My Recommendations to the School Committee on Student Assignment
As we move into the final stages of school choice reform, I have focused on some specific issues that I'd like to see addressed as the school committee makes their final decision and BPS implements a new plan. Here are the recommendations I've made to the school committee.
Ask for more information regarding the “middle school feeder” proposal
While BPS proposed this change fairly early in the process, there was very little discussion of it by the EAC and no data was presented. For example, we do not know whether this change would concentrate low-income students or students of color in low-performing middle schools.
Children would be allowed to select a school outside their feeder pattern, but we do not know whether there would be any capacity in quality middle schools to actually allow this. It is possible that all of these seats would be filled by students who are guaranteed a place based on their elementary school.
BPS proposes to convert six more elementary schools to K-8 schools. However, the district currently has a shortage of seats at the lower elementary level. Each time an elementary school is converted to a K-8, elementary level seats are lost. How will BPS not only come up with enough new seats for incoming kindergarten students but also replace those lost to K-8 conversions?
One stated advantage of this plan is that elementary and middle schools could collaborate and improve continuity in the education of their students. However, in my experience very little collaboration between schools takes place currently. If this plan is adopted, systems should be implemented to ensure that schools will work together.
I do like the idea of more predictability and continuity for families whose children are moving from elementary to middle schools. My family has certainly been glad to have our children in a K-8 school. However, it is important that we fully understand the implications of this major change before it is approved.
Grandfathering is clearly very important to families. It will also be very costly and will lengthen the time it takes for the benefits of the new plan to be realized. I urge the committee to consider ways that the impact of grandfathering could be reduced. One possibility is to shorten the timeframe for grandfathering siblings. This would cause some hardship for families, but if they knew several years ahead of time that a sibling wouldn't be grandfathered they could at least plan accordingly.
Another idea is to encourage families whose children are being grandfathered to transfer to a school in their new choice list. BPS could give children who are currently grandfathered into a school outside their new choice list priority to transfer to a school in their new list. Also, schools could be given an incentive to recruit these students. For example, an additional allocation of funds could be made for one or two years for any student who transfers from outside his or her current choice list. Schools could be given list of these students to allow them to contact them and let them know they could have priority to transfer to a school that is on their new list.
Elements of the quality measurement
Almost everyone agrees that the current measure of quality used by the EAC is insufficient. BPS should consider adding:
- Principal evaluations
- Teacher evaluations
- School climate surveys
While teacher and principal evaluations have apparently not been done reliably in the past, school climate surveys of students, parents, and teachers have been done for several years. The EAC looked at using school climate surveys, but found that response rates were so low at some schools that the data could not be used reliably. Schools should be encouraged to increase response rates by tying these rates to a small amount of funding.
The Hurley school got great return rates for a survey they conducted by offering very inexpensive prizes to students who brought in surveys filled out by their parents. While it might be expensive to bribe parents (say with $10 gift cards), it can be very cheap to bribe kids with cheap items bought in bulk. At the Hurley, kids who turned in the survey received a prize. Other kids saw the prizes and got their parents to fill out the survey so they could get one, too.
There could be many other ways to measure quality. The EAC created a definition of quality that is an excellent starting point. Unfortunately, only academic performance as measured by MCAS is currently being used.
Institutionalize the release of data to the public
One of the great things to come out of this process was the large amount of data released by BPS. In their final recommendation, the EAC called for the district to continue this transparency. While the raw data released is not of use to most members of the general public, many individuals and groups have used this data during the process. This includes MAPC and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. I also provided some analysis and visualizations on this site. The end result was that both the public and policy makers were much better informed during this process. Continuing and expanding the release of district data will undoubtably assist as the focus now turns to improving quality.
I recommend that a committee be established to work with BPS staff to set policies and procedures for releasing data on a regular basis. This committee could be a sub-committee of the proposed quality task force or a separate committee.
Move the end of the first registration round later
One obstacle to an equitable assignment plan is that many families apply after the first registration round. Data show that these children are more likely to be low-income and children of color than those who apply in the first round. They are also less likely to be assigned to high-quality schools (more information in Appendix B of this MIT presentation).
Currently, the first round runs from early January through early February while the second round runs from early February through mid to late March. In 2011 around 80% of students applied for K2 in round 1, around 12% in round 2 and the rest in subsequent rounds.
To help remedy this problem, the first assignment round should be extended at least through the end of February and ideally a week into March. Given the technology available, it should be possible to run the lottery very quickly once the registration period is over so families should still be able to get their assignments by mid-March when most charter and private schools send results to parents.