Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Student assignment committee, Oct. 19

(originally posted on the blog of Rachel Norton, commissioner on the SF Board of Education)

Apologies in advance for a very long post! Tonight’s meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on Student Assignment was productive, but information-packed. I feel as if we got a little bit closer to a policy, but the amount of data to weigh continues to be overwhelming. We heard a very interesting presentation from a team of researchers at Stanford, Harvard, Duke and MIT, who performed simulations of several of the options presented to the Board, as well as a few new ones (Option 3 is the Zone or so-called Zebra option discussed at last month’s meeting–it was not simulated for reasons that are discussed later on):

  • Option 1: Local (”neighborhood”) school assignment with city-wide schools;
  • Option 2: Local assignment with wider choice (parents are guaranteed local school assignment or can submit choices for city-wide attendance area schools and schools in other attendance areas);
  • Option 4: Choice with local preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with preference for those who live in a school’s assignment area) — this and the next two options are new additions since the Sept. 14 meeting;
  • Option 5: Choice with academic preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with preference for students who live near/attend a school with a low Academic Performance Index (API);
  • Option 6: Choice with academic and local preference (students are assigned primarily by choice with a preference for students who live near/attend a school with a low API, followed by a preference for students who live in the attendance area.

It would be impossible for me to summarize the results of these simulations, because they are so information packed, but I’ll post the results from tonight’s presentation as soon as I can get an electronic copy. Suffice it to say that I think, from the discussion, that Board members were glad to get more options to consider. I’m personally very intrigued by the idea of “academic preference,” since the whole point of our choice system was to give families without choices a way of accessing better academic options. And, perhaps not surprising to anyone, our current system performed worse by several different measurements than any of the options being considered.

There was an extended discussion about whether choice is, by its very nature, inequitable — to actually exercise your ability to “choose,” you have to be able to tour schools, investigate options, understand the process and turn in paperwork on time. I understand the argument, but I’m not sure there is a solution other than to lower the stakes of failing to participate (which I think that guaranteed assignments to local schools might accomplish), and to redouble our efforts to improve outreach to the 20 percent of families (overwhelmingly African American and Latino) who don’t turn in their applications on time.

The researchers also recommended the Board strive for “simplicity” and “non-wastefulness” in any assignment system. Simplicity means (duh) avoiding complexity, and creating systems where it is always in the best interests of parents to just rank their choices truthfully. Anyone who has ever agonized “I love School A but think I’ve got a better chance at School B, so maybe I should rank that one first,” should truly relate to this.

“Non-wastefulness” is a little less straightforward as a concept, but the researchers use it in the sense of honoring parents’ preferences. So, if two assignment systems fulfill the Board’s goals equally well, but system A gives 60 percent of parents a choice that they picked, while system B only accomplishes that for 20 percent of parents, the system A is less “wasteful” than system B.

Also contained in tonight’s presentation were a list of 10 or so proposed measurements by which the Board would evaluate systems under consideration. These measurements would include:

  • Reduce the link between on-time participation and access to the range of opportunities;
  • Increase diversity at focus schools (currently racially-isolated with high concentrations of underserved students);
  • Decrease the number of under-enrolled schools;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than x percent of students achieving below basic/far below basic (percentage intentionally left undefined for now, in this measurement and those to follow, so that the Board can have further discussions about these benchmarks):
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than y percent of a single racial/ethnic group ;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than x percent of students achieving below basic/far below basic combined with y percent of a single racial/ethnic group;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than z percent of students with a low socio-economic status;
  • Minimize the number of schools with more than z percent of English Language Learners.

Board members also suggested additional measurements that could be considered, such as cost of various approaches, comparing outcomes of proposed systems with current outcomes, and evaluating the equity of various approaches (not sure how we would measure equity but Commissioner Fewer volunteered to work with staff on this concept).

Finally, we discussed Option 3 — the zone concept from last month’s meeting. The researchers and staff members did not simulate it, because up to now they have not come up with a way of doing so that would be in any way predictive or instructive (our current system is so different that it is almost impossible to juxtapose the choices parents make under the current system with choices they might make under such a radically different system). Though four Board members voiced support for this approach at the last meeting, this time around I detected far less interest in the idea of citywide zones. I did make the suggestion that perhaps we should at least see the number of parents whose choices would fall within their proposed zone — if only to evaluate whether anyone is making choices that would align with the zone concept — the researchers and staff said they would look into the feasibility of doing so.

