NYTimes dips a toe into school selection fray

Today’s Bay Area page of The New York Times carries a news story on the student assignment redesign plan (full disclosure: the article is authored by Jesse McKinley, whom I knew many years ago when I worked at the newspaper, but I was not interviewed by him). It’s generally my experience that it is frustrating when the news media covers a topic in which I happen to be expert or intimately involved — so many fine points are left out or glossed over! The piece today is no exception.

Take, for one thing, the comments attributed to my friend and neighbor Michele Menegaz, the current chair of our Parent Advisory Council. She’s quoted as saying:

I’ll be honest with you; we’re really frustrated . . . We’re really concerned that what’s being put forward now doesn’t reflect the best of our research and it doesn’t reflect the needs the community expressed.

What members of the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) are concerned about is the fact that the system as proposed may place more emphasis on “local preference” — a priority for the school located in the attendance area where the applicant lives — than parent choices. In addition, the PAC has expressed frustration that most of the debate has centered on which children should attend which schools, rather than building quality schools across the city. The report they issued to the Board earlier this month is eloquent on both of these issues, and I think the Times article should have spent more time discussing why the PAC is frustrated — especially when you consider other voices represented in the article.

Specifically, Marina parent Zach Berkowitz (also an aquaintance of mine) is quoted as saying that the Board is failing to make education a central topic in the school assignment redesign. The reporter encountered Mr. Berkowitz at Wednesday’s Committee of the Whole on student assignment, when he (Mr. Berkowitz) gave public comment to the board advocating for a return to neighborhood schools. Mr. Berkowitz expressed the same frustration to me privately after the meeting, but I pointed out to him that the Board HAS spent significant time looking into educational quality at segregated schools.

All of the data we’ve examined over the past year has indicated that when the concentration of African-American, Latino and Samoan students at a school rises above 60 percent, indicators of school quality often suffer. Those indicators include teacher satisfaction and turnover, API score, and discipline issues.  I have consistently said that student assignment is not the only factor, nor even the most important factor in addressing educational quality at low-performing schools, but our data has also consistently indicated that school composition IS a factor. So I am dismissive of the same old complaint that the Board is ignoring “education” and instead engaging in some irrelevant kind of “social engineering.”

Anyway, the larger point is that both Ms. Menegaz and Mr. Berkowitz are used as evidence in the article that people are discontented with the new plan, but each person’s favored alternative to the staff proposal is diametrically opposed to the other’s. In other words, if we were to make Ms. Menegaz happier, Mr. Berkowitz would be even more frustrated, and vice versa. <sarcasm>Clearly, the redesign effort has worked beautifully, since apparently no one is happy with the current proposal. </sarcasm>

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17 responses to “NYTimes dips a toe into school selection fray

  1. Lorraine,

    Thank you for acknowleging that the Diversity Index was a proxy for race.

    As a proxy for race, it was discriminatory as applied. The Chinese American parents in the Brian Ho case challenged the school district to justify its use of race in mandating 40% and 45% caps on Chinese American enrollments in any SF school (most notoriously at Lowell). Forced into court, the school district could only up with rolling over and playing dead: no contest–not prepared to defend the racial caps in court. So the use of race was not justified.
    Nor its proxies (discriminatory as applied).

    The nature of settlements is that both sides give up something. The school district gave up the use of race. The Chinese American parents gave up the discriminatory as applied claim. However, it is not less true that the diversity index was racially discriminatory, as long as the school distict was unable to justify its use of race at all.

    The consent decree has now expired and this is all water under the bridge.

    Today, the district has data that could justify a use of race. But we have Prop 209. Is this right?:

    Prop 209 cares about form over substance. Use all the proxies you like. Just don’t use race.

  2. Sorry, Bernal Dad, I wasn’t clear on the point you were making. Then that is rather a marked screwup by the reporter.

  3. Bernal Dad, I’m wary of variables related to income because income is self-reported and hard to verify.

  4. okay, i am reading all of this substance and absorbing it and hoping for the best. rachel, i don’t know how you have the time to do all that you do and understand all of the minute details, but i am sure glad that you do and that you take the time to explain it to us. i could be barking at you in a week, but while i have something positive to say, i wanted to share it! thank you.

  5. “If they say we might get it past PROP 209, let’s do it that way, and be honest about it, and not play games with CTIP.”

    I think, given the supreme court’s recent decisions, explicit race based allocation is just asking for legions of DC pressure group lawyers to descend on the city and litigate, which would lead to who-knows-what from the court, and another system redesign. Not a good outcome.

    Rachel, would it be possible to add in income as a component to which census tracts get into CTIP1/CTIP2? Say, average the percentile of academic achievement and the income level in the census tract, and if that combined number is under 40%, that census tract is in CTIP1. It would only make a difference at the margin (say, some census tracts in Chinatown might get in at the expense of, say, Bernal or Vis Valley), but might make the system more robust against legal or political challenges, and address some of Leslie’s concerns about perverse incentives.

