Questions for BPS about student assignment proposals


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As I listened to BPS's presentation on the latest student assignment proposals last night, I made a list of several questions. Below is a list of items that I think we need answers to in order to better understand the impact of these proposals. I've already received answers to some of these which I've included in bold in case others have the same questions.

  • Is it possible to use walking or driving distance instead of “as the crow flies” to calculate how far schools are from people's homes? In many cases the actual distance is not meaningful. Charlestown and East Boston are extreme cases, but others abound (opposite sides of Franklin Park, e.g.). This is more important when distance is used to create a choice menu. Also, won’t we will see more transportation savings if we use this measure? I spoke to Peng about this because I know he's been using Google Maps walking or driving distance in his analyses. He says BPS is resistant to this idea. They're concerned that Google changes directions based on road closings or for other reasons and results may be inconsistent. These are valid concerns, but I'd like to see them look into better ways to deal with this.
  • There was talk at the meeting about how often BPS should change choice lists based on quality and capacity. Has there been any analysis of prior years to look at how much choice lists would have changed based on past capacity and quality shifts? Peng has not done this but agrees it could be done.
  • Why are there more Tier I/II schools than Tier III? Is the percentile based on seats, not schools?
  • Has there been further discussion on changing the walk zone mechanics? It’s important that everyone understand that 62% of students assigned in round one are from the walk zone so we’re getting more than 50%, not less. Also , walk zone seats would go up under any of these plans no matter what. It seems like BPS still wants to make this change. I made the point at the meeting that it's not necessary and there was a lot of discussion at the meeting.
  • Can we see these analyses of the plans:
    • By Socio-economic group
    • By Race/Ethnicity
    • Chances of children in different groups and neighborhoods getting a Tier I seat, chances of getting Tier IV seat.
    • A map similar to previously produced showing distribution of quality seats throughout the city for the current plan and proposed plans. It sounds like this will be part of the full technical support which should be available soon.
  • Are comparisons to current plan also based on only 1st round offers or all students? BPS says yes, but I'd like to confirm that this is true for all comparisons.
  • When will we see the full technical report? BPS was asked this by an EAC member but didnt' have an answer.
  • Under the Middle School Pathway, BPS says that parents could apply for seats in other Middle Schools, not just the school their elementary school feeds into. Which schools could parents apply to? There doesn’t seem to be any plan to give families choice lists of middle schools. Also, what about kids who are grandfathered? If my child is in 4th grade in a K-5 now, can he or she attend the middle school that school feeds into even if it’s not close to my home? If not, which middle schools can I choose from?

If you have more questions for BPS or if you have the answers to any of these, post them in the comments.


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Some questions I would love to have BPS answer are the following:

How will students be administratively assigned in the new proposals? Will everyone have an equal chance at being assigned to under performing schools?

Will the walk zone be considered in the new overlays for special education students and ELL students? Also is there the possibility that the overlay will be adjusted to better match up with the final assignment plan that is chosen? It seems problematic that a family might have very different choices of schools going through the lottery or having BPS schools assign them. The current system isn't ideal but at least the schools are the same.

Thanks Josh!
Lisa Jeanne Graf

Josh Weiss's picture

Josh Weiss's picture

Good questions, Lisa. I would assume that administrative assignments would be handled the same ways. Not everyone would have an equal chance of being assigned to a low performing school, but it would likely be more equitable than the current plan which we know performs poorly. We'll have to wait to see the full analysis before we know for certain.

Good question about the overlays. Unfortunately, these have not been discussed in detail so it's hard to know. Peng actually suggests using a version of his new plan for assigning ELLs and students with disabilities (see page 12 here:…). I think it's worth further investigation, but there's been very little time to discuss options for ELLs and SWDs.

Hi Josh,

I would like to respond to your fourth bullet point since it directly relates to my 01/14/2013 EAC meeting presentation. First of all, I shall indicate that this is my personal point of view as a researcher and it is entirely independent from the position of BPS.

I personally find maintaining a system which on the one hand gives priority to walk-zone students in 50 percent of the seats and yet on the other hand produces an outcome virtually identical to an alternative system without any walk-zone priority. My position is entirely based on a transparency argument. Clearly a system which gives priority in half of the seats to walk-zone students creates the "impression" that students have increased odds of receiving a seat in their walk-zone schools in comparison to a system without any walk-zone priority. As I have shown at the 01/14/2013 EAC meeting, this is not currently the case because of the walk-zone mechanics. The observation that more than half of the students are assigned to a walk-zone school despite the "watered down" role of the walk-zone priority does not change this point about transparency. Nor the observation that under any of the new zone plans, walk-zone fraction at schools is expected to increase. As such, I would argue that if the city would like to do away with walk-zone priority, it shall do so by openly abandoning the walk zone priority and not by using a mechanics which "de facto" eliminates walk-zone priorities even though on the surface it appears as if it maintains it. So what I am advocating is transparency and not to what extent walk-zone priority shall be part of the system.

