Sunday
Jan082012

Amend and Move Forward

It’s been some time since I last posted. In my last post, I addressed the final choice plan that the Board ended up adopting 6-2. I’ve not posted since, because WCPSS has done a good job addressing questions and concerns about the plan, and the plan hasn’t really changed.

When I last posted, I recommended changes to the plan that would reduce the polarization of our schools, promote achievement, and provide more information. A new Board has been elected since that post, and some of the changes relating to the promotion of achievement appear likely to be implemented prior to 2012-13. This is good.

I’ve become concerned, however, that Board members elected on a platform promising to improve the plan are now under pressure to delay or repeal it altogether. This would be a mistake.

While I agree with some critics that there are unanswered questions, I don't think many of these remaining questions can be answered before the plan is implemented. It is a risk of a choice plan that choice implies some uncertainty.

While calls for delay for “further study” often seem reasonable, costs of delay must always be considered. In this particular case, delay means that nodes will have to be reassigned to fill new schools. In addition, nodes should be reassigned to address crowding at existing schools. The already completed magnet application process will have to, or at least should be, redone.

These changes will anger many. They will also be difficult. The non-proximity components of the current assignment policy were all but eliminated by the last Board. This means that policy will have to be changed if the Board wants staff to recommend new 2012-2013 assignments that use other criteria. Changing that policy will be difficult, because despite recent guidance from the Obama administration, it remains unclear the extent to which you can use race for assignment. Nor is it any longer clear the extent to which we can use free and reduced price lunch status.

For these reasons and others, delaying the choice plan is a poor idea. That does not mean nothing should be done to the plan. Selecting a high performing school for children from low performing areas who do not choose a school before the second round of choice selection ends on April 9, 2012; ensuring that there is room at a high-performing regional school for displaced children from low-performing areas near Group I magnets; and guaranteeing neighborhood transportation for all choices are all things that could be accomplished for 2012-13. Minor changes to feeder patterns may also be manageable.

The time for delay is past. Staff devoted enormous time and effort to the creation of the plan now on the table. They have diligently answered question after question about it. The choice plan they developed obviously embodies many compromises; it gives no one everyone she wants. But its critics have failed to unify behind any coherent alternative after two years of opportunity to do so, because they cannot find a better alternative that the public would accept. That pretty much tells us what we need to know about the wisdom of delay.

Amend the plan, but move forward. Many other matters clamor for Board-level attention, and they aren't getting it.

Sunday
Oct092011

The "Final" Plan

On October 4, the Superintendent released the “final” assignment plan proposal for public comment. There has been little substantive change since my last post. In brief, the proposal now restores the “right” of the last “neighborhood” attendees at Group 2 magnets (the ones that compete with private schools and charters and might be underutilized without magnet programs) to follow their “neighborhood” feeder pattern rather than the magnet pathway. It changes a few non-magnet feeder patterns (pp 77-81) in response to community input. It subtly waters down the definition of “high performing school” so more schools will qualify (p 76). Finally, it fleshes out the mechanics of the choice process (pp 16-30, 38-45), describes assignment for the 1,600 or so students with disabilities who require regional special education programs rather than mainstreamed options (pp. 31-34), and reveals the process WCPSS will deploy to ensure that every school has a chance to thrive under the choice regime (pp. 45-48).

The plan may be “final,” but it’s not complete. It remains flawed. In the rest of the post, I highlight some concerns I have that can still be fixed.

The plan will further polarize our schools by race, wealth, and achievement.

Although diversity was identified as one criterion for an acceptable plan (see p. 7), the plan makes no effort to diversify schools by race, wealth, or proficiency. The plan does include a “simulation” (pp 82-86) that suggests it will not increase the number of high poverty schools, but the simulation appears to be tautological: “[I]f we assume the same distribution of FRL percentages [i.e. the percentage of students receiving a free or reduced price lunch] across schools in a 200‐school district that we currently have in a 164‐school district, the concentration of schools above the 50% threshold will remain essentially unchanged.”

Why would we assume that a choice plan will produce the same distribution of FRL percentages across schools that we had when the assignment plan used busing to moderate differences in those FRL percentages? I would assume, instead, that folks will move in the direction the plan pushes them, i.e. toward neighborhood, or proximate, schools. And because their neighborhoods are, as a whole, more segregated by race, wealth, and achievement than their current school system, this means the distribution will not be the same. The average FRL percentage will be the same, but the system will have more high FRL, racially isolated, low proficiency schools and more low FRL, predominantly white, high proficiency schools. Grandfathering will slow this process, but it will not stop it. Watch the kindergarten classes over the next few years and see. 

To fix this, the plan should be modified to incorporate achievement-based controls that prevent any one school from being overwhelmed by low-proficiency students.

The plan does not promote achievement as it should.

As discussed in my last post, this plan does not protect kids whose parents fail to choose a school—the very kids likely to need a good school the most. It could easily do this by choosing high performance schools for them early enough in the process that they have a fair chance of being assigned to them.

