school choice or peer choice?

A school choice quandary: parents care more about who attends a school than about its quality, in NYC study

PHOTO: Cassandra Giraldo

A basic tenet of school choice is that families will choose higher-quality schools when they can, spurring schools to improve in order to compete for students. Bad schools will fail the grueling test of the market, while good ones will thrive.

Now a new study raises questions about this basic premise.

The analysis examines high school choice in New York City, where students in district schools have a bevy of options and can attend schools outside their neighborhood. But families aren’t flocking to the most effective schools — they are looking for schools with higher-achieving students.

“Among schools with similar student populations, parents do not rank more effective schools more favorably,” write researchers Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Parag Pathak, Jonathan Schellenberg, and Christopher Walters. “Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction.”

The result: school choice programs may incentivize schools to do more to attract students more likely to perform well, not help students learn more.

It’s a strong indictment of the theory behind school choice, though the research — like any single study — is hardly definitive. Prior studies on vouchers and New York City charters have shown that district schools generally see (small) increases in test scores when parents and students have more choices about what school to attend. Charter schools in several states have improved over time, which may be evidence of choice and and competition working.

But the study highlights some of the often-unspoken factors that drive school choice and how schools, in turn, are likely to respond.

Peers trump school quality in the eyes of families

The paper, which has not been formally peer-reviewed and was released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines how families of eighth-graders chose public high schools in New York City between fall 2003 and spring 2007.

Because the city allows students to rank many district high schools, and then assigns them one, the researchers have a treasure trove of data to draw from. (The latest analysis does not examine charter or private schools.) The study then connects how students ranked schools to metrics like test scores, high school graduation, and college attendance.

It is true that better schools — defined as schools improving those specific outcomes — are ranked higher, but that seems solely due to the fact that those schools also have higher-achieving students. Comparing schools with similar students, better schools don’t get a boost in parent demand.

“Our findings imply that parents’ choices tend to penalize schools that enroll low achievers rather than schools that offer poor instruction,” the authors write.

Perhaps surprisingly, there is not much evidence that schools that seem to do better with certain groups of kids are more likely to attract those students. In fact, schools that are particularly effective with low-achieving students tend to be especially popular with high-scoring kids.

It’s not clear which interpretation of the results is correct

There are a number of ways to interpret these results.

One, is that families value characteristics — like safety or after-school programs — besides the metrics of school quality used in this study. That said, the study includes measures like high-school graduation and college attendance, that parents and students are likely to care about.

Another hypothesis is that families and students simply don’t have good data on which schools are good.

“Without direct information about school effectiveness … parents may use peer characteristics as a proxy for school quality,” the study suggests. Indeed, there is evidence that families respond to information about school performance, but it’s unclear to what extent they would prioritize sophisticated measures of school quality, even if given that additional data.

Perhaps families are simply more concerned about peers than schools. Families may consider the types of students at a school as a proxy for school success — something that might be deeply ingrained and difficult to overcome. It may also be due to biases, including racism.

This, the authors suggests, has troubling implications for policy.

“If parents respond to peer quality but not causal effectiveness, a school’s easiest path to boosting its popularity is to improve the average ability of its student population,” the paper says. “Since peer quality is a fixed resource, this creates the potential for … costly zero-sum competition as schools invest in mechanisms to attract the best students.”

Want to learn more about NYC high schools? Come to Chalkbeat’s event this Thursday on how to make the high school admissions process more fair. Also be sure to sign up for Chalkbeat’s national and New York newsletters

making plans

Push to curb academic segregation on the Upper West Side generates a backlash — and support

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 is floating a plan to boost academic diversity in middle schools, including Wadleigh Secondary School.

A plan to make it more likely that higher- and lower-performing students on the Upper West Side go to middle school together is stoking divisions among some families there.

Officials in District 3 are pushing a plan to offer at least a quarter of seats at the district’s 16 middle schools to students whose state test scores suggest they are not proficient in reading and math. Ten percent of admissions offers would go to students scoring at the lowest level, and another 15 percent would go to students scoring just below the proficiency bar.

The change would have dramatic effects at some of the district’s schools, according to a city analysis, while other schools would see their student population change less.

