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Posts about School Choice


What do parents want? A good school, not too far, and some other kids that look like them

Rich or poor, black or white, a family's decision of where to enroll their child in school is one of the most important, gut-wrenching, and revealing choices they can make. In DC, parents can choose from over 200 charter and district schools. By analyzing that data for a recent study, we were able to shed some light on what drives parents' choices.

Images from the study.

What we analyzed

As in other cities, any DC student in kindergarten through grade 12 has a right to attend a neighborhood public school based on his or her home address. But students can also enter a lottery for an open spot at any neighborhood school or public charter school in the city.

In 2014, DC moved from separate lotteries for each school to a common system, MySchoolDC, where applicants rank up to 12 schools. A random lottery process chooses which students get the spots at any school which has more applicants than spaces.

In a recent study for Mathematica Policy Research we had the opportunity to analyze over 20,000 rank-ordered lists that parents submitted in 2014, the first year of the unified lottery. We combined these lists with data describing characteristics of the students and their families, the schools themselves, and information on household and school neighborhoods, including crime and demographics.

This allowed us to estimate the importance parents place on different school attributes, including commuting distance, transit access, test score proficiency rates, programmatic offerings, the school's racial-ethnic composition, the percentage of disadvantaged students, school neighborhood characteristics, and a variety of other factors.

DC is a city of liberal values and unconscious biases, of racial diversity and racial tension, of rich and poor, newly arrived and long-time residents. Parents' individual decisions add up to collective social outcomes, patterns of racial and class composition, that have lasting effects on the social fabric of DC.

Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote a moving piece in the New York Times capturing these themes as they played out in her gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. The same issues come into stark relief in DC.

What parents value when choosing schools

The analysis suggests that parents do prefer schools close to home, but (not surprisingly) they are willing to tolerate a longer commute to a school with higher test scores.

The preference for academic performance was quite strong: if two schools were identical in every way except for their "tier" rating, parents would travel an average of seven miles for a school in the highest category over one with the lowest.

Academic performance was not the only factor. We also found that parents choose schools based on the race and income of students, but did not weight that as strongly.

Parents tend to rank schools higher if there are more students in the same racial or ethnic group as their own children. But the strength of this "own-group" preference differs by grade level, the applicant's race/ethnicity, and the percentage of a school's students in the child's own group.

If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.

In short, parents on average seem to want their children to not be in the vast minority at their school, but as long as there are some students of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds, this stops being a priority. (More detailed results are available in the technical paper here).

The analysis found that typical middle school parents would be willing to send their children over two miles farther just to get from a school where 10% of students share the child's race/ethnicity to one with 20%. But if choosing between schools with 40% or 50% of the same race/ethnicity, they would only be wiling to travel a half mile more to school.

Does choice affect segregation?

One fierce debate in education is about whether school choice—the policy allowing families to select a school besides the local one—worsens segregation. Some people may opt out of higher-poverty schools or those with high numbers of racial and ethnic minorities. Does this entrench segregation? Or is the segregation already there in residential living patterns?

We compared the current levels of racial and income segregation in DC to alternative scenarios where everyone got his or her first choice (which would unrealistically require some schools to be far, far larger) and where everyone went to his or her neighborhood school (though in reality, not everyone would attend that school in the absence of choice; some families would move or choose private schools).

It turns out that the existing policy results in less segregation by race for middle schools than if every student simply attended the in-boundary neighborhood school.

What if everyone could attend their most preferred school (ignoring any space limitations)? This would not increase racial segregation. Rather, the analysis showed nearly the same amount of racial segregation as the current policy or perhaps slightly lower.

We repeated this exercise, but removed the lowest-performing schools as school choice options to simulate a policy that directs more students toward high-performing schools. In this case, we found again that racial segregation would not increase under these circumstances, but fall further, to a value of 68 on a scale where 100 is the most segregated and 0 is the least

In addition to racial segregation, we looked at segregation of students by income level (low-income versus non-low-income). using the same type of metric, this time with students who are certified as low-income versus all other students. The overall segregation level by income was only 41 under the current policy, but interestingly, that level is even greater than it would have been if students had simply attended their neighborhood schools.