Furthermore, the plan fails to ensure that there are enough seats at high performing schools to accommodate all of the children who will leave low performing areas to make room for magnet students. It is reasonably likely that there will be enough such seats in the first year of the plan, but that is true only because the most recent version of the assignment plan has relaxed the definition of “high performing” school so there are 38 of them rather than 27. Furthermore, because the plan assumes the use of every possible seat near the Group 1 magnets, growth in Southeast Raleigh will, over time, increase the outflow of students and reduce the likelihood that the children who leave Southeast Raleigh are assigned to a high performing school. This is why “set asides” are both necessary and fair. We cannot rely on luck.

The plan fails to provide key information.

The “final” plan fails to indicate whether neighborhood bus service will be available from any given node to any given school. This might play an important role in the choices to be made by some families.

In addition, while WCPSS will provide information about the number of seats available at each grade level, it does not appear to contemplate providing historical information about how many people have typically applied for those seats and with what degree of priority. Providing one piece of information without the other will not be much help.

The plan should be modified to ensure that busing information is available. Once there is an historical record, it should ensure that historical choice information is available too.

***

Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday.

Monday
Sep122011

The New Blue

It’s been a long time since I posted. Recent progress on the assignment plan has been slower and more “behind the scenes,” so there hasn’t been much to analyze. But the Board has now been briefed on the evolving plan several times, and WCPSS has recently announced and begun conducting a series of community meetings to discuss the latest iteration of the choice plan. I will call this plan, which is not summarized in one document, New Blue.

When I last posted, there were still two main alternatives: a choice plan, Blue, and a neighborhood schools plan, Green. In that last post, I suggested that if the Blue plan were improved to give children from low achieving areas a better deal, it was the better plan. If not, the Green plan was better.

The Green Plan is no longer an option. At least until the October elections, the Board is committed and will remain committed to some form of choice plan. This means there is not much point in comparing New Blue to Green. Accordingly, this post focuses on New Blue.

Much good could still be done with a choice plan, but it is unclear whether New Blue will accomplish it. As originally posited, the Wake School Choice Plan (“WSCP”), on which Blue was based, had four pillars: proximity, stability, choice, and achievement. Achievement was the weakest link in the WSCP and the original Blue plan. In all likelihood, the new Blue will place less emphasis on achievement than the original, rather than more. It may not consider achievement at all.

These developments are unfortunate, and they should be fought at the Board table and the ballot box. I offer some suggested improvements below, but this is mainly a discussion of what New Blue is, rather than what it ought to be.

To proceed, I’ll describe New Blue as it now exists, with some discussion of how it would change current practice. Then I’ll look again at questions I asked about the original Blue plan, some of which have now been answere, and some of which still haven’t. Finally, I’ll wrap up with some concluding thoughts about what could still be done.

Overview

New Blue is a choice plan with application magnets. This means that all students who don’t want to apply to, or are not accepted at, magnet schools will choose schools from a list rather than attend predetermined “base” schools like they do now. New Blue “grandfathers” students who want to stay at their current schools, with transportation provided. It provides traditional, year-round, and magnet options. As with current practice, it all but guarantees a spot to incoming students who already have siblings at a school. In a departure from the old Blue, New Blue also incorporates guaranteed feeder paths designed to maximize stability of assignment. More details follow.

Magnets

The magnet application process will precede the choice process, just as it does now. Apparently, it will also operate the same way, meaning that applicants can choose from every magnet program, but not every magnet school.

For the time being, the schools housing existing magnet programs will remain unchanged. (Staff continues to think about adding two magnet schools, with the last known candidates for the programs being Fox Road Elementary, Creech Road Elementary, and East Garner Elementary.) But I would not count on the locations of these programs remaining constant, as one additional Republican Board member would probably result in the reassignment of some of these programs from inside to outside the Beltline.

According to the latest news reports, neighborhood transportation for magnets is probably on the way out. Shifting to express busing will save some money by shifting cost and time burdens onto magnet parents, whose benefits are felt to be too great. It is also claimed that this will reduce the duration of existing (and entirely voluntary) magnet bus rides, but this is stupid. Now there will be car rides to go along with the bus rides, for parents and kids alike, and no particular reason to believe the kids will spend less time in transit.

Magnet numbers have been regularized by placing the schools into three groups with similarly-sized magnet populations: the Group 1, or “diversity” magnets, with 55-60% magnet students (now 62%); the Group 2, or “capacity” magnets, with 40-45% magnet students (now 54%); and the Group 3, or “Title I” magnets, with only 10-20% magnet students (now 29%). This regularization is also a reduction. It looks like about 800 magnet seats would be lost so that fewer kids from magnet-heavy areas are bused away from them.

Which schools are in each group? The Group 1 Magnets are Brentwood, Bugg, Combs, Conn, Fuller, Hunter, Millbrook, Poe, Powell, and Washington. The Group 2 Magnets are Brooks, Douglas, Farmington Woods, Joyner, Partnership, Underwood, and Wiley. The Group 3 Magnets are Smith, Wendell, and Zebulon.

In addition to these changes, important changes have been made to the way feeder patterns work for Group 1 and Group 2 magnet schools. See the feeder pattern discussion below.

Choice

Students who do not wish to attend a magnet school and students who do not get in will still have choices. Generally speaking, such students will choose from “[a]t least five of the most proximate elementary schools, including traditional, year-round, and high-performing options, plus the middle and high schools associated with those elementary schools” under the new feeder patterns.

