This post takes a first look at the Wake School Choice Plan (WSCP).
The WSCP is a student assignment proposal by the Wake Education Partnership and its consultant, Michael Alves. The WSCP offers the Wake County Board of Education a compromise approach that might achieve some goals of the new Board majority while preventing the proliferation of schools where many kids are not proficient.
According to the plan document, the WSCP is built on four “pillars”: stability, choice, proximity, and student achievement. If you are not familiar with the plan already, you can find an overview of the plan here (and its details here).
My discussion will assume that you have read the above-cited executive summary, if not the whole plan. For that reason, I will not summarize the WSCP in the post but will instead look at the following four issues of concern to me (and, I hope, to you):
(1) Would it promote student achievement?
(2) Would it increase parent satisfaction?
(3) Would it use schools efficiently?
(4) Are there any superior alternatives?
In this first post, I take up only the issue of student achievement.
Would the WSCP promote student achievement?
I can think of two ways an assignment system might promote student achievement. First, it might create better learning environments for students by limiting the number of low achieving students at any one school. Second, it might provoke schools to compete for students in ways that promote academic achievement. I look at the WSCP from each of these angles below.
I will assume here that—all else being equal—a high number of low achieving students in a given school makes it more difficult for that school to educate its students. The point can be, and has been, argued, but I will not revisit those arguments here.
The WSCP rejects assignment decisions based on race or socioeconomic status, but it does include “student achievement” as one of its four “pillars.” According to the Executive Summary, designing schools where 70% of the children are at or above grade level is a “good target,” but “[a] specific achievement quota is not educationally necessary or operationally practical.” Systemwide, 71.9% of WCPSS students passed both the 3-8 reading and math EOGs in 2009-10, so it would be ambitious to set a 2012 goal of 70% student body proficiency for each school if the Board intended to allow any variance in achievement at all.
It may not matter. Despite the plan’s talk of proficiency targets and ranges, the plan does not appear to implement any. Instead, the WSCP focuses on the identification of “at risk” kindergarten students and assumes that distributing these students “proportionally” across elementary schools will be sufficient to distribute low achieving students, since predictable feeder patterns will distribute these kids all the way through high school.
The success of this approach depends on at least three contestable assumptions: first, that kindergarteners labelled “at risk” are highly correlated with low achievers; second, that the “at risk” kindergarteners can be efficiently distributed across schools; and third, that each feeder pattern educates the “at risk” populations with similar rates of success. Otherwise, things will get out of whack rather quickly, achievement-wise.
Given the importance of these three assumptions, the WSCP should have addressed them more carefully.
With respect to the first, the WSCP avoids a political “hot potato” by declining to specify how the “at risk” kindergarten students should be identified, calling only for “an informed and research-based determination” as to the school readiness of each child. The plan implies—but does not state—that this determination should look at the parent’s education, whether the child is being raised by a single parent, whether the child is poor, whether the child has limited English proficiency, and whether the child has a learning disability. Unfortunately, the plan does not discuss the correlations between this laundry list of factors and student achievement. Nor does it propose any answers to the hard choices that must be made about how to use this data (or any other data) to determine who is “at risk.”
With respect to the second assumption mentioned above, the plan does not discuss how difficult it will be to allocate what it calls a “proportionate number of seats” for at risk students at each school in an assignment area, given the other priorities of the plan and the way its lottery system works. Will choice and the lottery be overridden for low achieving students, once a school exceeds its “proportionate number” of low achieving students? Will choice and the lottery be overridden for low achieving students when a high achieving school is not chosen by enough low achieving students? These are hard questions for which I found no answers in the plan document.
Further, while each of the three large achievement area has a relatively equivalent number of low achieving students, the typical assignment choice—ten elementary schools closest to any given address, including at least two magnets and two year-round schools—do not. This seems to imply that achievement distribution will work only if some are not offered a choice of their ten closest elementary schools. If that is going to happen, or must happen to make the plan work, it should be discussed more directly.
Instead, it is addressed obliquely. The plan’s executive summary notes, without explaining, that the plan’s achievement goal “means the district’s current magnet school program must be retained. The measure of a magnet school’s success, however, will change significantly. Wake County’s magnet schools were created primarily to fill seats and create diversity. This plan suggests magnet schools be used to increase parental choice and improve student achievement.” Despite the claim, I don’t think it is really changing all that much. I think the WSCP needs magnets for the same reason the current system needs them—to make sure that you can fully utilize certain school facilities without overloading them with low achieving students. Without magnet student set-asides in most of the current locations, it would be hard to limit the proportion of low achieving students who attend those schools.