  6. “Bernal Dad, the city of San Jose is carved into a number of school districts. If you’re looking at the state’s largest school districts, the San Jose districts aren’t among them for that reason. It’s not really sound to compare any of those smallish districts to SFUSD because of the way San Jose is carved up.”

    Umm, yeah, that kinda was my point: the writer at the NY Times made the comparison between San Jose Unified and SFUSD, which, like you, I thought wasn’t accurate.

  7. Lorraine – Apparently, 209 is even more restrictive than the recent Supreme Court ruling. I was at a Council of Urban Boards of Education conference last summer where they were talking about the use of race in student assignment, and the lawyers giving the presentation said California school districts are even more constrained because of 209.

  8. Leslie, while, yes, we have been using other diversity index factors as a proxy for race because of Prop 209, we also have the Supreme Court that ruled just in the last couple of years that we cannot use race in assignment policies.

  9. Bernal Dad, the city of San Jose is carved into a number of school districts. If you’re looking at the state’s largest school districts, the San Jose districts aren’t among them for that reason. It’s not really sound to compare any of those smallish districts to SFUSD because of the way San Jose is carved up.

  10. Leslie – getting past 209 is a high bar. We are not there yet.

  11. I thought the article was incorrect that San Jose has better test scores than SFUSD: San Jose School district has slightly better test scores than SFUSD (within 5 API points), but part of San Jose is in the Alum Rock school district, which is far behind in test scores than either SFUSD or San Jose.

  12. Commissioner Norton,

    This post points to school data that school racial composition, specifcally over-concentrations of African American, Hispanic, and Samoan students, affects quality of education. SFUSD, it appears, would finally have a response to the Chinese American parents in the Brian Ho case, who asked what business was it of the schools what the ethnicity of the student was and what business was it of the school how many students of one race or ethnic identity made up the student body. SFUSD, could, today, make a defense of race conscious student assignment.

    Could SFUSD get race conscious student assignnent pass State Proposition 209? What does your legal counsel say?

    If they say we might get it past PROP 209, let’s do it that way, and be honest about it, and not play games with CTIP.

  13. Thanks, Jed – I guess I bristle when I feel like the district is being accused of ignoring some basic fact that “everybody knows.” A friend and fellow education policy wonk calls this the “just do” phenomenon. You know, like “if they would just do X, things would be so much better!” In education, there aren’t any “just do” solutions, much as we all might want them sometimes. I agree with you that we need quality schools in every neighborhood, and I actually believe that the staff proposal we’re considering was made with all thoughtfulness and consideration on how student assignment could move us closer to that goal. And the Board is now doing what we were elected to do — second-guessing the Superintendent and asking questions and listening to input from the public. Eventually, we’ll either accept the staff recommendations or tinker with them, but everybody ultimately wants the same thing: for every child in San Francisco to have a great school to attend.

  14. Rachel,
    Another insightful post. I am one who has been hammering at the “improve all schools” position
    I don’t believe that it should be dismissed by you but, from this post I do understand the composition effect a bit better. The solution still rests for me in effective education on all Schild that prepare each child for the next challenge
    That said, the composition problem is only going to be solved when higher expectationsfor those students is enculturated into their schools and home environs. Sending them to higher achieving schools might work for some but how many can’t make it and drop out?

  15. Caroline, I didn’t really mean that I thought the article was biased or inaccurate — more that it felt frustratingly incomplete. Still, its understandable that the NYT would take a view from 50 miles up rather than getting into the nitty gritty down on the ground – I am not sure that readers in Poughkeepsie or Phoenix would be interested in the same level of detail I’m demanding.

  16. The article is all accurate. I learned something about the Diversity Index, which was incomprehensible to me.

    I never understood how these diversity index substitutes for race and ethnic identity were ok, when the honest consideration of race and ethnic identity were not ok to use. If we always talked about the success or failure of the diversity index in terms of its racial impact, then the diversity index was really about race, not about socio-economic and language issues. We did not really care what language the mother spoke. The Diversity Index was race in sheep’s clothing.

    The Diversity Index was discriminatory as applied.

    But the parties in the Brian Ho case agreed to it. And so it was used.

  17. As a veteran San Jose Mercury News editor, boy, do I hear you about the press helicoptering in to do a story they don’t understand, and how you feel when it’s your own ex-co-worker! Sometimes I mention this stuff to friends who are still working journalists. When the Chronicle ran an opinion piece recently portraying a problematic S.F. charter school inaccurately as a raging success, a friend who’s a longtime, fairly high-ranking Chronicle editor told me earnestly that I should write a letter. She actually thought they’d run it! (Of course I did and they didn’t — the press does NOT correct its substantive errors, though if they get your middle initial wrong they’ll leap to run what we called a “setrec” at the Mercury News.)

    That said, you should write a letter.

    And also, BTW, as you know, when a reporter gets complains from both sides claiming that the story was biased, the wisdom is that that means the story was perfectly balanced.