Student assignment committee, Oct. 19

Apologies in advance for a very long post! Tonight’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment was productive, but information-packed. I feel as if we got a little bit closer to a policy, but the amount of data to weigh continues to be overwhelming. We heard a very interesting presentation from a team of researchers at Stanford, Harvard, Duke and MIT, who performed simulations of several of the options presented to the Board, as well as a few new ones (Option 3 is the Zone or so-called Zebra option discussed at last month’s meeting–it was not simulated for reasons that are discussed later on):

  • Option 1: Local (“neighborhood”) school assignment with city-wide schools;
  • Option 2: Local assignment with wider choice (parents are guaranteed local school assignment or can submit choices for city-wide attendance area schools and schools in other attendance areas);
  • Option 4: Choice with local preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with preference for those who live in a school’s assignment area) — this and the next two options are new additions since the Sept. 14 meeting;
  • Option 5: Choice with academic preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with preference for students who live near/attend a school with a low Academic Performance Index (API);
  • Option 6: Choice with academic and local preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with a preference for students who live near/attend a school with a low API, followed by a preference for students who live in the attendance area.

It would be impossible for me to summarize the results of these simulations, because they are so information packed, but I’ll post the results from tonight’s presentation as soon as I can get an electronic copy. Suffice it to say that I think, from the discussion, that Board members were glad to get more options to consider. I’m personally very intrigued by the idea of “academic preference,” since the whole point of our choice system was to give families without choices a way of accessing better academic options. And, perhaps not surprising to anyone, our current system performed worse by several different measurements than any of the options being considered.

There was an extended discussion about whether choice is, by its very nature, inequitable — to actually exercise your ability to “choose,” you have to be able to tour schools, investigate options, understand the process and turn in paperwork on time. I understand the argument, but I’m not sure there is a solution other than to lower the stakes of failing to participate (which I think that guaranteed assignments to local schools might accomplish), and to redouble our efforts to improve outreach to the 20 percent of families (overwhelmingly African American and Latino) who don’t turn in their applications on time.

The researchers also recommended the Board strive for “simplicity” and “non-wastefulness” in any assignment system. Simplicity means (duh) avoiding complexity, and creating systems where it is always in the best interests of parents to just rank their choices truthfully. Anyone who has ever agonized “I love School A but think I’ve got a better chance at School B, so maybe I should rank that one first,” should truly relate to this.

“Non-wastefulness” is a little less straightforward as a concept, but the researchers use it in the sense of honoring parents’ preferences. So, if two assignment systems fulfill the Board’s goals equally well, but system A gives 60 percent of parents a choice that they picked, while system B only accomplishes that for 20 percent of parents, the system A is less “wasteful” than system B.

Also contained in tonight’s presentation were a list of 10 or so proposed measurements by which the Board would evaluate systems under consideration. These measurements would include:

  • Reduce the link between on-time participation and access to the range of opportunities;
  • Increase diversity at focus schools (currently racially-isolated with high concentrations of underserved students);
  • Decrease the number of under-enrolled schools;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than x percent of students achieving below basic/far below basic (percentage intentionally left undefined for now, in this measurement and those to follow, so that the Board can have further discussions about these benchmarks):
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than y percent of a single racial/ethnic group ;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than x percent of students achieving below basic/far below basic combined with y percent of a single racial/ethnic group;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than z percent of students with a low socio-economic status;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than z percent of English Language Learners.

Board members also suggested additional measurements that could be considered, such as cost of various approaches, comparing outcomes of proposed systems with current outcomes, and evaluating the equity of various approaches (not sure how we would measure equity but Commissioner Fewer volunteered to work with staff on this concept).

Finally, we discussed Option 3 — the zone concept from last month’s meeting. The researchers and staff members did not simulate it, because up to now they have not come up with a way of doing so that would be in any way predictive or instructive (our current system is so different that it is almost impossible to juxtapose the choices parents make under the current system with choices they might make under such a radically different system).  Though four Board members voiced support for this approach at the last meeting, this time around I detected far less interest in the idea of citywide zones. I did make the suggestion that perhaps we should at least see the number of parents whose choices would fall within their proposed zone — if only to evaluate whether anyone is making choices that would align with the zone concept — the researchers and staff said they would look into the feasibility of doing so.

In reading over all of this I realize that it doesn’t really provide evidence for my sense that we are moving closer to a final policy. I guess my optimism stems from the fact that the Board overwhelmingly endorsed the proposed measurements that will guide us in evaluating policy options; and also from the fact that we now have some options on the table that seem to better represent the Board’s goals and community input. Based on what I have heard so far, Options 2 and 6 are those that come closest.


7 responses to “Student assignment committee, Oct. 19

  1. I really like that the proposals are trying to address “wastefulness.” One statistic that I think would be interesting would be to see how happy parents are with their first round assignment. Basically, as of the 10-day count, what percentage of kindergartners are enrolled in the school assigned in Round I. (Percentages including and excluding siblings.) If something like 70% of those families are enrolled in the school as of the 10-day count, that’s not too wasteful. But if only 20% are, that demonstrates a huge waste of effort: evaluating schools, picking schools and ranking schools for Round I, only to jump into the waitpools and Round II.