As for the third and final assumption identified above, the plan does not discuss how stable these achievement distributions might be as the kids progress through different feeder patterns. Even if each pattern is equally effective, educationally, the outputs may vary due to differential access to other educational options. Some feeder patterns may see more good students (or poor students) opt out for private schools, charter schools, or magnets due to the location of these alternatives.
If a plan like this were to be implemented, the Board should consider whether it will be sufficient to focus on achievement distribution at kindergarten and then forget about it, as the WSCP’s actual mechanics seem to propose. As far as I can tell, the plan includes only one mechanism for recalibrating the achievement distribution after the initial kindergarten assignments: the atypical student who rejects her current assignment or her “feeder pattern” to middle or high school and enters the lottery would receive a priority if she promoted “achievement level-diversity in [her] first-choice school.” But this priority does not come into play until the school has accommodated all feeder pattern students, all sibling applicants, all applicants who live within a mile and a half, all applicants applying to their nearest school, all applicants applying to their nearest uncrowded school, and all applicants applying to their nearest nonmagnet school. It is hard to see how this would have much impact.
Because this plan incorporates achievement interventions, it would produce fewer low achieving schools than a strict neighborhood schools plan. Because the achievement interventions are minimal, it would likely produce more low achieving schools than we have had in the past. Still, it might better address the problem of low achieving schools in areas like Garner, East Wake, and the “Rim,” where low achieving schools are not adequately addressed by the magnet program. Rigorously applied, it could even produce fewer low achieving schools than we have now, but this would require much more aggressive achievement sorting than it appears to contemplate.
Competition for Students
The nature of the plan requires students to choose a school, so schools are, in a sense, competing for students. Will this competition encourage schools to raise achievement? The plan assumes so. It argues that “nothing makes a school more attractive than high student achievement.” For that reason, "schools that are consistently under-chosen by parents will be targeted for school improvement measures that would make these schools more academically attractive."
I am skeptical of the claim that “nothing makes a school more attractive than high student achievement.” I think most people—not all, but most—avoid high poverty schools, low achieving schools, and racially isolated schools. Otherwise, I think they choose among reasonably good schools based on factors like programs, convenience, student peers, staff personalities, and facilities. I asked Mr. Alves about this, but he did not really answer me—he just said that folks expressed lots of reasons for choice that did not differ by race. But the reasons for choice are important, because if I am right, the competition may not center on achievement.
Furthermore, the competition for students under this plan seems like the proverbial pie eating contest where the prize is more pie. If you bring in more students, you get a somewhat proportionate increase in teaching resources and a more crowded school. The school that failed to bring in students is the one that gets the program enhancements.
Even that possibility seems suspect. WCPSS is not a system with 30% excess capacity, like those found in many urban settings. It is a system that will soon be able to fully utilize every school whether it is underchosen or not. Program enhancements may not be necessary to fill underchosen schools. Further, where will the money to make program enhancements come from? The proposal includes no price tag for these enhancements, implying that the enhancements would be minimal, would come at the expense of existing programs, or would constitute an undiscussed cost of the WSCP approach.
For these reasons, I think it unlikely that the type of competition promoted by the WSCP will promote (or undermine) systemwide student achievement.
To wrap up, the achievement “pillar” of the WSCP raises more questions than it answers. I do not think the choice aspect of the plan, by itself, will do much for achievement, for reasons just mentioned. But a plan that gives achievement any attention at all would, by definition, produce fewer low achieving schools than the strict neighborhood schools plan advocated by many. Much turns on how the Board would implement the fourth pillar of the WSCP, and the plan intentionally or inadvertently leaves that very vague. I do not think it was a service to do so, and vigilance is called for.
If you have any thoughts about the WSCP and its student achievement “pillar,” or the ideas expressed in this post, please contact me via the feedback link or email me at email@example.com. If there are enough interesting points raised, I will post some follow up discussion.
In my next post, I will look at the WSCP’s potential impact on parent satisfaction with assignment.