Most likely to be shaken up by the proposal, if it goes into effect: The expectation in the district that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools.

“A lot of people are afraid of change,” said Maria Santa, whose daughter attends a district elementary school that few middle-class families choose. “I don’t think people are going to stand for this.”

Indeed, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism at some of the public meetings that the education department is holding to inform parents and drum up support. An NY1 report about one meeting, held at P.S. 199 during the school day Tuesday, featured parents who pushed back strongly against the proposal, saying their kids would be shut out of the most sought-after schools.

“You’re telling them, ‘You’re going to go to a school that’s not going to educate you in the same way you’ve been educated: Life sucks!’” one woman shouted.

But many of the district’s elected parent leaders are on board, as are other local parents. So, too, are principals in the district, who say the move could protect their schools after the city barred them from seeing how students ranked them on their applications.

That change, announced in June, was the city’s effort to eliminate strategic tricks that weren’t in middle school directories but were known by savvy parents and consultants that some families hire to guide them through the admissions process.

But in District 3, one of three Manhattan districts currently using “revealed rankings” in middle school admissions, principals said they actually used information about how much students wanted to go to their schools to engineer more diverse student populations.

“What first choice allowed us to do is fairly distinguish between [students], because anyone could list us first,” said Marlon Lowe, principal of Mott Hall II in Morningside Heights. “We would interview you, we would get to know your scholar and we would make a serious, thoughtful decision based on many variables.”

Mott Hall II’s admissions process resulted in a relatively diverse student population – but other schools in the district are segregated by race and achievement level.

About 87 percent of admissions offers at J.H.S. 54 Booker T. Washington, for example, went to students who earned top scores on state tests, and about 60 percent of students are white. At P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth, a pre-K through 8th grade school where more than 60 percent of students are black, just 6 percent of offers went to students who earned high test scores.

“We are not offering all students equity and access across all the district,” said District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul. “We need to do something.”

At one recent meeting, Altschul hastened to reassure parents who might worry that top-scoring students will have a tougher time getting into the most coveted schools. She admitted that fewer families would get their first pick under the plan — but she said the percentage of students who are admitted to one of their top three choices should remain about the same.

A simulation based on application data from 2017 suggests there could be significant changes, especially in schools that attract top-scoring students. At West End Secondary School, the number of students with the highest test scores would fall 19 percentage points, resulting in 66 percent of all students earning top test scores. But at P.S. 180, which has middle school grades, the simulation found that just one more high-performing student would be offered admissions under the new plan.

That’s a product of how families are ranking the schools, said Kristen Berger, a parent who has been leading the district’s diversity efforts as chair of the parent council’s middle school committee. Higher-scoring students just aren’t ranking schools where a majority of students have lower test scores, she said. It may also be harder to change the makeup of K-8 schools, Berger said, since many students chose to stay through middle school.

“The most crucial component to this is to give serious consideration to a wide range of schools,” Berger said. “It’s a big step, I definitely recognize it… but in the long run this is better for our children.”

Some members of the district’s elected parent council said that reality means the city needs to do more than just reserve seats for lower-scoring students.

“This is not remotely enough,” Daniel Katz, who sits on the council, said about the projected change at P.S. 180. “The number of impacted children at these schools is basically non-existent.”

Another council member, Genisha Metcalf, raised concerns that the proposal could steer more families away from schools that currently serve many low-performing students.

“If we want to see true diversity,” Metcalf said, “the plan needs to both include how do we get students into those highly sought-after schools, and, how do we ensure that the schools people are considering undesirable are not in an even worse spot.”

Education department officials have long made it clear that grassroots support is critical to pursuing any diversity efforts. (New Chancellor Richard Carranza has indicated he is more open to pushing for integration than his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, who said changes to schools’ demographics should happen “organically.”)

A previous plan to make District 3 middle schools more economically diverse died after parents and principals rallied against it. In 2016, Altschul proposed setting aside 30 percent of seats at each middle school for low-income students, but wasn’t able to build support for the change.

Now, Altschul has won over principals, but parents are airing concerns. At a recent public meeting, one father stood up to ask whether his son’s teachers will get extra help if more students with low test scores are admitted to his school.

