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

study says...

Do ‘good’ parents prep their kids for gifted exams? The answer varies by race, study finds

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Kindergarten students at Brooklyn School of Inquiry, a citywide gifted and talented program, learn how to read a number line in Nov. 2016.

Is getting your child into a gifted-and-talented program a mark of good parenting? How you answer may depend largely on your race or ethnicity, according to new research.

Allison Roda, an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Long Island, interviewed more than 50 white, black, and Hispanic parents at an unidentified New York City school to learn about their attitudes towards gifted programs. (Her sample did not include any Asian parents.)

She found that the white parents view applying for gifted programs and preparing their children to score well on the admissions test as hallmarks of good parenting.

For the black and Hispanic families, being a good parent had more to do with choosing a diverse classroom for their child and not “gaming” the system by practicing for the gifted test, according to the report, which appeared recently in the peer-reviewed journal Teachers College Record.

The report comes as the education department and elected officials are considering how to enroll more students of color in gifted programs.

In New York City, most gifted programs are housed in separate classrooms within a larger school. Often, the two are divided along racial lines, with white and Asian students far more likely to be admitted to gifted programs. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students — who represent 70 percent of the city’s public-school population — comprise less than 30 percent of the gifted-and-talented enrollment.

The most common entry point for gifted programs is kindergarten, with admissions based on test results. The white families Roda interviewed said they felt intense social pressure to have their children take those exams.

Many of them said they questioned whether they should subject their children to such high-stakes testing, but they went along because “everyone else is doing it,” the report says. They also saw it as a pathway to competitive schools in later grades — and even college.

“They know it’s not fair,” Roda said. “They feel the need to do it to get their children on the right track.”

While the black and Hispanic parents Roda interviewed had their children tested for gifted, none reported paying for tutors or otherwise preparing children for the test. For them, having to practice for the test meant your child wasn’t really gifted.

“They know that all of the students who are in those programs were prepped,” Roda said. “So that takes away from the legitimacy of the label and the program they were placed in, and they don’t believe in that.”

Once their children started school, parents of color saw that their kids would be an extreme minority in gifted classes. They also reported that the gifted programs weren’t all that different from the education their children were receiving in general education classes. For those reasons, many opted not to retest their child if he or she initially missed the cut-off score for admission — as opposed to white parents, who repeatedly signed up their children for retakes.

“They just equate it to a way to segregate children whose parents prep them for the test,” Roda said.

Despite the time and resources white families said they poured into preparing for the gifted test, they didn’t think it was an accurate measure of giftedness. On that point, families of color agreed. Black, white and Hispanic families also agreed that school diversity was important.

Understanding those similarities and differences could be important for efforts to better integrate gifted classes and the school system more widely. While some elected officials have called for expanding access to test prep and testing all pre-K students for giftedness as a way to increase black and Hispanic student enrollment, Roda’s research suggests that may not work since parents of color told Roda they were opposed to test prep.

Instead, Roda suggests, the city should begin to spread the practices used in gifted classrooms to entire schools.

“Be more inclusive and enrich the curriculum that way,” Roda said. “And don’t be so focused on the test.”

drinks and debate

What would an equitable high school choice process look like? Chalkbeat readers weigh in.

PHOTO: Stanley Collado
Chalkbeat hosted an event to debate how the high school admissions process could be more fair.

New York City’s choice system is supposed to give every student a shot at attending a top high school. But in reality, low-income students of color are often stuck in low-performing schools.

Last week, Chalkbeat invited a parent and student, a researcher and an admissions advocate, and two education department officials to take part in a public discussion. We wanted to know: When it comes to the high school choice process, what are the barriers separating some students from high-achieving schools — and how can those obstacles be removed?

We want you to join the discussion. Click here or keep reading to learn how.

Two competing schools of thought emerged during the talk, which about 120 people came to watch. On one side, some said the problems revolve around some families’ limited information about how to navigate the time-intensive application process, and solutions should be geared towards improving communication and guidance for families and students.

But others said the problems go much deeper: Students who attend high-needs schools often aren’t prepared to compete for seats in the most exclusive high schools, even as their families often lack the time and resources to help them find other strong alternatives.

“The whole system is flawed and it’s geared to have certain students fail,” said Tanesha Grant, a parent from Washington Heights whose daughter attends Urban Assembly School for the Performing Arts. “Every child is equal. We make them unequal with the process.’”

After the discussion, audience members — who included people who work in schools and education-oriented nonprofits, along with parents — voted on ways to make the admissions process more fair.

The solution that earned the most votes was reducing or eliminating screened schools, which admit students based on their test scores, interviews and report card grades, among other criteria.

The second most popular solution was providing better information to students and families, perhaps by improving the high school directory or adding more guidance counselors in middle schools who can help guide students through the process.

Many other attendees came up with their own solutions.

Those included: expanding the role of parent coordinators, who are already stationed in schools, to help families understand the process; changing the algorithm that matches students to schools so that diversity is weighed in admissions decisions; and hiring more black and Hispanic teachers who can serve as a welcoming presence when students of color are picking schools. You can find more in the photos.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

The audience also submitted dozens of written questions about how the process is working (or not). They wanted to know how much leeway schools get to choose their students, what is being done to help immigrant families understand the process, and how the city can create more high-quality high schools in neighborhoods that lack them.

Now, we want to you to weigh in.

We distilled the audience queries into a handful of questions based on common themes that emerged. We’re hoping to follow up on some of them — but first we want to know which ones are shared by the most readers.

We’d love it if you’d use the form below to vote on which question is also puzzling you — or if there’s another you’d like us to pursue.

Thanks for joining the discussion!