In reading over all of this I realize that it doesn’t really provide evidence for my sense that we are moving closer to a final policy. I guess my optimism stems from the fact that the Board overwhelmingly endorsed the proposed measurements that will guide us in evaluating policy options; and also from the fact that we now have some options on the table that seem to better represent the Board’s goals and community input. Based on what I have heard so far, Options 2 and 6 are those that come closest.


  1. THanks so much for the thoughtful summary, Rachel. It is much appreciated.

    I think your training as a journalist is proving to be quite an asset ;-)

  2. Option 6 sounds promising to me. Looking forward to seeing the simulation presentations.

  3. Rachel - why isn't "increasing ACADEMIC PERFORMANCE" for AA and Latino children a measurement?

    Isn't that what the board is trying to achieve?

  4. 12:06--it's in there, isn't it? they haven't defined the exact benchmarks, but they talk about reducing the % of children performing at below-basic, etc., as well as that % combined with racial isolation. isn't that the same thing as you are saying, or close enough?

  5. The board wants to give children in underperforming schools a good shot at attending better-performing schools, but where does that leave the underperforming schools if their best and brightest keep leaving?

  6. 12:23, hopefully a quasi-market system that involved some measure of choice would force schools to improve--by adding magnet programs and/or by improving how they do things. This has definitely happened in our current choice system; it's actually one of the better aspects of our current system, seen through the lens of a decade.

  7. My point is - why so much emphasis on shifting students around?

    Why not put more emphasis on meeting the DIFFERENT needs of the different students in SFUSD. Low income Asian students don't seem to need the same level of support as low income AA or latino students. OK - why not find a way to meet those needs, instead of trying to get these families to enroll in different schools?

    Why not propose budget changes that allow a greater budget to higher need schools so those schools can better meet the needs of their students and increase performance?

    What about the schools - is it ok that they are underperforming as long as they are racially diverse?

  8. "My point is - why so much emphasis on shifting students around?"

    Because if you have a class with more than X percent of kids in extreme poverty, or too many ELLs (if not in a bilingual or immersion program that's set up to deal with their needs), you're going to have the teacher overwhelmed by the needs of those students to meet the needs of the other students in their class, or to fully address the needs of the kids having difficulties.

  9. "What about the schools - is it ok that they are underperforming as long as they are racially diverse?"

    Of course not. Could you be more insulting if you tried?

    But any system needs to be equitable, not only ethically, but on the practical issue that it'd pointless to set up a new system just to have it launch a raft of lawsuits and get struck down by the court.

  10. Thanks, Rachel. I appreciate how communicative and well, rational you are so it's great having you on the Board.

  11. Rachel,

    Thansk so much for posting this information.

    I can't see how Options 5 and 6 work out, as then what's the incentive to attend a neighborhood school with a low API? Wouldn't these options effectively drive these schools into closure (or at least be drained of all kids from families concerned enough about their kids education to have them apply for a more distant but better school)? I can see the advantages of it in terms of giving better options to those close to poorer performing schools, but I think it could have some unintended consequences.

    Also, I'm not seeing the difference between Option 2 and the old OER system that the current lottery replaced.

  12. 3:41

    I assume it works much the way it does now. A marketplace where choice drives reform--to some extent, anyway. Either they improve or die. And for oversubbed schools, there would be the same spillover to other schools--the nearest non-oversubbed school--and people would kick and scream just as they do now. What it basically does is switch out the diversity index and prioritize living near a low-API school as the factor; and elevate neighborhood/proximity as a second factor in what is still a lottery. So, give something to the eastsiders and give something to the westsiders.

  13. I LOVE the idea of "non-wastefulness." When I read your description of it, it reminded me of the demand data for Dianne Feinsten this year. 78 people put the school as #1 for K, with 88 seats available. I see that and think that everyone who put it #1 got the school, but that's not the way it worked out. I realize that 535 people put it somewhere on their list of 7, but did they not get their first choice b/c they were placed at DiFi to hit the "diversity index"? I know people who went 0/7 who eventually got into the school, but perhaps spots opened up when people who put it as their #2-7 choice got into their wait pool school -- creating, in my mind, a "wasteful" game of musical chairs that could have been prevented by giving more weight to people who put the school as #1.

    (I'm just using DiFi as an example. I realize that there will never be enough room at some schools for everyone who put it #1, and that some schools are easy to get into if there are more spaces than there are total requests. But DiFi stuck out as an example to me of a place where where more people could have been pleased in Round 1 under the current system.)

  14. 8:08 - Thanks for your comments on 'wastefulness' with the current system. Well put!