One final point: One might of course consider the elimination of the walk-zone priorities. However it should also be considered that entirely giving up walk zone priorities might have implications well beyond the student allocation. For example such a policy change might potentially have an effect on the housing market.

Hope this is helpful.

Best regards

Tayfun Sonmez

Josh Weiss's picture

Josh Weiss's picture

I see your point on not having a policy that's not having a significant effect. I think it would make the most sense to drop this priority completely rather than keep it as is or change the mechanics.

We'll need to see the full analysis of the proposed plans to get a better idea of how they affect walk zone assignments, but I do feel like priority won't be needed in order to have a significant majority of kids attend walk zone schools.

As for the real estate market, I'm not too worried about it. I don't think the schools have much impact on the market now because there's not enough predictability. And I'd like to avoid a situation where school quality drives real estate prices because that will force low-income families out of neighborhoods with quality schools. Of course, better quality across the board would alleviate all of these problems .

I meant to say the following in the first sentence of the first paragraph:

"I personally find maintaining a system which on the one hand gives priority to walk-zone students in 50 percent of the seats and yet on the other hand produces an outcome virtually identical to an alternative system without any walk-zone priority to be problematic."

Sorry about the incomplete sentence.

Tayfun Sonmez

All the questions need to be answered, but there's one big question: walk zone priority. It's been lurking for a year, and never addressed. Why not? Think about that. There is and has to be a set of reasons. Good reasons, as we are dealing with many very capable people here. Why haven't we talked about it? Why can't we talk about it?

I'm not sure many people have really asked themselves that question in a serious way. I think you might find some answers if you asked yourselves that question. Or ask youself this - what is it that you have missed so profoundly and completely?

At the simplest level, you seem to be rather glib about the idea that one group should simply give up something they perceive as an very large advantage just because you told them they should. It's going to be a lot harder than that.

A few things to think about:

1) This is incredibly complex. It's fair to say even after all this time, hardly anyone - if anyone - really understands all of this. Even the MIT whiz would tell you (I hope) that while he knows many things, there are many things he doesn't - he isn't a parent, and he isn't an elected official in Boston.

So imagine what the average person thinks. I am sure many tend to think, "I don't understand any of the [twenty or so?] insanely-complex poorly-explained half-baked plans that have been presented, but I know if they preserve walk zone priority, I'll be OK." It shouldn't be that hard to understand that point of view.

What that really means is that we haven't had the time to figure out how to explain the new plan in a way that people understand. The zoneless models are really good, better than we could have hoped for six months ago. But us believing that isn't what matters. We have to be able to explain it and convince people.

And it can be explained. But first BPS has to realize that they have the responsibility of finding a way to explain it, to approach this in a new way. BPS has to understand that they owe that to both the people of Boston and the EAC.

2) In addition to plain confusion about the facts and the plans, there are genuine differences of opinion. Some of the easier ones have been resolved by the EAC process - which is a big accomplishment, to bring together so many different viewpoints and accomplish what they have. But, of necessity, some of the fundamental differences in viewpoints have never really surfaced, much less been discussed and any consensus reached. That is part of why walk zone priority hasn't really been discussed.

Some of it is just plain different points of view. That would take pages in itself, so we'll have to skip that for now. If you can't quickly think of what those pages say, then you aren't really as well informed as you need to be to tackle these questions.

Some of it is some form of prejudice.

Much of it is not. Is it possible to ask about our fears around very well intended ideas with tragic and truly heartbreaking unintended consequences? (Do I really have to explain what I'm referring to?) Is it safe? Honestly, no, it's not. That's part of why we don't talk about it.

- Professor Sonmez, you can say all day long that walk zone priority doesn't matter, but haven't demonstrated it. If you want to convince the people who now have walk zone priority to give it up, in fairness you have to prove it. Take on that challenge, work with BPS and the EAC to figure out how to explain it. It will be very rewarding and you will probably learn some interesting things.

And more importantly, if you can prove that walk zone doesn't matter that much; if we can explain that the zoneless plans can work, and will get better over time, and will support improving the quality of the system - Boston may have found a way to cut loose the chains that have kept BPS and the City trapped in the past.

I am not sure whether you were present during my 01/14/2012 dated EAC meeting presentation or you have followed the algorithm discussion which is very well summarized in one of the earlier blog posts here. Reading your message I came to the conclusion that perhaps that may not be the case.