In the earliest proposals, each residence had its own choice list, and the demise of the node system was promised. But those nodes have proven stubbornly useful, and New Blue will apparently compile the choice lists so that everyone in a given node has the same choices. Because of that, and because populations are not evenly distributed throughout the county, students will not always see the closest possible choices in each category. If they did, some schools would appear on the choice lists for 1,000 kindergarteners when they only have 50 spots, and the choice would be largely illusory, while others would appear on the choice lists of only 25 kindergarteners despite having 50 spots.

Because eight hundred or so students will have to leave magnet-heavy areas to accommodate magnet students, students who live near those Group 1 magnets will have additional, but more remote, choices. These will include two nearby magnet elementaries from Group 1, a nearby traditional-calendar nonmagnet elementary, a nearby year-round nonmagnet elementary, one magnet elementary from Group 2, one under-utilized elementary non-magnet from within region, two high-performing elementary schools within region, and the middle and high schools associated with these elementary schools. However they choose, though, approximately 800 students will leave the South and Central Raleigh area to make room for magnet students, roughly 200 going in each direction.

Traditional school placement appears to be guaranteed. Year-round placement is not. Families who are interested in or simply willing to go year-round will be asked to identify their preferred year-round track. While there is no guarantee they will get it, the plan does promise that siblings will not be placed on two different year-round tracks.

Choices will be made in early spring and later, but folks who don’t choose in early spring will be severely disadvantaged and will take what is left. As you would expect, choice will be limited by school capacity. At magnet schools, capacity will be reduced by the set asides for magnet students.

Apparently, the criteria for ranking students based on their choices remain unchanged. After (1) siblings who chose the school first, the selection priorities are (2) students who live in the school’s state-defined 1.5 mile walk zone; (3) students outside the walk zone whose nearest school is their first choice; (4) students from lower performing areas of the County whose first-choice school is an “achievement choice” school; and (5) students whose nearest school is severely overcrowded who select a school that is not overcrowded as their first choice.

WCPSS will apply these priority criteria to the pool of students’ first choices, then to the second choices of students not placed, then to the third, etc.

New Blue makes no effort to diversify schools by race or income. Because of that, and its emphasis on proximity, New Blue will feature more high poverty, majority-minority schools than there are now, as well as more affluent, predominantly white schools. It offers parents some opportunity to select away from a low-achieving school or for a more diverse school, but it does nothing for those students whose parents do not choose or choose poorly. New Blue appears to have abandoned the earlier, controversial notion of assigning to high-growth schools those kids whose parents don’t participate in the choice process at all. As a result of this omission, these children will likely be assigned to the schools no one else wanted instead. This is not the best recipe for the success of kids who obviously face some challenges outside of the school environment.

New Blue has also abandoned the controversial notion of set asides at reasonably nearby or high performing schools for the children near Group 1 magnets who are displaced by magnet students. This means they can choose all they want, but they will only get in if the schools they choose are not filled by students with sibling and proximity preferences.

Questions have been raised about whether New Blue will provide more choice than now exists. As long as efforts are made to equalize the number of choice lists each school appears on, there will be more choice. The better question is whether the increased choice will include the choices you want and whether anyone cares about the increase. In general, choice outside the magnet system will be of most interest to those who want to attend one of the new theme schools or a school other than their currently assigned base.

To aid students in making choices, the system will identify available seats by school and grade. Unfortunately, this will not be much help unless you also know how many folks have a particular school as a choice, where you fall in the priority system as compared to those others, and how those others have chosen in the past. It would be difficult, but not impossible, to make this information available. New Blue does not, at the moment, include a plan to do so.

Like the current system, New Blue has its winners and losers. There is nothing WCPSS can do about the fact that popular schools have finite capacity. But New Blue does change who the winners and losers will be. Because New Blue is not a system of neighborhood schools with a base assignment, for example, parents can’t ensure that their children will attend a given school by moving to a given neighborhood. If your preferred school fills up before your child’s priority rolls around, you will be sent elsewhere. This is likely to occur, for example, if you move near a popular school in a growing area and have children who are already of school age. There will be very few slots at such a school for “lateral” entries. In that case, your children will probably attend a school farther away than your neighbors’.

Feeder Patterns

New Blue incorporates big changes here. Instead of automatically reentering the choice process at the middle and high school levels, as originally contemplated, students now have a default middle and high school based on their elementary school. If they don’t like the default middle or high school, they can reenter the choice process at any time. Apparently, they will not lose their existing seat by doing this, but their likelihood of switching to a popular middle or high school in this way is probably poor, because the feeder patterns will already have filled them up, and few will have opted out.

These new feeder patterns differ from the ones we have now in important ways. First, entire elementary schools, rather than individual nodes, share the same guaranteed path from K-12. An effort—incompletely successful—has been made to feed year-round elementary schools to year-round middle schools. This school-by-school approach to feeder patterns is harder to adjust for capacity management than a node-based system. Further, since our elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools do not come in standard sizes, it was challenging to find combinations of reasonably proximate elementary schools that fit into every middle and high school. As a result, a number of historical node-based feeder patterns have been disrupted, many kids are slated to attend more distant middle and high schools than before, and many of their parents are upset.

