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:
- A lottery using local preference as the main priority;
- A lottery using academic diversity (essentially, applications coming from the census tracts with the lowest average scores on the California Standards Test);
- A lottery equally weighting academic diversity and local preference;
- A zone model (not simulated);
- Restricted assignment to local schools only;
- 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).