Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lost in the School Choice Maze

Charter schools are selective.


In fact, by law, charter schools cannot be selective in any way.  This is in marked contrast to the regular public school system, where the best schools (like Stuyvesant in NYC) are highly selective – for more on the crazy, complex, heart-breaking process of trying to find a good public high school, see this in-depth article in today's NYT (below and at  Here's an excerpt:

Eighth graders are asked to apply to up to 12 schools in order of preference; high schools then rank applicants without seeing where the students ranked them. (This does not include the nine specialized high schools that require separate entrance exams or auditions.)

In some cases, the borough or the district where a student lives gives residents priority. Thirty percent of the city's schools — usually the most coveted and, therefore, the most competitive to get in — use a screening process with their own criteria: seventh-grade standardized test scores, grades and attendance, plus open-house visits, essays or exams.

The competition at many of those top schools meant long-to-impossible odds. Baruch College Campus High School, with a 100 percent graduation rate, received the most applications from across the city: 7,606 for 120 seats, giving it an acceptance rate of about 1.6 percent (Harvard, by contrast, accepted 6.2 percent of its applicants.)

…"We can't emphasize enough for parents to maximize their choices," he added. "We can't tell you how often they apply to one or two schools. Ultimately, you are competing with several thousands of candidates, and your child may be a bubble candidate."

Some schools will eliminate a candidate based on poor attendance or on a record of more than 10 late days. Radcliffe had five absences and was late 19 times in seventh grade. He said he took the city bus alongside commuters who routinely pushed him aside in line and left him waiting for the next one. But neither he nor his parents realized they could explain his circumstances as an unofficial part of his application.

Even though a computer sorts the information, the process also involves a high degree of diligence and strategy from students, parents and guidance counselors, going beyond submitting raw data and showing raw potential.

Ivie Bien-Aime, the parent coordinator at Radcliffe's school, said parents had to be aggressive early in the process, choosing appropriate schools and visiting them. "There's a grooming phase," Ms. Bien-Aime said. "I tell parents to go to meetings, to open houses, call the principal, let them know you are interested. If they don't see your face, you'll be just another number."

Information drives any choice system in the marketplace, said Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. In the high school admissions process, information really is power.

"The upper-middle-class families have more of it; they can look at mavens who have gone through the process and can tell others how to game the system," Dr. Levin said.

Sean P. Corcoran of New York University and Dr. Levin conducted a study, "School Choice and Competition in the New York City Schools," that showed black and Hispanic students in the city in 2008 tended to rank better-performing schools outside their neighborhood as their first choice, but more often ended up being accepted at local schools more like their middle schools.

It was impossible, Dr. Corcoran said in presenting the findings last month at a New School panel, for every student to go to a school better than his or her middle school, since there were only a small number of competitive high schools.

Still, Dr. Levin said they found the department's system far more equitable than it had been. "We're never going to make it more level," he said. "What we have to do is make it more nearly level."

Clara Hemphill, founding editor of and a longtime observer of school choice, says the problem is a fundamental one: There are not enough good schools. "The big gap is in good schools for the average student," Ms. Hemphill said. "I spoke to kids this year who had a 92 average and all 4s who didn't get matched anywhere, even though their choices were reasonable," she added. "School choice by itself doesn't fix schools. Even if we gave everybody perfect information, it wouldn't solve the problem."

The only good news in this article is near the end, when it profiles one of the hundreds of new high schools NYC opened under Bloomberg and Klein, as a result of their courage in closing down large high schools that were dropout factories:

At the supplemental-round fair, Radcliffe and his parents met Rashid Davis, the dynamic 40-year-old principal at P-Tech — Pathways in Technology — a new school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, backed by a $500,000 commitment from I.B.M. and an agreement with City College to offer an associate's degree at the end of six years.

P-Tech gives priority to Brooklyn students and those who attend an information session. The day after the fair, the Saddlers attended a session for the school, which had 46 of 108 spaces open.

P-Tech is a prime example of the city's recent investment in small schools that focus on career-oriented education while it closes larger, struggling schools. P-Tech and the Academy for Health Careers will be at Paul Robeson High School, which is being phased out because of poor performance (it had a 50 percent graduation rate last year).

In the new school, Radcliffe and his parents saw opportunity, and he made it his first choice. "It's like the new baby coming around," Radcliffe said of the city's support. "They're going to look after it."


Lost in the School Choice Maze

Published: May 6, 2011

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