Recap: Closing in on a student assignment policy

Tonight’s meeting was a mixture of information we’ve already processed and other information that is really hard to relay accurately, but I think we’re starting to close in on a policy.  Commissioners pressed for more hard policy recommendations and less theory, because time is really growing short. The staff is scheduled to present a preliminary recommendation for the new assignment policy just a week from tomorrow, on Feb. 2. We’re scheduled to vote on a final policy at the March 9 full board meeting.

Several VIPs were in attendance in tonight’s meeting, including Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford University (Dr. Darling-Hammond was once thought to be President Obama’s pick for Secretary of Education and is very well-known in the education policy arena).  We heard a presentation on a qualitative study conducted by Dr. Prudence Carter, also of Stanford. Dr. Carter interviewed principals, students and teachers at 24 randomly-selected schools in the district, and sketched out several larger themes that emerged from the work. I felt the most interesting and unexpected revelation in her report was the finding that communities at lower-performing schools she studied were highly aware of the absence of “high-status” groups (e.g., whites, asians, and generally more affluent students) at their schools. The converse was not true at higher-performing schools, where teachers and students were more likely to see the lack of language diversity as the biggest “diversity” problem at their schools. 

Other findings included:

  • There are disparate educational experiences for students within high-performing schools, including status hierarchies between honors and general education tracks, for example, or immersion vs. non-immersion tracks;
  • There are differing rates of participation in after-school and extracurricular programs at high-performing schools; students who have to travel long distances to and from school are less likely to participate in these programs, citing transportation and safety concerns;
  • Students at higher-performing schools are quick to cite isses with teacher favoritism and labeling based on ethnic identity;
  • Profound disparities in resources between schools are deeper than just parent involvement and fundraising; communities at lower-performing schools cite inadequate facilities and technology and also disparate treatment by the central office.

After Dr. Carter’s presentation, we moved on to a presentation from economists Muriel Niederle and Clayton Featherstone, also of Stanford University.  These researchers have designed allocation systems forthe Boston Public Schools, the New England Program for Kidney Exchange, and for medical residency and fellowship matches. The common thread? Designing systems that match openings with desired outcomes, in ways that are “strategically simple” and “non-wasteful” — essentially, outcomes that encourage people to list their true choices and give the largest number of people one of their choices (a deeper explanation of what these terms mean is here).

The economists conducted simulations based on demand patterns for the 2007-08 enrollment year, using algorithms that depended on one of these five situations:

  1. A lottery using local preference as the main priority;
  2. A lottery using academic diversity (essentially, applications coming from the census tracts with the lowest average scores on the California Standards Test);
  3. A lottery equally weighting academic diversity and local preference;
  4. A zone model (not simulated);
  5. Restricted assignment to local schools only;
  6. Initial assignment to local schools with an option to list additional choices.

This presentation defies an easy summary (read the full Powerpoint for a deeper understanding). Essentially, what I took away was that a system that allows families a broader choice of schools but uses the mechanisms of academic diversity and proximity as “dials” will actually yield somewhat more diverse schools than what we have right now, and give students who live in census tracts where all children average lower performance on the CST an edge in the competition for the most sought-after programs.  In the end, the researchers seemed to be saying that we can offer families who want to attend the school closest to them a true “local preference” and still offer children with limited opportunity a way to access our most-resourced schools.

That, in my opinion, is a win. If our search to find a fairer and more effective student assignment system has taught me anything, it’s that in the end, the student assignment mechanism is a relatively small part of the puzzle.  A much bigger part of the task ahead is to make sure that we are offering students in every school a high-quality educational opportunity. Dr. Darling-Hammond said it herself tonight: if you can put together high-quality programming,  strong principal leadership, and a cohesive, experienced and motivated group of teachers, you can establish a quality school. 

This is not to say that our work on student assignment has been wasted, but it’s time to make a decision and move on. Given our budget situation, it would be unwise to establish an elaborate network of busing, or to expand the bureaucracy that supports our highly-complex lottery system.  Still, the staff faces a difficult task in knitting together the preferences of all the Board members into a policy that can pass with little or no opposition (a 4-3 or even a 5-2 vote on an issue this contentious would not be good for broad community acceptance of the new assignment policy).  The last 15 minutes of the meeting were devoted to Commissioners expressing, one at a time, their final input for staff. Two of us said choice should be strictly limited, and expressed ongoing interest in assignment zones or clusters. Four of us expressed varying degrees of commitment for a system that offered a mixture of local school guarantees and a choice lottery for K-8 students, with a full lottery for high school students (Commissioner Mendoza was absent).


3 responses to “Recap: Closing in on a student assignment policy

  1. Thanks for posting information on this truly complex issue. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your efforts to keep families in the loop.

    The more I learn about this topic, the less I feel I understand about this issue. As the mom of twin girls who will be entering kindergarten this fall, I understand many parents’ concerns about finding a great match for their kids. It goes without saying that different schools offer different programs. Developing an enrollment system that provides access to a variety of programs will allow our district to better cater to the unique needs of students and families. It would be great if that system were easy for families to understand.

    Nonetheless, I strongly agree with you that in these tough economic times we need to make a decision move forward. No matter what system is decided upon, our real challenge lies in developing a diverse portfolio of high-quality schools in ALL neighborhoods. I have seen some AMAZING elementary schools during the kindergarten enrollment process. Unfortunately, I have also seen great disparities in offerings throughout the district. I want every family to “win the lottery”. In order to achieve that, we’ll need to focus our efforts on what’s most important.

  2. Rachel,

    I thought the presentation from Dr. Carter was disappointing. The most interesting element was the discussion of divisions within schools between honors and magnet programs, which we’ve seen go badly at Cobb. But I think that’s beyond the scope of an assignment system.

    Drs. Niederle and Featherstone’s presentation I’d have two caveats:

    1. I’m not sure their emphasis on strategic simplicity is warranted. Up until two years ago, everybody thought the system was strategically simple – it’s only in the last two years that it was realised that where you ranked a school affected your chances of getting in. So this year at the elementary level we’re seeing more parents be strategic, putting schools like Peabody, Milk, McKinley, Sutro above the trophy school. This is a good thing for the district IMHO – that savvier parents are seeking out good-but-underhyped schools where the odds of getting in are better.

    Secondly, I’m not sure that the simulation results for Options 5&6 are strictly comparable to those for 1,2,3. Parents may have made different choices under a system more heavily weighed to neighborhood schools.

    In all, it was an impressive session. My faith in the Board’s understanding of the complex issues and the limits of what can be done with an assignment system was raised considerably.

  3. “Two of us said choice should be strictly limited, and expressed ongoing interest in assignment zones or clusters.”

    Rachel, I attended the meeting last night, but had to leave after the second presentation. I’m mystified how two of the commissioners could still support options 4/5/6, as, according to the simulations by Niederle and Featherstone, 4 is impractical given the geography of the city, 5 is inferior in efficiency and diversity, and 6 is inferior in diversity while not being any better than options 2 or 3 in terms of efficiency (i.e. matching families with their choices).