Second, the feeder paths are ostensibly guaranteed from K-12. I expect there should be a footnote here that says, “this will change if we build a new school or two,” because it will have to change unless we build all such schools in clusters like 3 elementary/one middle/one high. When these changes occur, I expect they will generate some unhappiness too.

Third, Group 1 and Group 2 magnet schools no longer have separate base feeder paths. If students attend a magnet elementary, their default feeder pattern sends them to a magnet middle school and a magnet high school that offer the same program pathway. In the past, students who attended magnet elementaries as base students were generally able to have their cake and eat it too, in that most could successfully apply to the magnet middle program if they wanted (the priority rules made acceptance likely but not guaranteed), but they could also remain on their base pathway instead. This is no longer true. Students no longer have a base school, so they no longer have a base pathway either.

It is unclear whether grandfathering will extend to current feeder patterns. I think it will be difficult to accomplish this.

Questions Answered

In my last post, I asked some questions about both plans. I provide below any answers that may have become apparent with respect to New Blue.

1. How much will [New Blue] cost?

This is still unknown. It should be easy to keep WCPSS transportation costs the same or less by replacing neighborhood transportation with express transportation as required, though this shifts costs to the affected parents. Establishing programs to make underchosen schools attractive will cost money, but that is money we probably should have been spending all along.

2. How will magnet seat numbers be changed at each existing magnet school?

This is discussed at length above.

3. Where will non-magnet seats be reserved to accommodate calendar and achievement choice by students who live near magnets, and how many will be reserved in each school?

Apparently, they won’t be.

4. What will the new guidelines for adding and removing magnet programs be?

This is still unknown and probably depends on who is elected in October.

5. In Blue, does magnet application remain a separate process, or do you select magnets in your rank-ordered choices?

It’s a separate process.

6. In Blue, is the walk zone defined by crow’s flight or road mileage?

The Superintendent told me some time ago that it was road mileage.

7. In Blue, what is the exact formula for determining whether a school is an “achievement choice” school?

It’s complex, but these schools ought to be quite strong, particularly for children who are not proficient in reading and math. Here’s the complete description.

8. In Blue, what schools are “achievement choice” schools for 2012?

The latest draft is here.

9. In Blue, which schools are “severely overcrowded” and how might the capacity audit change this before 2012?

This is still unknown.

10. In Blue, what exactly does it mean when you say that “[f]amilies who decline to make selections will be assigned to a school by the school system based on the overall intentions of the plan”?

At present, this appears to mean nothing more than they will get the schools that aren’t full after everyone else has chosen.

11. In Blue, why do you need to run two selections in one spring? Who besides new entrants can participate?

This remains unclear to me.

12. In Blue, do you intend to publish information about the percentage of applicants who got their first choice and the percentage of students at each school who were enrolled because they satisfied each of the priority criteria?

I don’t think they contemplate publishing data at this level of detail.

13. In Blue, how are the choices for each address derived?

The choice are determined by the node you live in.

Conclusion

As noted above, New Blue is not summarized in one document. In this post, I’ve drawn together a variety of sources. In the process, I may have made some mistakes, and I may have misunderstood some things. If so, I hope you will use the feedback link to let me know.

New Blue addresses many of the complaints about the old assignment system, though its extraordinary emphasis on proximity and stability will surely create some new ones. More importantly, New Blue terminates the socioeconomic diversity policy and any other effort to balance poverty, race, or achievement in schools except as necessary to make room for magnet students in the relatively few Group I magnets. As a result, excepting the ten Group I magnets and the middle and high schools they feed to, schools in areas of concentrated poverty, high minority populations, and/or high concentrations of low achieving students will be poor, racially isolated, and filled—at least in the near term—with low achieving students for whom few special resources have been set aside. That’s still not right, and it’s still not unavoidable.

On the other hand, New Blue may be more efficient than our current assignment practice. It still has a fair chance of increasing parent satisfaction and still offers the best opportunity to move past polarizing assignment debates in the future. Most critically, it could still be improved as an engine for driving achievement. I hope it is.

Monday
May302011

Blue, Green, or Other?

In this post, I’ll take a look at the two assignment proposals recently advanced by WCPSS. The favored child is called Community-Based Choice, aka Blue. The less loved child is called Base Schools Achievement Plan, aka Green. In this review, I’ll consider the same questions I looked at when I evaluated the Chamber’s Wake School Choice Plan (WSCP):

(1) Would the plans promote student achievement?

(2) Would the plans increase parent satisfaction?

(3) Would the plans use schools efficiently?

(4) Are there any superior alternatives?

Before I begin, I should apologize for failing to complete the analysis of the WSCP by exploring the existence of superior alternatives. I abandoned this effort because I thought it likely that the Superintendent’s assignment task force—a multidisciplinary team of six very sharp, high-level system employees intimately familiar with the way things actually work in WCPSS—would in ten weeks of full-time work come up with ideas that were more imaginative, better developed, and wiser than the ones I might devise. Taking a quick look at all nine proposals considered by the task force, it’s clear that I was right about the breadth of their imagination. But the completeness of their work leaves much to be desired, and I still have a few thoughts to offer about ways to improve the proposals they advanced.

How do the plans assign students?

