Had an idea for a new plan in the shower this morning


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So this morning in the shower I had an idea for a new student assignment plan. This plan would take Peng Shi's original Guaranteed Equal Access to Quality Plan and combine it with the BPS "no-zone" plan which has no choice element and basically assigns kids to the closest school with an available seat. One problem with Peng's original plan was that it involved a two-step registration process. First you would sign your child up for school but not choose a school. Later, BPS would provide you with a list of schools to choose from. This option removes that first step because there would be no choice. You would sign up and BPS would use an algorithm to assign you to the closest school possible while guaranteeing equal access to quality for all students.

Is this a good idea? No. If you look at the title of this post you'll see that I called it a new plan, not a good one. It would completely eliminate choice which I think is very unattractive to both the EAC and the community. It would also be very complex under the hood and hard to explain. And there's not much predictability about where your child might go to school.

So why have I wasted precious bytes to post this idea? Because I want to emphasize the fact that all of the conversation that's been happening around these plans is generating lots of new ideas. People are collaborating (I've been talking to Peng and to Ann Walsh from Connolly's office) and using each other's good ideas. We're really not at the end of this process, we're pretty close to the beginning. If we had more time there's no telling what we could come up with. Maybe even this lousy plan could generate some new ideas.

We. Need. More. Time.


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When I read things like "…all of the conversation that's been happening around these plans is generating lots of new ideas", "we're pretty close to the beginning", and "We. Need. More. Time.", it keeps bringing me back to an analogy (admittedly an imperfect one) with software development. Josh, I know you're a software developer so perhaps you'll appreciate it.

It feels like this process is trying to do something like Big Design Up Front. The BPS held a few rounds of community meetings before developing any plans, to gather their requirements. Then they put together some plans that attempted to meet those requirements, with the intention of moving forward with a final solution relatively quickly. What they didn't leave time for was iteration. We've all learned quite a bit throughout this process, and if the only ideas that get incorporated into the final plan are those that we came up with during the first few rounds of community feedback, we'll lose out on all of the great stuff that has happened since then.

Now, of course the analogy breaks down because the BPS can't really iterate on an actual implementation here - all we can do is model the proposed plans and make projections. But we can think of each proposed plan as an implementation and do our best to evaluate it and iterate. Unfortunately, as with so many software projects, we're coming up on a deadline that is compromising our ability to iterate. Let's hope the deadline can be adjusted to accommodate doing the right thing.

Josh Weiss's picture

Josh Weiss's picture

Chris, this is exactly right. Too much time early coming up with the criteria that would be used to craft a solution and not enough time to design and iterate over potential solutions. While you're right that they can't iterate on an actual plan, it's definitely possible to design a plan, run simulations on it, and adjust it (or toss it) based on the results. That's happening now but in a ridiculously compressed time frame.

I was impressed with the quality of dicussion at Tuesday's EAC meeting. It was a breakthrough. I'd suggest you give the process through Saturday and see if there isn't a pretty good proposal on the table by then.

You can rightly criticize the process so far, but it's far better to try to give what's happening now your focus for a few days.

The EAC is starting to clearly define how much of this is a political conversation and how much of this is just a math problem. The political conversation is defining the objectives, to get what's important laid out clearly. I think the EAC has done a pretty good job of hearing what people are saying. (Normally the really tough job would be balancing the objectives – like neighborhood vs. quality. But the choice element lets each family make that decision, which is why choice matters here and probably is the key to making a solution possible.)

The political conversation is also deciding what is *not* important – in math terms, removing any constraints that don't really matter. Defining the objectives and the constraints is the political conversation. The rest is just a math problem we can solve to best address the objectives – such as equal access to quality, and reducing distance.

And it turns out that the zones, the lines on the map, only limit the solutions. They don't add anything we can't build into a better proposal. They're not a productive part of the conversation.

There's a lot that could happen to a good plan once it leaves the EAC. ("When bad things happen to good proposals.") So the focus needs to be on (1) getting a good plan and then (2) making sure it gets implemented and monitored.

But – for the first time – I think there's a good chance of getting a very good plan – and moving on to the real issue, improving the quality and number of the schools.

Josh Weiss's picture

Josh Weiss's picture


I agree that the discussion was high quality. I'm really glad the EAC is looking at these plans from the community very seriously. I just feel like it will be hard to know how good any of them are by Saturday. Plus we could be leaving some great ideas behind by just not taking the time to develop them. Peng has come up with at least three plans in the last few weeks. I you give him another 60 days…

I'm also concerned that it will be a political problem to try to get a brand new plan through so quickly. The woman sitting next to me last night asked when the community was going to have a chance to review and give feedback on Peng's plan. Well, I guess it has to be some time after he's done with it and before 11/26 when they're due to make a recommendation. I'd hate to see a great plan get derailed because people feel (legitimately) that they haven't had a chance to weigh in on it.

But I will definitely keep working on getting the best plan we can under the current timeline. I am also much more optimistic after last night's meeting.

A question on time. After reading the BPS' report on public feedback from community meetings and the online surveys, it seemed to be a theme that the public needed more time to analyze and evaluate the plans, something that you both have echoed here. Do you think that it is feasible that the EAC or mayor's office would grant more time on this, after the mayor's bold call, and after Supt. Johnson got burnt on hastily putting forth her proposal a few years ago? I'm wondering if it is worth capitalizing on the political mandate now, especially since the most recent analyses from HGSE/MAPC suggest that the new plans, or a hybrid representing the best of them, do have the potential to address racial/ethnic equity in the district, as far as access to med/high quality schools and a reasonable transportation time to those schools.

Is the time right to take advantage of this opportunity, or wait?

Josh Weiss's picture

Josh Weiss's picture

I would argue that we need more time no matter what. We may need a month or two more, but it has to be more. If the EAC was happy with one of the plans submitted by BPS with only minor tweaks, I think we would have enough time. However, they really don't like any of the plans as submitted. They seem pretty much committed to a plan some kind of pairing (either zones or schools). This is a concept that was only presented to the EAC two weeks ago and hasn't been presented to the community at all (except for those crazy people who show up at EAC meetings).

The MAPC analysis shows a very modest improvement in equity for most of the plans but it really just shows that it wouldn't be worse. Also, that's a very cursory look. We know that walk zones probably account for a lot of the inequity in the current system, but MAPC's analysis doesn't account for them at all.

This is just further reason to take more time. MAPC hasn't evaluated any of the pairing models which seems to be what the EAC is most interested in right now. And they want to look into the effect of walk zones but haven't completed that yet. The EAC has two meetings left before they make their final recommendation. One on Saturday to finalize what plan(s) they want BPS to analyze and one on 11/26 to make the final call.

Does this sound realistic given how much information is still needed to make these decisions? I certainly don't think so. Any delay might be politically damaging to the Mayor, but the EAC can do whatever they want and if they want more time, nobody can force them to submit a recommendation on 11/26.

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