Recap: A new era for student assignment?

The most hits ever on the blog today, and the first time I didn’t post immediately after a Board meeting. Sorry, constituents and readers — last night was a very late night and I had a day that started early and didn’t end until late this evening.  It’s after midnight, and quite literally the first moment I’ve had to update the blog on last night’s big event — the student assignment vote (7-0 in favor, for those who are keeping track).

First of all, there were no major changes to the policy that was printed in the agenda, despite the almost three hours it took us to discuss and finally vote (this morning a reporter who shall remain nameless gave me quite an earful on the amount of time Board members talk versus the amount of work we actually get done — a fair criticism when you consider that between 6:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. last night we took a grand total of two policy votes).

The district’s new assignment policy passed unanimously. In my opinion, it makes these key improvements to our current system:

  • An application that is far more simple and straightforward than what we have currently: families simply need to list their (verifiable) addresses and their school choices in order of true preference — as many or as few choices as they want to list (no penalties on listing just a few choices and no limit on how many choices you may list);
  • Updated attendance area boundaries and a beefed-up local preference (with increased address verification and penalties for fraudlent applications — including revoking school placement, fines and criminal prosecution);
  • Elementary to Middle school feeder patterns, so that cohorts of 5th graders will travel to middle schools together;
  • A simplified lottery algorithm that seeks to place applicants at their highest-choice school;
  • Increased flexibility and monitoring, so that the Board and the Superintendent can measure the outcomes of the system from year to year and adjust various elements to improve those outcomes;
  • A more focused and targeted system of preferences that seek to give opportunity to particularly underserved populations while preserving opportunities for families who want choice AND those who value certainty over options.

Is the policy perfect? Far from it. Will it reverse the trend of racial isolation? We hope so, but we don’t know. Will it provide equitable options for all families? Yes, in my opinion. Will it provide transparency at every stage of the process? I think so — the new process will be far less “wasteful” (meaning that it should give more people a school of their choosing), and far more “strategically simple” (meaning that families shouldn’t have to devise elaborate strategies in order to be more assured of receiving a school of their choosing — the best strategy will always be to list ALL the schools you want, in order of how much you want them).

As far as the much-discussed Census Tract Integration Preference (CTIP) mechanism — I think it is highly focused and will provide students who live in our least-advantaged neighborhoods some opportunity to choose schools that might afford them more opportunities. Some commenters last night were up in arms about this mechanism, especially after the Board flipped the order of preference to put CTIP 1 preference ahead of local preference for elementary students. But the reality is that students who live in these areas are not choosing schools outside of their neighborhoods — at least in very large numbers. Essentially, the CTIP preference provides an opportunity and an invitation to students who would like to avail themselves of other educational programs available across the district, but its numerical effect on demand, at least based on demand patterns seen in the current system, is very slight.  After looking at this document, I’m curious who would tell me with a straight face that putting CTIP 1 preference ahead of local preference will affect in any serious way their child’s chances of attending a local school (send me your nearest cross streets and the school you consider your local school to comments “at” Seriously).

Of course I can’t discuss last night without also discussing special education. I introduced an amendment to the policy that was only halfway successful, but I think the minor wording changes the Board did accept will have a positive effect for families. The ultimate goal is to have a clear policy stating unequivocally that Individual Education Program (IEP) teams will determine both the program AND the site placement for students with IEPs, but right now the district’s newly-adopted policy simply states that:

The Individual Education Program (IEP) team will determine appropriate placement for special education students. To the extent possible, given the unique needs of students as outlined in their IEPs, the student assignment process used to assign general education students will be used to assign special education students.

The key word in the above passage is team, which we inserted to replace “process”. Team means people, and is actually defined in the law as being people who have a particular interest or responsibility for the education of a student with a disability (meaning, most importantly,  PARENTS!).  “Process” isn’t defined in special education law, and certainly can be used to mean something other than “people.” The distinction might seem minor, but it is key, and it will make a difference, even if we can’t (for now) get the words “site” and “placement” used in the same context.

Last night’s vote (even taking into account the pontificating deplored by my friend the reporter) was in the end somewhat anticlimactic, at least for someone who has been involved in public school advocacy in San Francisco for the past decade. We have been talking about this issue for so long. The realization that we are actually moving into a new phase that will yield us new data, outcomes and unintended consequences is kind of mind-blowing.

Other items of note:

  • The Board voted 6-1 to close Newcomer High School and divert student to Newcomer pathways at our comprehensive high schools. This was a sad decision but one that board members acknowledged was time to enact. Newcomer HS staff has served our students admirably over the years, but overwhelming data made closing the school and dispersing the students a straightforward decision. This data showed clearly that our newcomer students are increasingly choosing to attend comprehensive high schools at the outset rather than spending a year in a newcomer program before enrolling in other schools; it also showed that newcomer students who go straight to a comprehensive high school are more likely to graduate and achieve at a higher level than those who opt for the Newcomer HS program.
  • A proposal to create a Gateway charter middle school (affiliated with the charter Gateway High School) was introduced for first reading.

