I had a chance to express my thoughts about public school choice at the Wake County Board of Education meeting last Friday, April 23. I was invited to the meeting by John Tedesco; I had met with Mr. Tedesco once a few weeks ago.
Here is a brief summary of my comments:
I am not a party of interest in the debate and I am not associated with any side in the debate either. My research focuses on student assignment in pubic school choice programs and I would be happy to offer my academic expertise to WCPSS on the improvement, redesign and implementation of a student assignment whenever it is needed.
My main comment is on public school choice.
There will always be some conflict between district policies and some parents’ preferences. Every assignment plan is prone to political pressure by such parents. It is important to identify that point as one of the major sources of the current change in Wake.
Public school choice, in my opinion, may minimize the extent of conflict by incorporating parental preferences into assignment while giving the district tools to implement its policies.
It has to be noted at the outset though that choice may yield segregated schools in socioeconomically segregated districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg provides a good approximation to Wake. A recent study shows that parents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg tend to prefer schools with higher concentration of their own race. This partly explains why almost half of the schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg were racially segregated after the introduction of the new choice plan in 2002-03 (see page 14 of this WakeEd Partnership report).
However, appropriate breaks and controls can be embedded into a choice system in order to avoid segregation while giving, for example, some priority in assignment to students at their neighborhood schools. It is important to note that guaranteed neighborhood assignment is also likely to yield segregation along the socioeconomic and racial lines of neighborhoods.
A public school choice plan has three components:
1) Demand data: Parents rank schools in order of preferences during application.
2) Assignment priorities: Various priorities can be designed to meet different policy goals. Neighborhood priority for certain percentage of seats gives parents a fair chance at their neighborhood schools. Priority for the rest of the seats can be given to students from NCLB schools. Socioeconomic balance can be targeted through choice by giving priority to low-income students for certain percentage of available seats.
3) Assignment algorithm: A carefully designed assignment algorithm tries to assign as many parents as possible to one of their higher choices while implementing the assignment priorities set by the district.
For instance, Boston Public Schools (BPS) tries to achieve socioeconomic and racial diversity while providing parents with priority for 50% of available seats at their neighborhood schools. See more details here.
Helen F. Ladd is Edgar Thompson Professor of Public Policy And Professor of Economics at Sanford School, Duke University. Professor Ladd is a leading scholar in education policy. The following is Professor Ladd’s comments to the Wake School Board on May 23, 2010. Professor Ladd raises some serious concerns about the change in student assignment policy, which should be heard by all the parties involved in the discussions (bold format in original text):
Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you today. My name is Helen Ladd and I am a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University and have written extensively on education policy in this state and around the world.
I come before you today to ask the Board a crucial question: Given that your policies are likely to increase the segregation of Wake’s schools, how do you plan to make sure all schools have equal access to high quality teachers?
This question is crucial because extensive evidence shows that teachers matter and that some teachers are more effective than others.
The evidence also shows that when schools are segregated either by income or by race, the schools with the largest concentrations of disadvantaged students get the teachers with the weakest qualifications. That is, the neediest students have the weakest teachers. My own research with colleagues at Duke clearly documents this pattern for schools throughout the state of North Carolina.
We find, for example, that the schools serving concentrations of low income students have far higher proportions of inexperienced teachers, teachers with lower average test scores and fewer teachers with National Board Certification than other schools. In addition, the schools serving disadvantaged students have far higher rates of teacher turnover.
These patterns do not arise by chance. They are the inevitable outcome of segregated schools within a district with a uniform salary schedule for teachers. It is hard work to teach in schools with large concentrations of disadvantaged students and many teachers would prefer to teach in more advantaged schools.
So I return to my basic question. How are you going to assure that all schools have access to high quality teachers?
You might well consider paying higher salaries to teachers who teach in high-poverty schools. Salary differentials may help but my recent research shows that the differentials would have to be very high – as much as 50 percent higher — to retain teachers with strong qualifications in the high poverty schools. Moreover. the more segregated are the schools the larger the salary differentials would have to be.
So what will you do? I urge you to avoid this particular problem by not letting the schools in Wake County become resegregated by income or race.
“A majority of board members voted last week to ask legislators to raise the cap on the number of charter schools in North Carolina. Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are free of some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow…[D]iversity and reassignments aren’t the only topic separating members of the Wake County school board – there’s also a philosophical divide on how central a role traditional public schools should play.” Here is the original News&Observer article and here is a WakeEd post on differing views.
Our econometric methods can help us understand what contributes to student achievement and how different schooling models compare, without attaching any political agenda or philosophical bias.
My recent work with my coauthors studies charter schools in Boston and an alternative to the charter model, pilot schools, created within the existing public school framework in Boston. We find significant test score gains for charter lottery winners in middle and high school; in contrast similar estimates for pilots are small and mostly insignificant.