  15. Is there a direct correlation between closing the achievement gap and desegregation? Or are these two separate issues?

    Also, has anyone ever polled the families of underperforming schools and asked them if given first dibs to any school in the district, would they choose the trophy schools? Or do they actually prefer the cultural comfort, support, and resources that often come with a segregated school with an underperforming population. In other words, is the District making a huge assumption that the families that do not participate in round one and are subsequently clustered in underforming schools would actually choose an alternative, let along the Rooftops and Clarendons?

  16. Or do they actually prefer the cultural comfort, support, and resources that often come with a segregated school with an underperforming population.

    This notion that low-income schools are rolling in piles of cash is nonsense, and it's high time for SFUSD's Board and administrative officials to publicly denounce it. YES, Title I provides some federal resources. YES, SFUSD's "STAR" schools get a package of personnel/resources. NO, this comes nowhere near to equalizing the resources available to school serving high-income populations.

    This toxic idea is used to justify a lot of inequity in our District. It is false and damaging.

  17. 6:40 am, thanks for your comments about the illusion of "extra resources" at STAR schools. Yesterday I had a very emotional meeting with the entire staff of El Dorado, a STAR school that has lost $75k in anticipated funding this year because their enrollment declined at the 10 day count.

    This is an "underperforming" school, but it has the most dedicated group of teachers I think I have ever seen. They are energetic, entirely committed to the ideals of social justice and closing the opportunity gap for children in our city, and they are struggling against unbelievable odds and a system that -- even though we truly try to distribute resources equitably (each according to their needs)-- isn't giving them close to what they need to do their jobs.

    I'm still reeling from this meeting, alternatively angry at the system and close to tears at the beginnings of disillusionment in these amazing teachers.

  18. Rachel,

    I am so sad to hear about this school having its funding cut.

    Isn't there a different way to determine school funding? This speaks to so many things that I think are wrong, and not just with the assignment process.

    This was our assigned school at the end of Round I.

    We did tour the school and it was quite evident that there was something exceptional going on there. I didn't know it was a STAR school, but there was something about it that really caught me. This is the mini review that I wrote on Marcia's first thread:

    "Hi Marcia,

    I am not sure I am the right person to review El Dorado. I am kind of a test scores person, so I was curious about what you might think of this school, since you have a different perspective.

    I loved the space. The architecture of the school takes abvantage of the sunny southern slope that it is built on. There is a garden. I thought the teachers were doing a brilliant job. The class projects posted on the walls engaged me with their international outlook.

    Rachel Norton made a comment on this or another thread about sign-in protocol at schools. This school didn't seem to be following the sign in protocol, and that concerned us.

    For us, it was also quite out of the way, but still an interesting school.

    Sounds like we live in the same part of the city, so I am looking forward to your posts."

    I would add that one of the projects on the wall was about the Ghanaian Ashanti. I've always been a fan of teaching subjects, even science and math, within a relevant cultural context, to minorities. That is one of the reasons I liked Alvarado so much and as I toured this school, again, I was caught by surprise.

    Anyway, for a variety of reasons which I will not recount here, we didn't sign up for this school. Still, as I made the decision, I felt very emotional, thinking about all the injustices in the world, all the divisions, all the fallen bridges.

    I don't know what the answer is, but forcing a school that is clearly doing a great job, helping so many children, shouldn't have its funding cut like that.

    Again, I do think that it is asking too much to fix all the schools by integrating them. El Dorado doesn't need to be integrated. It just needs to keep its funding.

    Ms. No-Free-Lunch,
    wife of Junker-Driving-Husband.

  19. 9:40 here.

    I see that the underperforming schools i've looked at often have: student liaison, parent liaison that provides family workshops and other parent educational services, nutritionists, nurse, learning support professional, speech therapist, IRF, occupational therapist and psychologist, albeit only on a part time basis.

    For those students and families who benefit directly from these limited resources, I guess, I don't see how they would get them at clarendon (unless unknown to me, clarendon has these resources too).

    Or will the resources follow the students wherever they go like the funding?

    My initial question/point was: has anyone taken a look at the likelihood and psychology of underperfomorming student families to understand how their choices trend if actually provided with access to choice? If the answer is no, isn't it possible that there is a big assumption in the works? It would be wise to understand this before investing time and money in a totally new system.

  20. 4:25. I like your post and agree with your thinking.

    What is the best way to address the needs of the underperforming students?

  21. Very good questions, 4:25 PM and 10:25 PM.

    10:55AM here.