22 responses to “Recap: A new era for student assignment?

  1. “Census Tract Integration Preference”, a name only an over-paid consultant could love. Let’s face it, CTIP is just a another way to ensure that race is still the number one determining factor in school assignment.

  2. “The other thing is I’m trying to explain to people how the new system is better than the old system when both of them are just lottery systems. ”

    Well, this is only partially a lottery system, right?

    Your default choice is your neighborhood school. You don’t have to go visiting 7+ schools if you don’t want to. If its your top choice or your only choice, the district will place you there, or, if the school overflows, at a nearby school with spaces.

    But if you want a different school or program, or want more control over where your kid gets assigned if your school is oversubscribed, you list a set of choices on your application. If you don’t list the neighborhood school #1, then you go into a lottery. If you list your neighborhood school #1, but the school is oversubscribed, you go into a lottery.

    Question for Rachel: If you don’t list your neighborhood school #1, do you still get the neighborhood preference? I can see arguments both ways.

  3. “Cap the number of students who can use CTIP1 for admission to, say 25%. This is to prevent a meltdown of the enrollment system.”

    Wei, that’s an interesting idea, but I think 25% would be too low. Maybe 40-45%. But, given the limited number of schools outside of the CTIP1 system with high percentages of CTIP1 kids, I’d say its probably not necessary. Let’s see how the system runs in the first few years to see if there are some schools where transfers from CTIP1 are eroding its status as a neighborhood school.

    “2. You need to be in the address for 3 years to take advantage for the priority. ”

    Or have moved there from outside the city in the last, oh, year or 18 months or so. But yeah, that’s a good idea in terms of stopping fakery.

  4. Wai, I think you are onto something. Great suggestion on rebranding the system.

  5. Just watched a good part of video recording of the Feb meeting. It helps me to understand quite a bit more on their algorithm. I’ll try to follow their technical stuff to fill in the gaps.

    I am a math guy. So I understand what “non-wasteful” means. The challenge is how do we communicate this to the public. How to let them intuitively understand this is a better system in a few sentences? This is a big missed opportunity when nobody out there seem to talk about it at all.

    While I’m still digging the algorithm, I have at least one suggestion. Rebrand the enrollment so that people know you are doing something different. Call it the “ScholarMatch” system, for example. Let people know all they need to do is to submit a ranked list of prefered schools and the “ScholarMatch” system will do its best to find the best match school for you.

  6. Wai, The Stanford team will be working with us on designing the algorithm. They have done this work for other school districts, as well as other choice-based systems like the national matching program for medical residents. Go to Harvard economist Al Roth’s Market Design blog for more information about this work:

    P.S. “non-wasteful” means that the algorithm tries to make sure that people actually get something they want the most – unlike our current system. Let’s say you want School A and your second choice is School B. But my first choice is School B and School A is my second choice. Our current system doesn’t maximize the possiblity of us getting our highest choices — it considers itself “done” even if we both end up with our second choices. The new algorithm, as it’s been described to me, goes back to check its work and sees that it can easily switch our two assignments in order to maximize each of us getting something we most want. So, you end up with School A and I end up with School B and we both go into the sunset happy. The system doesn’t “waste” our preferences but actually tries to maximize them.
    Similarly, strategic simplicity means that all we have to do is be honest about our preferences – we don’t have to strategize the way people do now, thinking, well, I really want School A the most, but I’ll never get in so I’d better not list it first. Instead, I’ll list School B, which is OK and less in demand.
    I think if you watch the January and February meetings of the Student Assignment committee you’ll get a much richer understanding of how the algorithm is supposed to work. Al Roth has helpfully linked to them from this post:

  7. The other thing is I’m trying to explain to people how the new system is better than the old system when both of them are just lottery systems. First of all I hope I understand it correctly.

    Most people and the press focus on the rearranged priority list. The list looks logical if nothing really revolutionary. For me I see 2 improvements.

    1. Abandoning the diversity index system. Let’s face it, it is complicated and it has never worked well.

    2. The biggest improvement actually lies in the new L-AT (local assignment with transfer) algorithm. It promises the outcome will be “non-wasteful” and “strategically simple” for the applicants.

    I got this from reading the slides from the Stanford presentation. If this is indeed the improvement, I think the district has a big issue in communicating to the public. Almost nobody has talked about LAT at all. They have zero awareness of what going on. Secondly the terms (and the concept itself) are just too technical. What is LAT algorithm? What is “non-wasteful”? At least “strategically simple” is borderline understandable. And third, how does the new algorithm really related to them? This is important because otherwise people won’t be convinced to list their choice in the order of true preference.