    Another breakdown would be what percentage of parents stay enrolled when assigned their 3rd choice? Or 5th? Or 7th? (These would also be interesting to see broken down by race/ethnicity.) If only 5% of parents enroll at a 7th choice school, is it a waste to encourage parents to sign up for 7? If only 1% of “Other White” parents have kids at schools they chose at #6 or #7, perhaps that shows where the frustration comes from.

    I saw that “” is offering some San Francisco data online. It would be interesting if an (anonymized) data set for kindergarten admissions could be released so folks who want to could understand the dynamics. Giving only the diversity factors, ethnic/racial identity, resident attendance area, 7 ordered choices, assigned school, and (when available) if the child is attending as of the 10-day count or not should keep the data anonymous. It’s a tricky question about what kinds of data should be released though.

  2. Great write up of the meeting — I’m looking forward to seeing the documents and watching it on KALW.

    I’m especially happy to see that more of a premium is being place on parent choice – something that I have been worried was being dismissed by some BOE and SFUSD staff in recent discussions. Interesting that it took an outsider to underscore it – research clearly shows that parental involvement is a key element in school improvement and valuing parents is the starting point.

    Something that is missing in all this, and that was promised by Superintendent Garcia and, then, Deputy Superintendent Smith, was a hard look at what schools in SFUSD have made changes in recent years and are succeeding and why. Maybe it’s happening behind closed doors or in presentations I’m not aware of, but what are the schools that SFUSD considers ‘best practices’ at this point in time?

    I’m very happy to see new options on the table – these make a lot of sense to me. I feel that SFUSD and the BOE are on the right track. I could see this eventually being a model for other urban areas, if implemented well.

  3. Thank you Rachel for your synopsis of this interesting meeting. This is a significant undertaking, and no matter how hard you try, someone is always going to be VERY disappointed when assignment letters are opened.

    One flaw in our outdated assignment system is the legacy of “alternative” schools, which essentially removes some neighborhood schools from all the options that were listed. Will these legacy designations survive the revamp, or does the assignment overhaul include tackling all the flaws? Isn’t it about time that we removed these archaic designations? Perhaps language immersion schools should become the new “alternative” schools, and Rooftop, Clarendon, et al. can go the way of Fat Elvis. In 5 years, fads will change, and the language immersion schools will give way to yet another concept of best practices for education. So be it.

    Another flaw in the current assignment system is the use of language spoken at home to give a diversity point. The system should only consider target languages for assignment to immersion/bi-lingual programs. Check the box for child’s primary language: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Spanish, Other (could include Korean for CL and Russian for Argonne if applicable). Check the box for child’s proficiency in English: Fluent, Bi-lingual, or ELL. Depending on the formula for a specific program, classes would be composed 50:50 or 33:33:33 with native, bi-lingual, and English-dominant speakers. Language would be tested during the 10-day count, and a child removed from the program and reassigned if their parent lied on the SFUSD application form AND if there was a waiting list. Vacancy would be filled from the waiting list. No diversity points for affluent European ex-Pats. Language would be irrelevant for assignment to GE programs and alternative schools (until abolished), with the exception of AFY, which I understand requires English as the primary language.

    I have my doubts that a true neighborhood assignment system could actually accommodate all the children in the hood. I would be surprised in Options 2 or 6 could actually serve their assignment areas if they were popular schools. Is it possible to take the data from the recent 2009/2010 K lottery and map out the applicants to see the distribution of the lottery pool across the various school assignment zones? (Not the actual kids who eventually started school in the SFUSD, but the initial applicant pool before the mass exodus to private in March ‘09) Then, after subtracting sibling assignments from every school, perform a simulation to see how many neighborhood schools could have theoretically served their assignment areas if EVERY family chose their neighborhood school. Which neighborhood schools have capacity for their hood and which neighborhoods are going to be crying foul? And what if your neighborhood school is immersion (and you don’t want it) or underperforming (and you don’t want it) or alternative (and you cannot have it)????? Aren’t we running into all the same problems as the current lottery?

    Finally, the use of race quotas for diversity or any other purpose would appear to be illegal.

    Best of luck to you and the Board members.

  4. Sandra Halladey

    Thanks for this Rachel
    Also part of the conversation should be that on the basic score card for each school there could be a segment on outreach and diversity – so that if a school needed to attract more diversity – it should come up with a marketing plan to attract the needed groups. The actual assignment system can only do so much – schools have to be savvy marketers too.

  5. Thank you for synthesizing this information from the meeting. The only measurement I disagree with is “Minimize the number of schools with more than y percent of a single racial/ethnic group.” If a school is performing well with no other indications of low achievement, why dicker with it? I don’t know if such a school exists, but if it does, trying to engineer a different mix for no other reason seems wasteful.

  6. Yes; there are community meetings scheduled for November and December – I will post a schedule when it’s been developed.

  7. Caroline Scott

    Thanks for this summary Rachel. I had wanted to go to the meeting but didn’t make it. Are there going to be general community meetings to discuss these options. I think PPS is sponsoring some. Correct?