However, we found that if everyone could attend their most preferred schools, it would result in segregation by income roughly equivalent to a policy of no school choice (32 points, just one point lower than with neighborhood schools).

These findings for race and income segregation looked slightly different for families applying to elementary and high school, where the context is different in terms of both the applicants and the diversity of schools they are applying to. For example, white and Hispanic families' own-race preference was stronger among applicants to elementary schools, as emphasized in a recent Slate article, than applicants to middle and high schools.

Nevertheless, choice policies that expand seats at popular schools were predicted to reduce segregation by both race and income in elementary schools. For high schools, neighborhood school assignment was predicted to lower both types of segregation compared to the current policy (school choice with a lottery for oversubscribed schools).

Again, choice with no cap on the number of accepted applicants and removal of the lowest-performing schools always results in the lowest indices of both race and income segregation (this assumes it would be possible to increase capacity at individual campuses).

What is consistent between all levels of school is that policies which let all students into their first choice (the two blue bars in the graphs above) led to the lowest segregation. For high schools, putting everyone into the neighborhood school (purple bar) also lowered segregation compared to the current policy.

Parents in DC are not race-blind, nor do they ignore the socio-economic status of their children's potential peers. But they also are sensitive to distance and indicators of academic quality. There are also numerous unmeasured determinants of choice.

Based on the data we have available, though, we don't see evidence that the worst fears of choice opponents are true. That is, we don't see evidence that school choice by itself worsens the level of school segregation produced by residential patterns.

However, we also don't see choice as a very powerful mechanism for voluntary desegregation. There remains much work to be done to understand the impacts of choice on equity and access to quality schooling for the most disadvantaged. We also need to better understand how disadvantaged families access information about school options.

The model in this study, however, provides a promising tool for leveraging data to predict the effects of policy changes on sorting of students across schools throughout the city.


How school choice can make it harder to solve the problems of poverty

For those who believe a system of school choice is the answer to our education woes, DC is a model for the rest of the nation. But the decline of the neighborhood school can make it harder to address the needs of poor children in a comprehensive way.

Photo from Bigstock.

DC is a bastion of school choice, with only about a quarter of students attending their assigned neighborhood school. Overall, 44% of DC students are in charters, which draw from across the District, and many go to traditional public schools that are selective or located in neighborhoods other than their own.

Proponents of school choice argue that this kind of competition among schools leads to an improvement in school quality overall. But in some gentrifying DC neighborhoods, middle-class parents working to improve their neighborhood schools have long criticized a system that makes it relatively easy for parents to send their kids elsewhere.

"DC has created so many escape hatches—you don't have to invest," one mother told the Washington Post as she was about to switch her four-year-old from her neighborhood elementary school in Logan Circle to a sought-after bilingual charter. "Maybe they've got to close those hatches."

DC's Promise Neighborhood Initiative adopts a holistic approach

School choice can also make it difficult to improve children's chances of success in low-income neighborhoods, as illustrated by the experience of DC's Promise Neighborhood Initiative. Part of a nationwide program, the DCPNI has been receiving $25 million in federal grants to saturate an entire troubled area with social services and investments.

The initiative focuses on the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC, where about half the residents live below the federal poverty line and nearly 90% of families with children are headed by a single female.

The area includes a charter middle and high school operated by the Cesar Chavez network and one DCPS elementary school, Neval Thomas. A highly regarded preschool program, Educare, has also located in the neighborhood. (There was a second elementary school in the area when the initiative began, but DCPS closed it shortly thereafter due to low enrollment.)

The idea behind Promise Neighborhoods is that just trying to improve the schools in a high-poverty area isn't enough, because the problems of poverty spill over into the classroom. DCPNI works with neighborhood families on a range of issues, teaching things like parenting skills and healthy eating practices and trying to build community engagement.

But the center of the model—inspired by the Harlem Children's Zone in New York—is the school, and the premise is that neighborhood children will attend schools in a given area from preschool through 12th grade.