    I get the idea that it is like a trading system when parents can automatically trade up their assignment. But there are a lot of details I cannot deduce from the slides. Is the Stanford team contracted to implement the system or are they just making a recommendation? Is the detail available or is it something still in the working?

  8. “1. Do not use future test scores to determine which census tracts make up CTIP1. We have identified CTIP1 as a targeted geographical area. We do not want low scoring students to feel that they might be penalized for improving on the standardized exams. We do not want to give any incentive to anyone to feel that they would benefit by doing poorly on the state exams.”

    I think this is an overblown concern of yours, but I think you could keep the current CTIP1 boundaries for 3 years. Longer than that and (assuming CTIP1 students start to improve) and you’re risking the boundaries being outdated and subject to criticism (and gaming).

    2. All CTIP2’s that border on a CTIP1 should be given a preference over the CTIP2’s that do not border on a CTIP1.”

    No, don’t do this. This would further risk flight from schools near CTIP1 areas, which need all the help they can get. You’d be giving preference to almost all the SE of the city. It’d erode the purpose of moving to a neighborhood school system. An imprecise system like this (one based on zip codes) did damage to the schools in Bernal as parents heavily into their kids education took plum spots elsewhere.

    I’d rather have a choice system than a neighborhood system, but not one where high-SES parents in the SE stroll into whatever school they want. (Although your idea would do wonders for my property values.)

  9. The census map is very clear. I figured I’m living in a CTIP1 area. Interestingly a few years ago I lived one block away and it is in a top quintile area.

    In the past few days I’ve discussed this new system a lot. Giving CTIP1 is on top priority right behind sibling, the idea of exploiting it start to flow around.

    First of all, the census tract give a statistical average. Within a tract there are a lot of variations. I immediately identified a few multimillon dollar home within the CTIP1 area. Whether those families have kids who is at the right age to enroll in school is another matter. But still there are good number of middle class families, myself included, who may become an unexpected beneficiary in the new system.

    Let say the district has crunched the number and find that the number of those unexpected beneficiary is not large enough to worry about. How about people move, or acquire the address in the area just to take advantage of this? What if an enterprising resident in the area, who may not otherwise have any connection with the school district, realized his address has become a valuable asset? He post a message in craiglist renting out a storage room for $500. A parent figure out if they paid 10 month x $500 to get their child into a top school it is more than justifiable?

    So I purpose make a few clarification to prevent abuses. 1. the address is subject to verification by the same standard Ed Jew was subjected to. 2. You need to be in the address for 3 years to take advantage for the priority. This prevent people from renting a room for a few months to take shower or naps to take advantage of this.

    3. Cap the number of students who can use CTIP1 for admission to, say 25%. This is to prevent a meltdown of the enrollment system. I believe the district has make the decision to put CTIP1 above local preference partly base on the historical data shows few CTIP1 family really go to school far away. If this assumption is true, then the cap should not cause any real problem. If the assumption turn out to be wrong, that CTIP1 parent really overwhelm some top school elsewhere, the cap will act as a circuit breaker to prevent a meltdown. Another way to look at this is what happen if things go to the extreme. If the school is filled with 100% by local preference, it is not ideal because we want more diversification. But it is not terrible. If the school is filled with 100% CTIP1 students, then the system is really broken. The top school will probably not remain a top school anymore to help those students.

  10. Eliza and missionmom – my commenter ooeygooey posted this link a few days ago to another thread. I think it is reasonably easy to cross reference where you live on this map, then find the corresponding census tract on the CTIP map I posted.

    Click to access CT06075_A02.pdf

  11. Where can I find a more detailed map of the CTIP areas? The link on this page is very hazy and difficult to identify streets and neighborhoods. I checked the SFUSD and Parents for Public Schools websites and had no luck there either? Also, I’m unclear how/when the new 2010 census will be integrated into this new system.

  12. Rachel, can you please find/post a better map of the CTIP tract? Like Wai Yip above, I am in a border zone. I’ve tried and tried to correlate the one you posted with a census map, but I can’t quite figure which streets mark the border. Thanks!

  13. My wish list for minor changes to student assignment:

    1. Do not use future test scores to determine which census tracts make up CTIP1. We have identified CTIP1 as a targeted geographical area. We do not want low scoring students to feel that they might be penalized for improving on the standardized exams. We do not want to give any incentive to anyone to feel that they would benefit by doing poorly on the state exams.

