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School Choice in Boston: Did it work?
Choice might not be the inequity antidote we want it to be.
Following up here on my post from a few weeks about the schooling dilemma my wife and I — and many other Philadelphia parents — face.
One potential solution to this equity issue is increasing school choice in Philadelphia — basically, eliminating the catchment areas that can inadvertently promote racial and socioeconomic segregation, and allowing families to attend any school of their choosing.
This is a radical idea that would likely be met with fierce opposition from parents in high-performing schools.
Would it work to create a more equitable school district, though?
One interesting proxy for this is Boston. In 2013, the city launched a revamped school choice process, the Home-Based Assignment Plan (HBAP), developed in part by researchers at MIT.
The process is fairly complex, but basically it uses an algorithm to compute four tiers of school options based on school quality and proximity to a family’s home address. Families rank their preferences and the system assigns students accordingly. When seats run out at a particular school, a lottery ensues. You can read more about it here.
What’s fascinating about the complex algorithm is that, according to analysis by the Boston Area Research Initiative, it hasn’t yielded the equity it sought to create — and may have worsened it.
Why? According to one of the researchers, Harvard Professor Nancy Hill, “…those living in predominantly low-income, ethnic minority neighborhoods had access to fewer high-quality schools among their options, compared to whites, Asian Americans, and those living in wealthier neighborhoods.” In other words, those living near the worst-performing schools had fewer good schools to choose from.
What’s more, she identifies a few characteristics of Boston that make HBAP particularly incongruent there: a high level of racial and economic segregation by neighborhood, more school-age children in black and Latinx neighborhoods, and high-quality schools concentrated in wealthier neighborhoods.
Those same characteristics exist in Philadelphia — and in most large, urban centers in our country — meaning a similar system is unlikely to yield much relief to the families that need it the most.
So what then? Professor Hill argues in the above piece for a very simple-yet-difficult solution: more high-quality schools. “Rearranging school assignments without increasing the number of high-quality schools merely rearranges who has access to high-quality schools and who is left out,” she writes.
Though she goes on to list the characteristics of high-quality schools, she does acknowledge that replicating them is challenging and resource-intensive. Indeed it is. I’ve spent the last five years of trying to turn an underperforming neighborhood school into a high-quality option for our families (whose children are mostly students of color), and while we’ve made great progress, there is a lot more work to be done before we’d compare ourselves to the “high-quality” schools in Philadelphia (who serve mostly, well, you can guess).
On a related note, yesterday (a rough day in our house delayed the newsletter’s (blog?) publication) was the 67th anniversary of Brown v Board. Strange to think that we’re still struggling to desegregate schools all these years later.
Have a great week, and thanks for reading.