That's not the case in Kenilworth-Parkside, where fewer than a third of the 1,600 students attend local schools. The rest are enrolled in a staggering 184 different schools around the District.

Schools in the neighborhood have gotten better. Neval Thomas now has an updated library and other amenities, and while test scores remain low, attendance has improved. And the Cesar Chavez campus earned high marks from the Public Charter School Board for the first time last year, with administrators crediting the tutors, new curriculum, and teacher training funded by federal Promise Neighborhood money.

But fewer than 100 of Cesar Chavez's 356 students came from Kenilworth-Parkside last year. And many neighborhood children aren't benefiting from the improvements at Neval Thomas because they attend school elsewhere.

DCPNI provides afterschool programs that are open to those kids, but it can be hard for them to get there on time if they're coming from schools in Northwest DC or if their schools have extended day programs.

The specifics of school choice may differ in gentrifying neighborhoods and low-income ones like Kenilworth-Parkside. But the end result in both cases is that many of the more motivated and engaged parents jump ship, ultimately leaving the neighborhood schools with a higher concentration of the most challenging students.

A neighborhood-based approach can make it easier to attack poverty-related ills

The children in Kenilworth-Parkside who go to school elsewhere may be getting a better education than those who remain, but they're not immune from the effects of poverty-related trauma. The schools they attend, whether charter or DCPS, usually aren't equipped to deal with the mental health issues they may bring with them, or to help their families acquire better parenting skills.

Some schools are trying to address these issues, but a community-based approach like DCPNI's would make it easier, especially when a school's families are far-flung. And a community-based approach stands a better chance of lifting the whole neighborhood, which may be the only way to lure some parents back to the neighborhood school.

"I don't want my kids going to school with neighborhood kids," one mother in Kenilworth-Parkside who sends some of her children to a charter told the Post. "People here have a lot of problems."

It's too late to dismantle the extensive system of school choice in DC, which has been expanded by the rise of charter schools but certainly existed before they came on the scene.

Lower-income families living east of the Anacostia River have long sent their children across town to more desirable DCPS schools. And higher-income families have always been able to exercise choice by moving to a neighborhood with better schools, either within the District or beyond its borders.

Restricting school choice at this point would be unfair to low-income parents who can't afford to move to a better school zone or district, and it could push middle-class families out to the suburbs.

But if we want to see improvements in all neighborhood schools—and if we want to know whether an all-enveloping approach like DCPNI's can work—we may need to modify our system of choice. One possibility that has long been discussed would be to allow charters to extend a preference in admissions to neighborhood residents.

As many in the charter community have argued, a neighborhood preference wouldn't be appropriate for all charter schools, and it shouldn't be forced on them across the board. But if a charter in a low-income area wants to set aside some of its seats for nearby kids who want to attend, giving the school that option could provide some of the benefits of choice without undermining the institution of the neighborhood school.

And neighborhood preference could make it easier to address the poverty-related ills that prevent poor children from succeeding in school and in life, while also benefiting a whole community. Education reformers like to defend school choice on the ground that a child's chances of getting a good education shouldn't depend on her zip code. But in the era of No Child Left Behind, school choice has left many zip codes as far behind as they've ever been.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


In DC's confusing thicket of school choice, there's a guide for those who need help the most

Families in DC have an abundance of school options. But many low-income families don't have access to the information they need to make good choices.

Photo of trees from Shutterstock.

Some argue that school choice will ultimately result in a better education system, as families gravitate to schools that perform well. The best schools will flourish, according to this view, and competition will force the lower-performing schools to improve. But for that system to work fairly, all families need the same opportunity to make an informed choice.

With DC's school lottery opening this week, many parents are beginning to consider their options for next school year. And there's no shortage of them: nearly half of DC students opt to attend a DC Public School other than the one they're assigned to, and 45% of DC students are enrolled in a charter school.

There's plenty of information about all of these options available online: DC Public Schools offers profiles for each of its schools, and the Public Charter School Board uses an evaluation system to place charter schools in one of three tiers.