You can download the article here. Here is the abstract:
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate outside the regulatory framework and collective bargaining agreements characteristic of traditional public schools. In return for this freedom, charter schools are subject to heightened accountability. This paper estimates the impact of charter school attendance on student achievement using data from Boston, where charter schools enroll a growing share of students. We also evaluate an alternative to the charter model, Boston’s pilot schools. These schools have some of the independence of charter schools, but operate within the school district, face little risk of closure, and are covered by many of same collective bargaining provisions as traditional public schools. Estimates using student assignment lotteries show large and significant test score gains for charter lottery winners in middle and high school. In contrast, lottery-based estimates for pilot schools are small and mostly insignificant. The large positive lottery-based estimates for charter schools are similar to estimates constructed using statistical controls in the same sample, but larger than those using statistical controls in a wider sample of schools. The latter are still substantial, however. The estimates for pilot schools are smaller and more variable than those for charters, with some significant negative effects.
School choice, coupled with a carefully designed assignment algorithm, brings in two crucial elements: (i) Parents’ demand for schools, (ii) assignment priorities.
Knowing what parents like and want is crucial for serving them and their children’s needs better and for enrollment planning for future. Parents know what works for their children. Demand data can help the district to identify and replicate the in demand and successful programs while changing what is not working in other schools.
Also, one-size no longer fits all. Students’ educational needs are different. Any district that serves a growing and diverse society has to provide various schooling options with alternative curricula and eduction techniques. Without choice, there is no way of serving parents with various options.
Priorities in assignment provide the district with flexibility to implement its policies effectively without arbitrary consequences for parents. For instance, the Wake County School Board has recently changed the designated schools of students in several areas. In the current Wake system and in any system that does not incorporate parental preferences in assignment, such chance will effect all the students in those neighborhoods whether they like it or not. A school choice program with a carefully design assignment algorithm reduces the extent of such arbitrariness while implementing new policies.
In addition, priorities help the district find a middle ground between parents and the district when parents’ individual preferences and district policies are in conflict. Priorities can also help find a middle ground across the political spectrum.
The current assignment plan in Wake County, which relies heavily on mandatory assignment and bussing, lacks such flexibility, as does a neighborhood-based assignment that relies solely on proximity.
Choice, when implemented arbitrarily, may have some undesired consequences. It may lead to resegregation at school especially in segregated societies. However, with appropriate breaks and controls, resegregation can be limited and avoided. Choice can be designed to achieve diversity and stability in the system while giving parents a say in where their children get educated.
A quick note for the Wake County: Choice is already a part –a small part– of the current Wake County assignment plan.
Here is the original News&Observer article on the issue:
and here is an update:
The problem, as portrayed in the news, is the following: The Wake County School Board has ended the diversity policy, yet the Board also wants its share from the federal funds reserved for integrated schools; so the Board has recently passed the following desegregation resolution:
WCPSS and any other school district that serves to an evergrowing and dynamic society needs an assignment plan that is flexible enough to respond to the parents’ needs and to the evolving policies of the district, as seen in this case. A neighborhood-based assignment that relies solely on proximity will surely fail on both grounds.
A school district that is committed to integrated schools and that also wants to give parents a chance to send their kids to their neighborhood schools can find a middle ground. A carefully designed choice program not only responds to parents’ demands, it also gives flexibility to the district to implement its policies towards integration and targeting underserved populations. Our economic models can help find the middle ground.
Check this out:
This is the list of the new changes to the assignment plan. All that means is that if you live in one of those nodes, you are likely to be effected by the change regardless of you like it or not.
If the assignment planned is designed carefully, the impact of a policy change will not apply such arbitrarily or drastically. Neighborhood assignment that relies solely on proximity has that problem. It is not flexible enough to meet parents’ needs and to implement district policies without arbitrary consequences.
Preferences for neighborhood assignment can be incorporated into assignment. However, neighborhood-based assignment also means less access to good schools by students from outside neighborhood. A thoughtfully designed assignment plan can limit the adverse impact of that policy on students who would excel if they were given a chance at a school of their choice.
Congratulations to the finalists of the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education:
From their press release:
The Broad (rhymes with “road”) Prize for Urban Education is the largest education award in the country given to school districts that demonstrate the best overall performance and improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among poor and minority students.
The winner of The Broad Prize, to be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 19 in New York City, will receive $1 million in college scholarships for high school seniors who will graduate in 2011. The four finalist districts will each receive $250,000 in college scholarships.
“At a time when public schools are in crisis, these five urban school districts are an example for other struggling districts because they have demonstrated that students can achieve and improvement is possible even in challenging times,” said Eli Broad, founder of The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. “It is our hope that other districts around the country will learn from the practices these five districts are employing that are leading to sustainable academic gains.”