Here is a set of tables that contain my own feature summary for the top four plans and some other stuff. Both plans “grandfather” students who wish to stay at their current schools, with transportation provided. Both provide traditional, year-round, and magnet options. Both plans guarantee spots to incoming students who already have siblings at a school. According to the Superintendent, both plans should feature the same feeder patterns—default choices for middle and high school—though it remains a mystery what those will be.

1. Blue

Blue is a simplified version of the WSCP that is more explicit about how achievement would be addressed. Instead of ten choices, new students get four to six of their closest schools (plus magnet options). At least one will be an “achievement choice,” or high performing school. Families will also be asked to identify their preferred year-round track. While there is no guarantee they will get it, the plan does promise that siblings will not be placed on two different year-round tracks.

Choices will be made in early spring and later, but folks who don’t choose in early spring will be severely disadvantaged. As you would expect, choice will be limited by school capacity. At magnet schools, capacity will be reduced by set asides for magnet students. At other schools, capacity will be reduced by spaces set aside to provide meaningful choices for students who live near those magnet schools. The plan does not make clear how this latter set aside will work.

After (1) siblings who chose the school first, the selection priorities are (2) students who live in the school’s state-defined 1.5 mile walk zone; (3) students outside the walk zone whose nearest school is their first choice; (4) students from lower performing areas of the County whose first-choice school is an “achievement choice” school; and (5) students whose nearest school is severely overcrowded who select a school that is not overcrowded as their first choice.

WCPSS will apply these priority criteria to the pool of students’ first choices, then to the second choices of students not placed, then to the third, etc.

2. Green

Green is a variant on the plan we have today that considers school achievement levels rather than school poverty in establishing assignment areas. Students are assigned to a school by address, so they have a guaranteed base and, apparently, a guaranteed calendar option also. The assigned school is based on proximity, achievement, and capacity. No one is guaranteed their closest school, but most students should end up in a nearby school. Students surrounded by schools performing 10% below average proficiency levels may not. Calendar policy changes are unclear, but it seems reasonable to assume that as in Blue, efforts will be made to assign year-round students to a desired track and guarantees will be given that year-round siblings will end up on the same track.

Reassignments will occur when new schools open, growth exceeds capacity, or a triennial review of school achievement requires it. Importantly, however, existing students and incoming siblings will be grandfathered with transportation.

Would the plans promote student achievement?

I previously expressed the view that there are two ways an assignment plan might promote achievement. It might create better learning environments for all students by limiting the number of low achieving kids at any one school. Second, it might provoke competition in a way that improves achievement. For reasons expressed in that earlier piece, I don’t think much of the idea that assignment plans might provoke useful competition, so I won’t discuss that again here.

Both of these plans are more explicit than the WSCP about the way they would limit the number of low achieving kids at any one school. First, both would retain existing magnet programs but shift focus from considering poverty levels to evaluating achievement levels when establishing locations for magnets. While this approach has its pros and cons, it should keep the achievement levels at magnet schools balanced, and it prevents stupid arguments about whether the selection criteria are proxies for racial stereotyping. Achievement isn’t a proxy for anything; achievement is what schools are supposed to be about.

Beyond that, it is unclear how much Blue can do to promote a mix of achievement levels. Students from historically low performing areas who are not based at a magnet will get a very mild preference for at least one high-achieving school. Since it is highly likely that the high-achieving school will already be filled to the brim with folks who receive proximity preferences, this is unlikely to mean much unless seats are reserved for these kids, as the plan description suggests in one sentence. This is a point that needs to be clarified.

In addition to preserving magnets, the Green plan would consider achievement balance in assigning children to schools. Because achievement levels are at present so highly correlated with both poverty and race, requiring that no school be more than 10% below district proficiency norms will probably reduce the number of high poverty and racially isolated schools we have today.

Would the plans increase parental satisfaction?

As I did in my discussion of the WSCP, I will focus here on academic quality, choice of program and calendar, convenience, stability, and proximity.

Academic Quality

Low proficiency schools that produce high student growth are still the exception rather than the rule. In their present form, Green does a much better job of guarding against low proficiency schools than Blue. Unless Blue is fixed, Green is most likely to preserve the academic quality of our schools as a whole. 

Choice of Program and Calendar

Under both plans, grandfathering will ensure that children happy in a particular program can remain there, and sibling preference will ensure that siblings stay together.

Both plans also permit choice of all magnet programs and appear to guarantee the right to continue in the relevant magnet pathway until graduation from High School. Green prioritizes magnet applicants from historically high achieving areas. I am not sure about Blue. If Blue requires magnet application as one of its 4-6 choices, this would make application to popular magnets very risky, because selecting a magnet first would deprive you of the priorities you otherwise have if you make your nearby school your first choice, etc.

Blue’s choices might provide more opportunity to select the newly created non-magnet special programs.

Both plans offer calendar options, the possibility of getting the track you want, and the assurance that siblings will be on the same track. Green appears to guarantee a calendar choice, where Blue does not.

Under Blue, late arrivers in high growth areas may be squeezed out of the nearest schools if they are desirable. Folks whose neighborhood now attends a more distant school will likely be disappointed if they like that school, as someone else will have the priority. Under Green, on the other hand, those who live farther away from their desired school may be squeezed out if closer areas fill up due to growth.

