SFKFiles: ‘Gaming the System’

This post on the always enthralling SFKFiles blog caught my eye. The writer, posting under a pseudonym as “June,” relates an unsettling conversation with several prospective SFUSD parents at a birthday party (I’ve certainly heard my share of these, as any parent in SF with school-age children has):

[T]he conversation took a turn I had not expected – I was being told, by multiple parents I know and respect, how to game the system. “Just tell them you didn’t graduate high school” said one mom, “that is the running joke at XYZ school, none of the moms have graduated high school”. “No, tell them you think you qualify for free lunch” said another parent, who by no means can even think her family would qualify, “they do not check until the first day of school, and by then it does not matter – you are in”. Another parent told me to be careful filling out that Maddie was bi-lingual, since they are testing this year – that I would be better off saying she did not go to preschool. To which I responded that Maddie is bi-lingual, so other than the inconvenience, I have nothing to worry about her being tested.

The whole conversation left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Some of these parents I have known for years, I consider them good parents, their children well behaved. I have little doubt they would never encourage their child to cheat on a test, a sports match or even on “chutes and ladders”, yet that is what they were advocating here – cheating to get into the school they wanted. Is that what the current assignment system has done? Turned normally responsible, law-abiding parents into cheaters?

I certainly understand the foul taste such a discussion leaves in its wake, and yet I disagree that the current system has encouraged more cheating. There has ALWAYS been cheating in SFUSD admissions. In the old days, when your address played more of a role in what schools you could attend, families routinely used fake addresses (including one former school board member, it’s been alleged over the years).  I have no doubt that some families cheat, but I actually believe that cheating is far less widespread than it used to be. As one commenter to June’s post wrote:

You have to sign the form as a legal document. All cocktail party bravado aside, can you really see most of these big talkers actually attesting/signing their names that they live in public housing or that they participate in CalWorks? They’ll then have to stand in line at EPC and have the form verified by a real person (that’s how the system works–maybe your friends don’t know that). It would take a ballsy liar to go through with that, even aside from the moral repugnance of posing as one of our city’s most neediest families to score (maybe–the system is not so clear-cut that this will happen) a spot at a desired school.

To my knowledge, the last existing “loophole” with the system was closed with the new policy of testing every child who claims to speak a language other than English. Still, the untrue perception that it is “easy” to cheat (it isn’t) and that cheating is widespread does as much damage as if the perception WERE reality. I’m adamant that any new assignment system we put in place MUST have robust protections and safeguards against cheaters, so that people trust that the system is fair and impervious to political pressure or other influence.

Update (Oct. 14): A reader points out that perhaps the preschool or CalWorks status questions might also be difficult to verify; while I think CalWorks recipients would have to have paperwork to verify their claims, it’s true that preschool experience might be more difficult for the district to verify, since it requires proving something that didn’t happen. Still, I think schools would be aware pretty quickly if there were large numbers of relatively advantaged children claiming no preschool experience.  In any event, one of the staff recommendations for a new assignment system is that it use fewer factors than the current system – so I would in the future want to stick with factors that are more easily verifiable.

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