    2. All CTIP2’s that border on a CTIP1 should be given a preference over the CTIP2’s that do not border on a CTIP1.

  14. Immersion programs are citywide schools, which means they will have no neighborhood/local preference. A school like Alvarado, that has both gen ed and immersion strands, would have local preference for the gen ed strand and citywide status for the immersion strand. This is to give equitable access across the city to language programs.

  15. Thanks so much for the analysis

    I had hear rumor that immersion programs would be treated differently? Any comment on that? Will parents get neighbourhood preference for the immersion programs also?

  16. thanks, as usual, rachel. please, PLEASE, please keep up the good work. what would we do without this site?

    anxiously awaiting the map that shows what my local school is… right now, i’m 1/2 a block from an acceptable school (i think), but i think it’s NOT my assigned school at the moment… interesting.

  17. Special Ed Parent

    I appreciate all the effort you put into the special ed amendment. I think it will give families some hook to try to get the school assignment that best fits their kid. If nothing more, I see it as a “check.” Tell me if I’m wrong about this, but here’s my thinking. The assignment system puts my special ed kid into X school. I demonstrate at an IEP meeting or go to SFUSD HQ and show that X school can’t handle my kid’s special needs, but Y school can. All else being equal, they should honor my request. Is this the intent of the amendment?

  18. wrongwayjack

    I support your decision on the new system and really appreciate the information and transparency you provide through this blog.

    My main request as a parent of three children is that the district continues to provide a combination of local schools and specialized citywide programs. I think a strong aspect of the old system was giving parents choices and options for families with specialized interests. The citywide programs will continue to preserve this strength for CTIP2 students.

  19. Congratulations to finally accomplish this. From what I can understand the basic rule is CTIP-> local preference -> random lottery. Yes this feels anti-climax. But at least I can basically understand it. This is probably an improvement over the existing scheme which I really don’t understand.

    Is there any more detail on the CTIP designation other than that one map? In a San Francisco irony I find myself straddle on the border of the top quintile and the bottom quintile and I don’t know which area I fall into.

  20. Thanks, Rachel , for working so hard to ensure that placement decisions for children with IEPS happen during IEP meetings.

    The system and the language SFUSD was proposing to use in the new assignment
    system was not individualized and made no sense for children with disabilities.

    I am so glad you are on the BOE, because now children with disabilities have at least one board member who pays attention to their needs AT LONG LAST.

    It seemed like other members of the Board think parents of children with disabilities want decisions made in IEP meetings to get “the perfect school” … that isn’t it at all, we want “the appropriate school”.

    An example … none of the schools near me, in district 5 have “inclusion” … not Grattan, not Mckinely, not New Traditions. If the district finally adhered to the law and made inclusion at every school, and then McKinley was designated my son’s default placement, it would have been totally inappropriate, because half the school has no fence around it and my kid, who can bolt away when upset, would have run right into a very busy street with no barrier to stop him. So while the school is lovely and I would have loved for McKinley to not ban children with autism from their school, it would not be an appropriate
    placement. It is not a matter of gaming the system, as some BOE members seem to
    imply, it’s a matter of appropriateness, safety, and all sorts of factors the other BOE members do not grasp and never think about, because THEY DO NOT HAVE

    It seemed like other members of the Board think parents of children with disabilities want “more choices than everybody else” — that isn’t it at all, far from it — we already have MUCH LESS choice than everybody else, (why do they not “get” that? Are they not paying any attention at all?) so IEP Team assignment of actual school site is a way of mitigating that inequity …

    It seemed like other members of the Board think parents of children with disabilities want “special treatment” … well, IEPS are SUPPOSED to be individualized, and there is absolutely nothing individualized about being assigned to whatever school is nearby. We simply want SFUSD to adhere to the law.

    It seemed like other members of the Board think some parents of children with
    disabilities have an “edge” over other less resourceful parents of children with
    disabilities … IEP team assignment would also help to mitigate that, because EVERY KID would get IEP team assignment, not just those with lawyers to make that happen. (Every kid, except kids who only get RSP support, which is at every school).

    One BOE member implied that not all children have IEP teams … but by law, every IEP team MUST have an administrator, a general ed teacher, a special ed teacher and the parent present, AT A MINIMUM … if that is NOT happening, for all children with IEPS, as the BOE member implied, then SFUSD is really out of compliance with Federal Law.


    Thanks, Rachel 🙂

    for advocating for all our children,
    and for not letting them ignore our children in the decisions they make …


  21. They’re separate issues – there are a series of preferences for elementary school, where you live being one of them. Once you enroll in an elementary school, you become eligible for assignment to the middle school that your new elementary school feeds into. Once your child reaches middle school, you can either enroll in that school or participate in a choice process for a different middle school.

  22. Rachel, I am confused. The article in SF Gate does not mention feeder elementary schools for MS, yet you do. So is it neighborhood or feeder elementary schools?