On the whole, Blue offers slightly more meaningful choice, at the price of considerably less certainty. I am not sure this is a net advantage.

Convenience

Both plans guarantee sibling placement and promise the maximum possible sibling track alignment. Under Blue, I believe folks are more likely to attend a nearby school than they are under Green, and they also have a few options if another school is nearer to work or a caregiver. But calendar options are more certain under Green. I think Blue has the convenience advantage.

Stability

Blue offers the greatest stability for families because feeder patterns do not change with the opening of new schools. New schools are filled only by choice. But Green is pretty stable also. Due to aggressive grandfathering and sibling guarantees, it too promises no reassignments for a given student during that student’s tenure at a particular school. Siblings will have the opportunity to stay with their older brothers and sisters in both plans.

Proximity

Blue heavily incentivizes the selection of a student’s nearest school. Because of this, students are more likely to attend their nearest school under Blue.

Would the plans use schools efficiently?

As with my analysis of the Wake School Choice Plan, I will look at facilities use, transportation cost, and other costs.

Facilities Use

As a general rule, a choice plan like Blue offers the possibility of using facilities more efficiently than a plan like Green that assigns geographic areas to schools, because the choice plan can adjust capacity one student at a time. The efficiency of both plans will be reduced, however, to the extent that each tries to shoehorn groups larger than a single node into particular middle schools and high schools. In addition, Blue promises to fill new schools entirely by choice, which could lead to significant inefficiencies if those schools do not fill up quickly. Without knowing the choices that would be made under Blue, comparing the efficiencies of the plans in terms of facilities use is difficult.

Transportation Cost

The system has provided no data by which the relative transportation costs could be reliably estimated. Blue’s costs are highly uncertain in any event, because we do not know what choices folks will make. Still, the assignment priorities in Blue heavily incentivize people to choose their nearest school, and less attention is paid to providing low achieving students with meaningful access to high achieving schools. Taken together, I would expect these factors to make Blue’s transportation costs lower than Green’s.

Other Costs

Blue’s other costs are likely to be higher. Blue requires outreach to provide people with information about their choices. This could be particularly demanding and costly if WCPSS is serious about encouraging students from low achieving areas to apply to high achieving schools. In addition, Blue pays less attention than Green to balancing achievement at particular schools. This is likely to lead to more special programs and expenditures to “spruce up” low achieving schools so they will be chosen. This could become very costly.

Are there any superior alternatives?

Both Blue and Green have promise. Both address many of the problems with the current assignment model. Both offer most people a reasonable shot at attending a nearby school. Both appear to preserve the magnet option in a salutary form, though we should ask some questions, identified below, to make sure.

The frontrunner, Blue, has a number of good features. It will probably be more efficient than Green. It has a fair chance of increasing parent satisfaction and offers the best opportunity to move past politicized assignment debates in the future.

Unfortunately, Blue does not do much to protect the achievement balance at schools other than magnets. As currently proposed, it seems likely to produce significantly more high poverty, racially isolated schools with low achieving students, because it does very little to ensure that low achieving students actually attend high performing schools. It reserves some seats at such schools for kids displaced by magnet programs, but unless students from low achieving areas actually choose the high performing school, the seats revert to the general choice pool.

This is not good. The fundamental premise of the current school administration—and most others—is that all children are better off in a high achieving school. Yet the Blue plan does very little to put low achieving students in those schools. In all likelihood, they will only end up there if they choose it and get very lucky (because even if they choose it, most of the spots will already be taken by others who have higher priority).

Can this be fixed? I think so. First, we can make sure that many of the seats set aside for displaced kids who live near magnets are set aside at high achieving schools. This will not help every low achieving kid, but it will help many. Second, we can work to make sure that these seats, and others, are meaningfully available to low achieving kids who do not live as near a high achieving school as some others. We can do this by (1) flipping the Blue assignment priorities so that children from low achieving areas have a higher assignment priority than kids for whom the school is nearest, but not within 1.5 miles; and (2) by selecting the achievement choice school for all kids whose parents fail to make a choice.

In this revised scheme, siblings and children within 1.5 miles of a school would still be assigned to their first choice in almost every case. After that, however, children from low achieving areas would have priority over children who live outside the walk zone but still want their nearest school. This gives a meaningful number of kids from low achieving areas a meaningful opportunity to attend a high achieving school, rather than giving them a choice they are unlikely to be able to exercise successfully. While it grants a lesser “nearest school” priority than the Blue proposal, it should be noted that kids who live more than 1.5 miles from their nearest school may live only .1 miles from the next nearest, so the justice of prioritizing their situation over that of kids from low achieving areas is unclear.

What questions need to be answered before we decide?

Ultimately, we probably can’t make a sound decision about which of the plans is better until we know more. Here are the questions I will be asking. If you ask them to, they might get answered before a plan is adopted.