He was echoing a concern that has come up repeatedly at selective schools, where parents worry that any changes to admissions could water down instruction. While research suggests that academic integration generally benefits all students, some research shows that when the gulf among students is too wide, neither high- nor lower-performing students are better off.

“That’s my biggest concern,” said the father, whose son attends the Computer School and who declined to be quoted by name. “With more challenging kids in the class, you’re putting on much more stress” on teachers.

Some middle-class families say they’re prepared to embrace the changes, even if their own children might face a tougher path to their first-choice middle school. Nicole Greevy, who has a child in third grade in District 3, acknowledged it may take time for the plan to have a noticeable impact in schools, but she called it a “terrific start.”

“I think diversity benefits everyone,” she said. “I did not have a classmate who was African American until I got to college and that was a failure on the part of my schools. I want my child to have a better experience than I did.”

If Altschul formally proposes the changes to the education department and it gets city approval, the changes would go into effect in the 2019-20 school year — the same time when the citywide middle school changes will be implemented. She said the change is needed to help boost performance for all students.

“This is the work we really need to do around closing the achievement gap,” she said. “Integrating students across all levels is really what’s essential. It really does strengthen learning for all students.”

Diversity Debate

Racial tensions flare at Newark’s elite Science Park High School amid debate over admissions policies

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Science Park students who are calling for admissions changes (from left): Azé Williams, Wendy Huang, and Bradley Gonmiah.

For months, a racially charged debate has been raging behind the scenes at Science Park High School about how one of Newark’s most elite schools selects its students.

Last week, it erupted into full view.

Science Park is the district’s most popular public high school, a selective magnet school that was the top choice for students applying to high school last year. But the National Blue Ribbon School’s enrollment does not reflect the district’s: A disproportionately small share of its students are black and a disproportionately large share are white, while relatively few hail from certain city wards with many black residents — including the Central Ward, where it’s located.

In response, a group of mostly black parents has been urging the administration to overhaul its admission system, which is based primarily on students’ state test scores. The parents have suggested interviewing applicants, focusing on their report cards, and potentially reserving seats for students from each ward.

The administration has made some minor changes to its admissions policies, but not enough to satisfy the parent group — which was evident last Thursday when the Science Park administration hosted a public town-hall meeting to discuss those policies.

The group, known as the Blue Ribbon Parents, boycotted the administration’s meeting until the final minutes, when the father of a Science Park student entered the auditorium and asked how the district could “legally and in good conscience” allow the current admissions system. The school’s principal, Kathleen Tierney, left before the man finished speaking.

“That was so disrespectful,” said Juwana Montgomery, whose twin sons are in ninth-grade at Science Park, after the meeting’s abrupt end. “They’re not addressing anything. Everything is a pushback, a pushback, a pushback, a pushback.”

The debate at Science Park mirrors longstanding ones at prestigious universities across the country and at elite public high schools in cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York. The question is whether highly selective schools can find ways to be both exclusive and diverse, bastions for top achievers that are equally accessible to students from all backgrounds.

In Newark, the debate centers around the city’s magnet schools, which are allowed by the district to screen students based on their test scores, grades, attendance records, and, in some cases, upon the results of interviews or auditions. They are the district’s most popular high schools and its highest performing. But there are also large racial and ethnic disparities among the district’s six magnet schools and between some of them and the district’s eight traditional high schools, according to a school board report released in June.

“We were able to make it plain with the data that our schools are highly segregated,” said board member Leah Owens.

At Science Park, some parents and students say the school’s enrollment imbalances have contributed to racial tensions. Some black students in particular — who make up 34 percent of Science Park’s enrollment compared to 44 percent across the district — say they sometimes feel unwelcome at the school.

Several parents and students said they had witnessed or heard about white and Hispanic students using the N-word, occasionally directed at black students. District officials called the allegations “alarming” and said they were investigating them, while also bringing in an expert from Rutgers University-Newark to assess the “tenor” of the school. On Wednesday, Science Park is planning to gather its students for a forum on cultural sensitivity.

For students like Azé Williams, a 10th-grader, it’s impossible to separate the school’s racial tensions from its admissions policies, which have left black students and those from certain wards underrepresented. Not only that, but some teachers have opposed policy changes designed to bring in more black students, Williams said, on the grounds that doing so would lower the school’s standards.