My post above simply says the following: Even though currently there is walk-zone priority in 50% of the seats of each school, there is also an unintended (and previously unknown) disadvantage for walk-zone students in the remaining 50% of the seats which results in a situation where the system produces an outcome that is very close to one with no walk zone priority. We have shown how this unintended disadvantage to walk-zone students in the remaining 50% of the slots can be either reduced or fully avoided.

At no point I or any of my co-authors promoted giving up walk-zone priority nor we promoted embracing it.

Hope this is helpful.

Part of the thing that drives me crazy about the walk zone is it is a pretty gutless way to deal with the issue of weather people should be going to schools near them or not.

Either having people go to schools near them is important or not. If it is then we should not subject that to a lotto that waters it down, if it is not then there is no need for a walk zone. I am totally with you that probably the reason for this half measure is to allow us not to have the real debate. It is basically a compromise that makes it so people who live near a good school have no certainly and people who don't do not have an equal chance of getting into a better school, basically the worst of both worlds.

That being said, if you are like me and think neighborhood schools are importent, then it is better then nothing.

I have a few things to say, but here is the most direct question:

On page 12 on Ping's proposal he says this:

One possible concern of the above is that lowest performing schools situated in areas of low socio-economic
status may have higher proportion of student population with low socio-economic status, since the students
are only coming from the neighborhood. However, this can be countered to some extent by investing in
the school to expand capacity to be a "capacity" school, which allows it to receive families from further
away, and thus may provide some socio-economic balance.

My question is, does he or anyone else think this is really a realistic solution to solving the problem of the lowest performing schools in his system getting stuck there? Does he really expect that INCREASING capacity at the worst performing schools in the hope that it will force more people from further away to go there is going to work?

The BPS has said that they have and (I think) will be adding capacity at the better performing schools. That makes more sense and is what I assume will actually happen.

Also, they probably need to change the terminology for "capacity schools" since it doesn't actually mean schools that have spare capacity, or are the worst schools. According to Peng, they are just the ones that are relatively easier to get into. In some cases there are schools with waiting lists on the list of "capacity schools."

In a broader context has anyone really thought out the behavioral ramifications of creating a selection system that it explicitly based on there being a top 25, next 25 and bottom 50 percent of schools? The more I think about this system (especially without walk zones as it seems like is being suggested) the more it seems like it would condem whatever schools are in the bottom 50 percent into entering a form or organizational death spiral. Almost by design there always have to be 50% of schools failing in the system at any one time, and thus a similar percentage of kids in them.

I know this will result in a lot of eye-rolling from the people involved in this process, but let me speculate on what might happen if you applied such a system to a town with well regarded schools such as Newton. My proposition is that such a system would over time result in even a quality system such as Newton being destroyed, never mind applying it to a system already in trouble like Boston. Tell me where I am wrong here…

Lets say that Newton (or suburban town X if you prefer as I might be getting some of the details wrong here) has 12 elementary schools and they are acceptable by pretty much anyones standards (MCAS wise), but are not all exactly the same, some are slightly better then others. Right now people are just assigned to the school closest to them, but lets apply a "home" system where you get a choice of 2 of the best 1/3 of schools, 2 of the next 1/3 and 2 of the bottom 1/3, no walk zone preference.

Now that you have specifically divided the schools into good, OK and bad, I suspect that you would find that a lot of, if not most, people are going to be biased to ranking the schools in that order when they make their selection, even if in the past they would have been OK with the school they automatically got into. After all, why not ask for the best if it is being offered to you? Why get a 16 Oz soda when the 48 Oz one is the same price? Its the American way.

Anyway, now that most people in town select the "best" schools first, obviously the people who get put into the "worst" schools (keep in mind they were all OK before) are not likely to be very happy about it. You are also now busing all the kids all over town and no one goes to school with the kids in their neighborhood, and this makes it all the more importent that you just pick the best school, since all the kids are going different places anyway. At least some of the parents of the kids who are now put in the worst schools are bound to try to work on getting out, after all, it really stinks having your kid go to the worst school in town. So, some people go to private school, others move to another town where they don't have this problem and some wait for their younger sibling to get luckier in the lotto. Either way moral is bound to be pretty low at the school and you would think that parent involvement is going to be pretty low when a lot of people are not happy to be there and are trying to get out.

So, next year MCAS comes out and guess what, the "worst" school is now worse then it was the year before and now people have good reason to be concerned if they get assigned to it. Rince and repeat a few more times and now you probably do have a pretty bad school. Maybe eventually you can close it down and move another school into the bottom tier. In any case, how does this school ever escape?

I am missing something here? I would be concerned with the dynamics of a system like this in Newton, never mind a troubled system like Boston. Not to mention the kids who have no way to get out of the school that are thrown in the bottom tier are going to be the ones that do not have the means to get out. I don't get how that promotes equality.

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