi Bernal Dad –
    I think that the next problem the Board needs to solve is what should the policy be for people whose default assignment is a 1 or a 2 school. I think I can say that no Board member is completely comfortable with the idea of designating a child to a very low-performing school. This is one of the topics that remains undiscussed.

  7. Erika – I like Garfield too. thanks for reading (and commenting).

  8. The focus of the board in designing a new enrollment system should first and foremost be on improving the schools that “under serve” students. Worring about how to get 30 kids to reflect some designed criteria does not reflect that each child needs an education and to be prepared for the next level.
    Every school should be able to accomplish that goal. Then SFUSD can offer opportunity options for qualified students.

  9. Isn’t this reverting back to the situation before the district-wide lottery, where you had an automatic , but could get into other schools if there were vacancies.

    I don’t think that there won’t be a political firestorm from Option 2. There will be winners and losers, particularly in the South and East of the City where more of the schools scoring 1 or 2 in the state rankings are concentrated.

    Parents are not going to be thrilled to find out their default option is a local school that is low in test scores. You’re going to see a lot of change in housing/rental prices as folks shift around to get in West Portal or wherever’s attendance area, and a lot of fraud over addresses.

    However, given that parents to the North and West of the City are more prone to , and there are more limited private options in the South and East, shifting to Option 2 . But I expect Bernal, Portero, Excelsior, Bayview and Visitation Valley parents will be not happy to lose choice.

  10. I watched the meeting online. My daughter is only 14 months old, so I am just starting to get interested in SFUSD.

    I was very dismayed that one board member (I think it was Hydra Mendoza) stated that she did not think that freeways or mountains were an obstacle because she drove everywhere. Not everyone drives everywhere. Our family has one car and has gone through periods of no car. We walk and take Muni everywhere. We live as far east as you can get in the “North Zone” and if my daughter were assigned to a school in the outer Richmond I do not know what we would do! We would probably have to leave the city rather than buy a second car or have one of us quit our job in order to spend the whole day on the bus going to and from the Richmond. Option 3 seems like it would create huge transportation stress for families.

    I would like to see Option 2 become the new assignment system. Garfield is just up the street from us and it seems like a nice little neighborhood school. I would love to walk my daughter up the hill each day before going to work. Please consider the huge transportation issues that families would face if SFUSD implements these huge zones. Thank you.

  11. Option 3, Zones, is a simple and modest improvement for school assignment. Address fraud would not be an issue, because parents could pick two areas, regardless of where they lived. Transportation around Twin Peaks would be a molehill, not a mountain, because parents could pick an area close to home in addition to another area on the other side of Twin Peaks. Zones would be large enough to give meaningful choices to parents, if zones used the high school attendence areas as the neighborhood lines.
    Parents retain a tremendous amount of choice. Yet some movement to neighborhood schools is also made with zones instead of a completely city-wide system.

  12. I appreciate your candor and your serious review of the issue. I completely trust that you have taken a good thorough look at all of the information and it makes me confident and somewhat secure knowing that you sit on the BOE!

    I am also very clear that the task of overhauling the system is a difficult one. Probably more than difficult – tremendous!

    I, however, hope that the BOE doesn’t loose the forest for the trees. All data can be sliced and diced in different ways and because the acheivement gap has now become so central to this assignment process discussion, I fear that we will no come up with a more transparant or clear, or satisfactory system if the acheivement gap becomes the #1 issue. IT SHOULD be the number one issue for the district as a whole, but not with respect the the assignment process alone.

    Another issue I have and have written about before, is the issue of looking at where the schools are, what programs they offer and trying to balance it a bit…a little of if you build it they will come. no where in these discussions has been the “infastructure” discussion. Do we have enough k-5’s in areas that need/want them? Are we providing language immersions in a balanced way. Are we bussing kids from the mission to chinatown for a good purpose? Have we looked at schools with little Free/Reduced lunch populations and analyzed if those schools have achieved the dream of closing the acheivment gap? HAS ANY school closed the acheivement gap, and if so, what are they going, what is the make-up of the school?

    My dad always told me, that when making a change, start small and it will radiate…I would translate that in this case to mean – don’t try to solve ALL of the districts problems using the assignment process redesign.

    I would, instead, try to create a system where the maximum number of families got a school they wanted – using last years data – how would that have been acheived?