    As we live in South Bernal, we have a number of friends within the Latino community. I will say that most are second generation. Either Peruvian or Guatemalan. Most are bilingual.

    They don't seem to be applying to Clarendon or even Alvarado. They are applying to Paul Revere. I believe their reasons are convenience (geographic proximity), good afterschool programs (very important for a working mom) and the comfort of being within their own Latino community. I don't see these families signing up for E R Taylor, even though most of these families live in the Excelsior.

    By comparison, I remember having a kindergarten conversation with a very well attired African American grandmother at ODC dance. Our daughters where in the same dance class.

    I asked her what her plan was for kindergarten and she replied singularly, "Alvarado."

    There was a moment of pause.

    Then I asked her "What are you going to do if that doesn't work."

    She said "fight."

    I smiled.

    What's my point in these two stories?

    Sure, some very savvy minority parents are going to take advantage of the school assignment process to get their kids into Clarendo or Alvarado, but the vast majority have bigger fish to fry.

    Convenience and a familiar community weigh heavily.

    This singular devotion to trying to get minority kids to sign up for Clarendon and the like is a terrible miscalculation.

    Please restore funding to schools like El Dorado. Support schools like Junipero Serra, Paul Revere and E R Taylor.

    Take the long view in funding them.

    Stop beating up on the middle class for also wanting to stay within a familiar community.

    If these schools are well funded and teachers are supported, the middle class will gradually find them.

  22. 10:55, this is exactly right. Thanks for summing it up perfectly. The whole integration thing is almost ridiculous (and I am someone who manages large gloabl diversity programs for my company, so it is important to me). The best educational experience for the stuggling families in the City is to make their neighborhood school great! I talked to a woman at my company about her search for K in the City last year. I wanted to be sure that she knew about her options, etc., and in the end, she wanted the school closest to home regardless of the fact that her profile would have given her any #1 choice. In the end, SFUSD still screwed it up and said they didn't have her paperwork, but she fought back and was still fine since her neighborhood choice was at the bottom of the application lists. I know I'm simplyfing it, but that's the reality. Fixing the schools is the answer, not trying to force some bussing across town that doesn't work for anyone.

  23. That is why Option 2 sounds good. It gives folks the neighborhood school, if they want it. Some will value the feeling of community at the neighborhood school more than API. For those who value the API more, and have a neighborhood school with low API, they have all the other schools in the city to choose from.

  24. No--option 6 is much better. Problem with option 2 is that if you live near a low-API school and you want out, many other schools will already be filled with guaranteed neighborhood kids. I live in a neighborhood with low-API schools, and I say, no way. Option 6 would allow us to choose higher-performing schools, while still giving a significant boost to those who live in the immediate neigbhorhood. It's a good compromise that supports both very local schools AND kids from challenged neighborhoods. Option 6 all the way!

  25. Please don't overlook the fact that many of the schools that are shunned by middle class families are actually great places for children. Many in the minority communities know that and have no reason to seek out the "trophy" schools. Plus, they are located right in the neighborhood and parents already know families who are enrolled there.

    E. R. Taylor is a perfect example of this. It's been a popular choice for families in the Portola district for years. But it's recently come onto the radar of families from other neighborhoods, and suddenly it's considered a possible alternative. People at that school could have told you how great it was all along, but no one ever asked them.

    Schools like this are "hidden gems" only in the sense that they're "hidden" from the middle class.

  26. 12:59 here again, and I totally agree with you, 1:23. If I lived near ER Taylor, I'd have no problem sending my kid there. Of course, ER Taylor, while not on the radar so far for non-free-lunch families, does have impressive test scores and so wouldn't be grounds for getting a boost elsewhere under Option 6.

    And by the way, I don't think that all low-API schools are unacceptable, either. I know how the data works and there are some schools I'm considering for my kid that are actually low API.

    However, there are some low-API schools I wouldn't want to be stuck in. One of them could end up being my neighborhood school, and I want a realistic option to choose something else if that is the case. Option 6 would most likely limit the most popular schools to very local neighborhood kids plus kids from low-API-school neighborhoods. That seems right to me. It might mean that kids who reside near high-API schools wouldn't have so much of a shot at OTHER high-API schools, but then, they have a decent option already, presumably. As I see it, Option 6 is a good compromise that offers something to families from challenged neighborhoods as well as from wealthier ones.

  27. 10:55AM from yesterday again.

    It is good to see a discussion of the options.

    Perhaps we should think about these options not only in the immediate short term, but also in the very long term.

    In other words, don't just think about them in terms of how they will help your family's chances in the K process.

