(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.