  1. How much will each plan cost?
  2. How will magnet seat numbers be changed at each existing magnet school?
  3. Where will non-magnet seats be reserved to accommodate calendar and achievement choice by students who live near magnets, and how many will be reserved in each school?
  4. What will the new guidelines for adding and removing magnet programs be?
  5. In Blue, does magnet application remain a separate process, or do you select magnets in your rank-ordered choices?
  6. In Blue, is the walk zone defined by crow’s flight or road mileage?
  7. In Blue, what is the exact formula for determining whether a school is an “achievement choice” school?
  8. In Blue, what schools are “achievement choice” schools for 2012?
  9. In Blue, which schools are “severely overcrowded” and how might the capacity audit change this before 2012?
  10. In Blue, what exactly does it mean when you say that “[f]amilies who decline to make selections will be assigned to a school by the school system based on the overall intentions of the plan”?
  11. In Blue, why do you need to run two selections in one spring? Who besides new entrants can participate?
  12. In Blue, do you intend to publish information about the percentage of applicants who got their first choice and the percentage of students at each school who were enrolled because they satisfied each of the priority criteria?
  13. In Blue, how are the choices for each address derived?
  14. In Green, what are the new assignment areas for each school?
  15. In Green, what does it mean that no school will have proficiency levels more than ten percent below the system average? Proficiency in what? Weighted how? Will you publish this number for each school?
  16. In Green, what does “a more flexible and transparent transfer process” mean?
  17. In Green, what exactly will be the formula for determining whether the school has “historically high achievement”?

* * *

If one of these plans is adopted, and you have a rising kindergartener for whom you need to make a choice, you will probably want to ask these questions also:

  • Do you like you feeder pattern?
  • In Blue, how likely are you to get a traditional or year-round choice if you try?
  • In Blue, do you live within the walk zone of your favorite school? If so, you’ll probably get it.
  • In Blue, if you don’t live in a walk zone, do you like your closest school, where you also have a preference?
  • In Blue, if you like your nearest school, how crowded is it?
  • In Blue, if you live in a low performing area, what will your “achievement choice” school (or schools) be, and do you like them?
  • In Blue, if you live in a low performing area, do you like your closest school?
  • In Green, do you like your base school?
  • In Green, if you want your calendar alternative, do you like it?
  • In Green, who else will be attending your base school?

Conclusion

As noted above, both Blue and Green address many of the complaints about the old assignment system. To choose between them, we really need answers to the system-level questions above. But right now, it does not look like Blue does enough to assign students in a way that will promote student achievement. Under Blue, schools in areas of concentrated poverty, high minority populations, and/or high concentrations of low achieving students will be poor, racially isolated, and filled with low achieving students. That’s not right, and it’s not unavoidable.

On the other hand, Blue is more efficient, has a fair chance of increasing parent satisfaction, offers the best opportunity to move past polarizing assignment debates in the future, and could be improved in the manner suggested above.

If they improve Blue to give the kids from low achieving areas a fair shake, I say go Blue. If not, stick with Green until they come up with something better.

If you spot any errors in the post or have any questions or comments, please contact me using the feedback page.

Sunday
Apr032011

Bad Arguments

WCPSS recently responded to the United States Office of Civil Rights in connection with an ongoing investigation of reassignment decisions from Spring 2010. Some shoddy arguments were made in that response. Because the reassignment process has slowed, I decided to postpone my final post on the Wake School Choice Plan to address this topic.

I will not address every misstatement and bad argument recounted in the response. Because of the way the law works, the response recounts some misstatements and bad arguments by individual board members to show through their public statements that they did not intend to discriminate against black and hispanic students. For this purpose, it is legitimate to recount misstatements and bad arguments. So while I have discussed some of these before, I will not focus on them here. Further, most of the arguments in the response, like the argument that the challenged actions have not disproportionately impacted black and hispanic students, are micro-level arguments against something called “disparate impact” that take advantage of the fact that the complaint has not been amended to include the latest round of 2011 reassignments, which almost certainly had a disparate impact on black and hispanic students. These arguments, right or wrong, fall into an “overtaken by events” category that makes them not so interesting outside the legal arena. 

Beginning on page twenty-four of the response, however, are a series of arguments designed to show that “a majority of the Board has reasonably concluded that the district’s use of SES as a student achievement factor has not resulted in marked educational benefits but has imposed unfair burdens on poor and minority students.” Whatever the Board majority may have concluded, and however reasonable it may or may not have been, the arguments themselves are not very good. It is these arguments that I address below.

1. No studies show that SES diversity has improved academic achievement for poor and minority students in WCPSS.

“No studies show that the absence of a meltdown at Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant has markedly improved public health in Wake County.” I’m not a big fan of sensationalist argument, but sometimes it gets the point across. The case against high poverty schools is not as strong as the case against nuclear meltdowns, but the fallacy of relying on the absence of a local study is the same in each case: there is no good reason to believe that things will turn out differently in Wake County than they have elsewhere. The diversity policy retards the growth of high poverty schools. High poverty schools have been studied extensively, throughout the nation, from a variety of angles and approaches, at different levels of rigor, and the answer is clear: avoiding them is a good idea. Individual high poverty schools succeed, but as a group, they are systematically less likely to produce good results for all demographic groups than their low poverty counterparts. Further, most successful high poverty schools require greater resources than their low poverty counterparts and/or rely on peculiarities of situation that cannot readily be replicated or scaled. 

2. Comparison to other North Carolina School Districts shows that the SES diversity policy has failed.

Some fairly comparable school districts, like Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and Guilford County, are now outperforming WCPSS in important ways. (NB: The WCPSS response overstates the case by highlighting only systems and metrics for which this is true.)

