In August, SF K Files visitor Abigail Marks posted a link here to a survey asking parents about their experiences in the assignment process this year and for their ideas of what might need to be changed. Marks finally has the results, and wanted to share them with you! Her write-up of the results turned out to be quite long. For the full results, please see http://kassignmentsurvey.blogspot.com, or email Marks at firstname.lastname@example.org and she'll send you a Word document.
Here's a brief summary of the results:
The tentative findings suggest that most families would support changing the neighborhood assignment system to one that incorporated some kind of zone or geographic area where a family would have preference, with an ability to enter a lottery for schools outside this area. The key element in such a system would be to safeguard parents’ abilities to get an assignment of their choice.
Opinion about whether people should be given some kind of preference for a school nearby is split. A sizable number want this, and a somewhat smaller but still sizable number don’t. When we divided the sample into three groups of zip codes, the western zip codes had a much higher percentage in favor of neighborhood preference than did the eastern zip codes (76% vs. 36%). However, both eastern and western zip code groups preferred the mixed system (neighborhood component plus city-wide lottery).
My suspicion is that with a more demographically balanced survey the zip-code discrepancy might not be so large, but the significance of this difference suggests that: among parents active on the internet, those who live in neighborhoods where schools are perceived to be higher quality are more likely to want neighborhood preference, where those who live in neighborhoods where there are fewer schools perceived to be higher quality wish to preserve their right to choose city-wide.
However, there are indications that the issue of neighborhood preference is complicated and charged. When respondents were first asked about neighborhood preference, a full 34% stated that they did not want it, and wanted to choose freely from all San Francisco schools. However, when asked to rank their choices of an assignment system, only 13% chose a city-wide system with no provision for neighborhood or geographical location. What can this result mean? Perhaps that the aspect of preserving choice is key. It may be that, if the choice still remains to be able to attend any school in San Francisco, a system which combines neighborhood and other factors, and which allows city-wide choice may be more attractive.
The more serious finding of this survey, however, is the lack of trust among parents for the way the District/EPC runs the assignment process.
The image of the District and the EPC that emerges from the survey is one where the District is not procuring or is actively withholding information (about available seats) or deliberately concealing or misleading parents (about weight of first choice, or covering up assignment errors). There is a lack of trust that the computer system will not make errors, that the coding is not being sufficiently checked so that assignment errors will occur, and –perhaps most seriously – a feeling that when errors do occur, that the District will do nothing to reveal this fact, or to take any action until forced. When trying to remediate a problem or error, there is a sense that the District will act in an unpredictable way, without taking community input into account.
This lack of trust may also be exacerbated by the high number of first time kindergarten families who got none of their Round I choices this year (around 45%). This has implications when designing a new assignment process –as parents may not trust that any new system will have room for their needs and not lower their chances of getting a school that is a good fit for their family.
Suggestions of how to make use of these tentative findings:
1. Solve the easy-to-fix problems quickly: in the lottery for the 2008 year, run the siblings first. Let people know the spaces available in each school before Round II and subsequent runs. If possible, come up with a system that lets families be on more than one (say, 3?) waitpools in the 10 day count.
2. Strive for more accountability: double-check coding (especially, but not only, in the areas where there were error problems this year). When there is a problem (whether it is a mistake in coding, or a failure to anticipate an extra 300 kindergarten applications than planed for), reveal it quickly and go about fixing it (with community input) right away. Keep promises made to schools and community groups.
3. Strive for more transparency: In addition to the easy-to-fix measures above, make sure District and EPC representatives are giving accurate and consistent information (about weighting first choice schools in Round I, about sibling preference for twins, about whether the diversity index is used in the waitpool runs, about whether students are being tested for language proficiency etc. etc.). Then release information to the public that will prove that the District is being entirely open and forthcoming (computer formulas for assignment, internal written policy on placement issues etc.).
4. Strive for ways of maximizing families’ effective choice. Come up with an assignment system that lets families who want a choice between schools close to home do that, and those who want to have a city-wide choice do that. And take steps to maximize each family’s chance of getting one of the schools they most want. The emphasis on closing the achievement gap and improving schools in all neighborhoods should help.
5. Strive for more community input: in the process of coming up with a new assignment system, or indeed with any issue, cast your net wide. Solicit ideas from parents of present and future students, from community-based organizations like Parents for Public Schools and the SFAME. Run your top ideas past people to see what the unanticipated impact might be, what the holes in the ideas might be. Solicit community input for making those ideas better. Put out more surveys (hopefully a bit more well-designed and thorough than this one, and with more outreach to all SF families)! Work with community and parent groups to implement recommendations, such as those gained from the thorough SERR report.