The income-based student assignment in the Wake County Public School System has been causing uproar by parents every year. If the recent controversy is not convincing enough, take a look at this report, page 10, section “Reality”.
Any change that does not address the main cause of the problem will bring in more problems. Parent frustration for not being able to send children to neighborhood schools is not the cause, but the result of the failure of the system. Therefore, neighborhood-based assignment is not likely to provide a reliable solution for the growing and dynamic Wake County population. To the contrary, it is likely to cause more problems in near future.
Diversity is not the cause either. The current system is very limited in responding to parents’ demands, so is a neighborhood-based assignment that relies solely on proximity.
Nobody at the forum at Meredith College the other day was against diversity, and almost everybody acknowledged the need for a new system that allows parents to send their children to their neighborhood schools. However, no one-size-fits-all system, including a strictly neighborhood-based assignment, will fit to all in a diverse society. The new system, whatever it will be, needs to responds to parents’ demands to the maximum extent possible and needs to be flexible enough to implement district policies.
I am not a politician, policy maker or a public servant (so I may not be choosing my words as politically sensitively). I am not advocating one policy over another when it comes to diversity. However, our economic models, and in particular my own research on student assignment, allow me to look at the problem from an objective standpoint. A strictly neighborhood-based assignment, like the current income-based assignment, will make some parents happy while upsetting many other. There is a middle ground and a better solution that can respond to parents’ demands and allow the district to implement its policies, even the ones that aim integrated schools.
The debate on assignment policies of the Wake County Public School System continued at Meredith College today at a public forum entitled “A Sound, Basic Education: A Forum on the Wake County School Assignment Policy”
The panel included the following speakers:
Crystal R. Chambers, J.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Educational Leadership, ECU
Professor Mary Kay Delaney (Meredith College Department of Education) moderated the forum.
The speakers presented a range of perspectives on school assignment. Despite having some tense moments, the forum was very productive. One thing was obvious: Everyone at the table and in the audience aims for the good of the Wake students and families; however opinions on how to achieve it differ. Here are a news piece and a news video on the event.
Any system that does not respond to students’ needs, parents’ demands, changing environment and district policies will eventually fail. The income-based assignment in Wake County and a community-based assignment that relies solely on proximity put severe restrictions on incorporating parental preferences in assignment; they also limit the ability of the district to respond to the growing population and parents’ demands.
Whatever decision this political process is likely to produce, it will eventually come down to implementing it effectively and efficiently; and designing a good student assignment is an essential step to that end. It is not a trivial task, however our economic models can help come up with the most effective design to implement district policies and to meet parents’ demand to the maximum extent possible.
Last week, the Wake County School Board voted 5-4 to end busing students to achieve socio-economic balance, and instead switch to neighborhood-based assignments.
Finding a school that serves one’s child’s needs is one of most taxing and difficult processes for a parent. The frustration of a parent who cannot send her child to her neighborhood schools is easy to understand. However, neighborhood-based assignment is not a solution to the problem, because there are also many parents who want to send their children to integrated and more diverse schools.
Choice may provide a middle ground solution. Let parents choose their children’s schools. Design your choice program carefully so that it incorporates parental preferences in assignment to the maximum extent possible, and that it also implements the district policies for integration.
Community-based assignment that relies solely on proximity is a not a solution. It does not take parental preferences into account. It is not flexible enough to implement the policies of the district now and in future. It does not even guarantee the efficient allocation of school seats to students.
There is a middle ground and a better solution here. And our economic models can help find it. The science of designing such a choice program is readily available. It has been in use in other districts. Boston for example assigns students to schools by an assignment algorithm that my colleagues and I designed. It gives students priority at their neighborhood schools. But is also maintains diversity by giving students a chance to get into schools outside their neighborhood. Most importantly, it gives parents choice. If you want to serve parents and their children better, you need to know what they like and what they don’t like. That piece of information is crucial for allocating the school seats efficiently today, and for better enrollment planning for future. And a carefully designed choice can achieve all that. It can give parents choice, it can give the district tools to implement its policies effectively and efficiently.
Choice has its opponents, too. Here is a report by Wake Education Partnership, which talks about potential consequences of choice on school diversity. However, it is worth to emphasize that school resegregation is almost an automatic outcome of neighborhood-based student assignment in socio-economically segregated neighborhoods. The Wake County parents and the school district need to be informed about all alternatives before finalizing a new plan; economics would help inform the debate. I will post about my and my colleagues’ research on student assignment and school choice, and about the experiences of some other school districts.
My research focuses on designing student assignment algorithms that incorporate parental preferences and at the same time implement district policies. I have worked with several school districts, including Boston Public Schools and New York City Department of Education, in redesigning their assignment procedures. Here is an interview that I gave to NBC on the Wake County case. Here is another one with Duke News.