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

change is coming

City may consider more than just test scores in controversial Upper West Side integration proposal

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
District 3 Superintendent Ilene Altschul, right, has proposed a middle school integration plan.

This week’s meeting to discuss an integration proposal for Upper West Side middle schools was already expected to be controversial. But it could get even more heated, with the city planning to present an alternative approach, leaders said.

An education department spokeswoman said a “new scenario” for integrating District 3 middle schools will be presented at a Community Education Council meeting on Wednesday. Under the current proposal, which has drawn scorn from some parents, a quarter of seats at every middle would be offered to students who earn low scores on state tests.

The city may add other factors to mix, including whether a student is poor or attended an elementary school with many other needy students, according to Kristen Berger — a parent who has been leading integration efforts as a member of the local education council. Some of the changes were first reported by NY1. 

“The goal is to refine the plan so that it can be the best one,” she said.

Education department spokeswoman Toya Holness declined to release any details about the potential changes, saying, “To send it out wide — without any context, or information, or ability to take questions — I don’t know that’s helpful.”

The debate in District 3 has captured nationwide attention after a viral news video showed a crowd of mostly white, middle class parents angrily pushing against the plan at a meeting last month. Since test scores are often tied to a students’ race and class, the proposal has the potential to integrate schools racially, economically, and academically.

It is unclear if adding other factors to the formula would quiet that furor — or how it would impact the plan’s goal of integrating starkly segregated Upper West Side middle schools.

Despite the controversy, there have also been plenty of supporters, including many principals in the district. It’s not known whether school leaders and parents will back the latest changes — especially since a previous proposal to integrate district middle schools based on students’ economic status died after a public backlash.

Though city officials have stressed all along that the outlines of the proposal could change, parent leaders on Monday said they are worried about the murky process and short timeframe. Officials hope to have a plan in place by June, when entering fifth grade families start planning for middle school.

“We are extremely concerned about the timing of this last-minute change,” the local Community Education Council wrote Monday in a joint letter to city officials.

Still, the council notes it is broadly supportive of the city’s diversity goals.

The education council doesn’t have a formal role in proposing or approving any changes to the middle school admissions process, but members have played a leading role in pushing the city to address stark school segregation in an otherwise diverse district. In the council’s letter to the chancellor, parents call on the city to take a more holistic approach, such as providing anti-bias training in District 3 schools and more academic supports, including social workers and bilingual teachers.

“We have a genuine interest in moving the initiative forward,” said Kim Watkins, president of the council. “But we very strongly believe it’s missing some important implementation pieces.”

late addition

Exclusive Center School will join Upper West Side integration push, education department says

PHOTO: Monica Disare
The New York City education department is based out of Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan.

One of the most exclusive schools on the Upper West Side could be included in a controversial integration plan after all — just a year later.

The apparent reversal regarding the Center School came after the New York Post reported that the school was left out of the proposal being debated in District 3. Under the plan, a quarter of seats at every middle school in the district would be reserved for students who struggle on state tests.

The Center School has become known for enrolling the children of celebrities such as “Sex in the City” star and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, who once argued against a proposal to move the school because she worried it would exacerbate segregation. The Center School serves among the fewest poor students in the district, and last year was almost 60 percent white — almost double the district average.

Yet the Post reported on Sunday that the school was exempt from the integration proposal because it enrolls students starting in fifth grade, instead of sixth. The tabloid also raised questions about how students are admitted there, calling the application process “a mystery.” The school is one of the few citywide that still runs its own admissions, instead of being overseen by the education department.

“They have their completely own, independent rubric which they don’t have to release or justify,” Alina Adams, an education consultant, told the Post. “Nobody knows how kids get into that school.”

The report prompted questions from elected officials. City Councilman Ritchie Torres asked the Department of Investigation and the Human Rights Commission to look into the school’s admissions and why it wasn’t included in the integration plan, the Post reported Monday. And City Councilman Mark Treyger, who heads the education committee, wrote a letter to the chancellor demanding similar answers.

“We need to ensure that all students have the same education opportunities, and that starts by making sure that our schools have transparent application processes,” Treyger wrote.

Many integration advocates have made similar arguments. Critics of the city’s screening process — which allows some schools to pick their students based on factors such as report card grades and attendance — say the system is often confusing and favors parents who have the time and savvy to figure it out.

Since test scores are closely linked to race and class, the District 3 proposal could integrate schools on multiple levels. But it has faced pushback from parents who have come to expect that high test scores — achieved most often by the district’s middle-class students — should guarantee families their top choice of middle schools. No changes have been formalized yet, but the district superintendent hopes to have a plan in place for the 2019-20 school year.

Should it take effect, education department spokesman Doug Cohen said it would apply to Center School fifth graders entering in the 2020-21 school year. He added that the department is “working” to bring all middle schools under its centralized process for the next admissions cycle. That includes Center School.

“As part of the transition, the school will begin posting its admissions rubric,” Cohen wrote in an email.