    I'm reading a book right now, "Walks and Talks of an American Farmer in England" by Frederick Law Olmsted, written in 1850. Olmsted was an original thinker for his time, the designer of Central Park in New York, a contributor to the design of Golden Gate Park, Dolores Park and the Stanford University campus grounds, as well as an early abolitionist.

    Here is a direct quote that I came across last night:

    page 308:
    "I heard a crusty old bachelor say the other day, growling at the Free School Laws: 'But I have not children, and I don't want to pay for the schooling of my neighbour's brats; if they were begging for bread, it would be another thing.' The land of free trade [Olmsted is referring to England in 1850] has something to tell us about this too. 'Nine out of twelve of the inmates of the Poor-houses of Norfolk and Suffok cannot write their names.'

    [Olmsted, a descendant of Puritans, then implores:]

    Never forget, citizens of the United States, that the children within a republic are and must be, 'THE CHILDREN OF THE REPUBLIC.' Do your duty to them, or they will not do their duty to you."

    So I hope that, in whatever option the school board comes up with, it will remember the kids at El Dorado and not just the kids at ER Taylor.

  28. Me again, from 1:35 and before.

    Yes, of course you are right.

    I wrote too quickly in putting it in terms of my child getting into a school (not kinder, but middle, actually). I believe with all my heart that we must consider all the children. And I appreciate your raising some provocative points about how to meet the needs of the most challenged kids, whose opportunities outside of school may not be as rich as my kids, or yours.

    I guess one question is, do we think a quasi-marketplace has a role here? That is, if there is an element of choice, which allows families to opt out of their assigned school, for whatever reasons, will that not push some schools to improve? And might it not increase the sense of commitment to the school where those families end up?

    I laugh as a write this because I am not at all an all-out free marketeer.

    However, it seems to me that offering both a leg up to those who are in low-scoring schools, as well as to those in immediate neighborhood, would give families the right sorts of choices. Some families would choose to stick around a low-scoring but supportive school. Others would choose to opt out.

    Option 6 would make it hard for anyone in the West Portal neighborhood to go to Clarendon or Miraloma. I guess I'm just not worried about anyone who is "stuck" in West Portal though. I am worried about the kids in a much more challenged school.

    I also believe that we should be flooding those schools--the El Dorados, the Cesar Chavezes, et al with the best teachers (pay 'em more) and dawn-to-dusk support, including afterschool enrichment and family learning opportunities, health care on-site, and much more. Wall-to-wall support to close the opportunity gaps. That alone might keep a family in that school. But if that same family wants to opt out and go to Alvarado, they have a decent shot at doing so.

    Seems fair to me.

    Maybe I'm dreaming about the wall-to-wall support. Just wishing we could redirect every dime of the Iraq war money to such a project.

  29. Hi 4:33,

    I wasn't directly referring to anything you said about the school assignment options. My comments were as much to myself as to anyone else.

    I think it would be nice for families to have some choice in what schools they select. I just hope it is a real choice and not an excercise in paperwork. (Someone made the suggestion of making an algorithm that would not so heavily weigh the first and second choice. The algorithm could actually be written to try to get the most number of people on of their seven choices.)

    No school assignment method is going to fix every school. There should be an alternative and fair method to improve these forgotten schools. Some schools, like Junipero Serra and El Dorado, are doing a superlative job, even though their enrollments may not be going up and their test scores are going up only slowly.

    There are intangibles in evaluating schools that require subtlety and sensitivity to assess. (And I'm speaking as a person who looks at CST scores.)

    A school's ability to improve does seem to be related to dollars spent. But it is also dependent on leadership. It is dependent on parent involvement. As you say, teachers should be rewarded for taking on the schools with a lot of kids in families who are struggling.

    That also is a two way street, however. We do need to come up with a Charlie Schumer like solution to our immigration woes, or we will simply not be able to bear the burden of so many extremely disadvantaged families. In this city, we need to look hard at our sanctuary policy, which was meant for political refugees, not an unlimited number of economic refugees.

    In the end, I'm a pragmatist. I think one has to be willing to constantly readapt to get the best result. We can't dogmatically tie ourselves to a single philosophy or assignment method to try to fix our schools.

    I like the recommendation of simplicity and non-wastefulness.

    In pressing for these, I think the assignment process should use criterion that do not allow cheating and don't require a lot of auditing. (Sorry to bring that up again!)

    Even in these dark times, I'm hopeful. Thank you to Rachel for her efforts. Thank you to the principals. Thank you to the teachers.