“We don’t feel comfortable,” Williams said. “Black students, in particular, feel outcast — we feel like we are not protected.”

Science Park High School enrolls a larger share of white students and a smaller share of black and black male students than the overall district. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

At Science Park, 18 percent of students are white — compared to 8 percent across the district. And just 14 percent are black males, compared to 25 percent across the district. The school’s 45 percent share of Hispanic students is about even with the district, while its 4 percent share of Asian students is larger than the district’s.

Meanwhile, nearly 60 percent of Science Park students come from district-run schools in the city’s north and east wards — which have large Hispanic populations — while only 13 percent went to district schools in the city’s south, central and west wards, where most black residents are concentrated, according to district data. Another 30 percent of students previously attended charter or private schools.

The Blue Ribbon Parent group blames those enrollment disparities on Science Park’s admissions criteria. Until this year, the school based 80 percent of applicants’ ranking on their PARCC test scores, 15 percent on their grades, and 5 percent on their attendance records. The parents say this system is inherently biased against black students, who on average have lower PARCC scores than their white and Hispanic peers in Newark and across the state.

A majority of Science Park students come from district schools in two wards. (Source: Newark Public Schools. Graphics: Sam Park/Chalkbeat)

As an alternative, the parents proposed flipping the criteria so that students’ grades counted for 80 percent of their ranking, 15 percent was based on attendance, and 5 percent based on PARCC. Other recommendations included admitting the top students from each city school — an approach used by some universities to promote diversity — or reserving 20 percent of seats for students from each of the five wards.

Still other parents wanted to bring back student interviews and personal essays, which were part of the school’s screening process several years ago. And they said the school needs to do a better job recruiting underrepresented students.

“I told them quite clearly: We need more African Americans in that school — and we have to do it now, immediately,” said Kevin Maynor, whose son graduated from Science Park and whose daughter is in 10th-grade there. Presently, the school’s population “doesn’t reflect the brilliance that’s here in the city.”

After months of negotiations, Science Park’s administration agreed to tweak the admissions criteria that it used this year to select new students for 2018-19.

Now, PARCC scores count for 70 percent of students’ rankings and transcripts are worth 25 percent, while attendance is still 5 percent. The school also redacted students’ names, genders, and sending schools from their applications before ranking them, which parents had recommended. But the parents said those changes were insufficient.

At the town-hall meeting, Principal Tierney summarized the Blue Ribbon Parents’ demands and the admissions changes she made, but she did not respond to questions from the public. Instead, attendees were divided up and ushered into separate rooms to hold small-group discussions — a format that parents interpreted as a way to stifle public debate.

Tierney did not respond to an interview request. But in her opening remarks at the meeting, she suggested that she is open to further changes to the school’s admissions system.

“We need to talk about ways in which the admissions process can promote the diversity of the student body in a legal and equitable fashion,” she said.

District officials also appear open to additional changes. At a school meeting in January, officials suggested that Science Park could do targeted outreach to students in underrepresented neighborhoods and schools, give preferences to underrepresented groups in its admissions formula, and add more screening criteria, according to slides from their presentation.

During brief remarks at the start of last week’s town-hall meeting, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory made clear that he thinks Science Park’s current admissions system needs to be reexamined.

“The question raised that brought us here tonight is an important one and the right one,” he told the audience. “Does the use of standardized assessments unfairly limit students’ access into one of our highest-performing high schools because of their birth circumstances or the part of the city that they live in?”

But even Science Park faculty members who support the parents’ push for a more representative enrollment have some concerns about their proposals.

Nicole Sanderson, a Science Park history teacher, said she thinks the parents are right that the current admissions system excludes some students. She and her colleagues “would love to see more black boys at the school,” she said.

However, she worries that taking a certain share of students from every ward or basing admissions primarily on report cards could “backfire,” leaving some admitted students under-prepared for the rigor of Science Park classes. She suggested creating a Science Park-specific entrance exam and offering tutoring to students at feeder schools to help prepare them.

“There’s just no easy fix,” she said. “This has to be a multiyear and a multistep process.”