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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- How much will each plan cost?
- How will magnet seat numbers be changed at each existing magnet school?
- 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?
- What will the new guidelines for adding and removing magnet programs be?
- In Blue, does magnet application remain a separate process, or do you select magnets in your rank-ordered choices?
- In Blue, is the walk zone defined by crow’s flight or road mileage?
- In Blue, what is the exact formula for determining whether a school is an “achievement choice” school?
- In Blue, what schools are “achievement choice” schools for 2012?
- In Blue, which schools are “severely overcrowded” and how might the capacity audit change this before 2012?
- 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”?
- In Blue, why do you need to run two selections in one spring? Who besides new entrants can participate?
- 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?
- In Blue, how are the choices for each address derived?
- In Green, what are the new assignment areas for each school?
- 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?
- In Green, what does “a more flexible and transparent transfer process” mean?
- 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?
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.