This does not mean the diversity policy has failed. While the comparison districts achieve better results in certain areas despite the absence of a diversity policy, you can’t use this to demonstrate that the diversity policy has failed. It may just show that whatever benefits the diversity policy has provided have, in the last few years and in certain respects, been eclipsed by some combination of things these other districts are doing right combined with things WCPSS is doing wrong.

To make a decent argument that the diversity policy has failed, you would have to show that some aspect of the diversity policy (or, conversely, the neighborhood schools policies of these other districts) actually caused WCPSS’s results to decline or the other districts’ results to improve. The paper does not do that, and it would be difficult to come up with an argument of this kind that is supported by data.

3. WCPSS student achievement data show that the diversity policy has failed.

WCPSS makes two arguments here. First, it points out that the proficiency of students receiving a free or reduced lunch on standardized tests is not “clearly” and “inexorably” correlated with the poverty level of the school. Second, it notes that minority students who attend magnet schools fare worse than minority students who attend nonmagnets.

The first argument means you cannot prove the diversity policy is working via the correlation between school poverty and the educational results for poor children. The correlations are too low, because many things, not just the poverty level of a school, determine how well it educates poor children. But it does not prove the opposite proposition, that the diversity policy provides no benefit. On that score, there is some suggestive evidence to the contrary. If you plot the reading proficiency of white, black, hispanic, and poor children against the increasing poverty levels of their schools, for example, you will see a consistent downward trend for all groups and a notable drop in the results achieved by the best schools at any given level of poverty.

The second argument, comparing the performance of minority students at magnets to minority students elsewhere, reflects the fact that the minority students in our magnet schools are more likely to be poor students—indeed, particularly poor students—than minority students elsewhere. This arises because most magnet schools are located in neighborhoods that are both poor and majority-minority, while most other schools are not. There could be something here, but unless you extract the Asian students from the “minority” category (because they perform as well as white students in WCPSS), then control for levels of poverty in the minority populations, the argument is worthless.

4. The SES diversity policy unfairly burdens poor and minority students.

Two distinct claims are made here. First, WCPSS points out that poor and minority students are more likely to endure long bus rides than their nonpoor, white counterparts and were more likely to have their magnet applications rejected. Second, it argues that longer bus rides show a “troubling correlation” with weaker academic performance.

The first claim is true. Certain poor and minority students pay a price in lost time and choice so that those same students and others can attend lower poverty, less racially isolated schools than they otherwise would. It is always legitimate to ask whether this is fair. It is hard to find an objectively right answer, but I would weigh most heavily the opinions of the communities most affected.

As for the second claim, there is a “correlation” between distance to base assignment and achievement, but it is not as “troubling” as the WCPSS response hopes you will think. Students who travel farther to their base assignments tend to perform less well because they tend to be poorer, and our poor students—like the poor students in every public school system—tend to perform worse, as a group, than the nonpoor.

There is a misperception here, often shared by both sides, that a long bus ride, by itself, could or should improve academic performance. Busing a child away from a neighborhood magnet school maintained at 40% FRL to another, more distant school at 40% FRL will not do this, because the child’s performance should be similar in both schools. What the bus ride does is permit the existence of a system of schools where poor and minority children do not have to attend a poor, racially isolated school.

5. Eliminating the SES diversity policy is unlikely to harm students because the Board majority has established new programs that will close the achievement gap “in other, more effective, ways.”

The Board—the whole Board, but led in some of its efforts by the “majority” identified in the response—has proposed changes in policies and programs that may help close the achievement gap. Some of them, like using objective and documented criteria for math and other program placements and using effectiveness data to place leadership teams and teachers, are likely to reduce the achievement gap. Others, like merit pay for individual teachers, are likely to be a waste of money (see here and here). Still others may be the right thing to do (e.g. reducing suspensions), but their likely effect on the achievement gap is unclear.

None of them has been shown to be more likely to reduce the “achievement gap” than a policy retarding the growth of high poverty schools. More importantly, however, these ideas are in no way inconsistent with the diversity policy. It is entirely possible to implement them without promoting the growth of high poverty schools, so they are not a valid argument against the policy.

Conclusion

In the WCPSS response to the Office of Civil Rights, crafted by lawyers, the above-mentioned arguments are carefully hedged. They are presented not to show their correctness, but to show that they were plausible enough for Board members to reasonably believe them. As you might expect, this subtlety has been lost on or ignored by some members of the Board and the press, who have presented these suspect arguments as conclusive proof of something they do not show.

I have attacked these arguments because they are bad arguments in support of a worse idea: the elimination of a policy that has retarded the growth of high poverty schools. Those who purport to be data-driven have a duty to use data to inform, not deceive. The response fails to do this, and we should condemn the use of these particular arguments by anyone who claims to be data-driven.

At the same time, WCPSS has lost ground in recent years when compared to fairly comparable systems. If the diversity policy did not fail us, other policies necessarily did. It is no answer to blame “growth” for this failing. Growth is a good thing for schools. Just ask Detroit. More importantly, growth is something that will one day return, whether it is good or not. When it does, we must have have a solid understanding of what we did wrong and how to do it better—despite growth—or we will be left in the dust. Some efforts of the ED Task Force are solid steps in that direction.