In addition, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education publishes equity reports that allow people to compare DCPS and charter schools on a variety of measures. And the lottery website, MySchoolDC, consolidates information about schools and how to apply to them.

Wealthier parents often hire private consultants to help them navigate the thicket of choices. Many middle-class families at least consult a website like, which rates schools in various cities and displays comments from parents.

Parents with few resources face obstacles

Parents with fewer resources and limited access to the Internet may be just as overwhelmed, but they're less likely to have help. In fact, they're often not even aware they have choices. If they do, they may not know where to begin in evaluating them. They may not realize they can visit a school and ask questions, and they may not have the time for that in any event.

And for parents coming to DC from places where kids just go to their neighborhood schools, it can be particularly confusing. "People were talking about the lottery, charter versus [traditional] public, out-of-boundary versus in-boundary," says Dominique Small, who moved to the District from North Carolina a couple of years ago. "I was like, what?"

Help for low-income parents

For parents like Small, an organization called DC School Reform Now can be a godsend. For the past three years, DCSRN has targeted its efforts on low-income parents in Wards 7 and 8. Its staff guides them through the school choice process from beginning to end, helping them find a school that matches their needs and priorities.

DCSRN recruits families at several DCPS and charter schools, where it focuses on transitions from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. The staff also finds parents through preschools, homeless shelters, and community organizations.

The organization holds "movie nights" at these partner organizations, when it screens some of its 15 videos showing what various schools are like. These Virtual School Tours, which are also available on DCSRN's website, include interviews with principals, teachers, parents, and students. There are also scenes of classrooms, arrival and dismissal, lunch periods and recess, and transitions between classrooms.

DCSRN uses other kinds of outreach as well. Its executive director, David Pickens, personally knocks on doors in public housing projects where low-income families live.

Once a family signs up, they're assigned to one of DCSRN's Parent Advocates, who begin by asking what the family's priorities are. Usually, says Parent Advocate Erika Harrell, the top considerations are academics and transportation. Amenities like before- and after-care can also be important.

Parent Advocates then help families come up with a list of schools and fill out applications, usually over the phone. They remind them of deadlines, and DCSRN staff even transports parents to schools when it comes time to enroll. DC requires that parents complete the enrollment process in person.

Still, it's not always easy to connect students with high-quality schools. Families who sign up for DCSRN sometimes slip away, often because the phone number they gave was non-working or got disconnected. Harrell says last year she started with a caseload of 130 families and was able to get 85 to enter the lottery.

Overall, DSCRN recruited 769 families last year, but the number of students who actually enrolled in what it defines as a quality school was only 115. That's not just because of attrition; some students simply didn't get matched with a school they wanted.

And many families didn't get matched with a Parent Advocate in the first place, because DCSRN doesn't have enough funds to hire more than two or three, each of whom has a caseload of about 100 families.

School choice is here to stay, so we need to make it fair

Opponents of a school system based on choice argue that competition won't actually make all schools better. When families leave their struggling neighborhood schools, they drain resources and make it harder for those schools to improve. From that perspective, DCSRN is part of the problem.

While Pickens acknowledges that argument has some validity, he says DCSRN's focus is on getting each individual child the best possible education. And sometimes, he says, DCSRN is able to tell families their neighborhood school is actually better than it used to be and urge them to consider it. Generally, DCSRN doesn't favor charter schools over DCPS schools, or vice versa.

In the abstract, it may be debatable whether school choice is the best way to improve education. But the fact is, in DC, a system of choice is here to stay. And the only way to ensure that it's equitable is to try to provide busy families who have limited resources the same information that wealthier parents have.

If it hadn't been for DCSRN, says Dominique Small, "I probably would still be at my neighborhood school, and very disappointed." Instead, her two kids are at J.O. Wilson Elementary, which she says is "everything I was looking for, and then some."

Parent Advocate Erika Harrell's only frustration is that she can't reach more parents who need her help. "When I tell people what I do," she says, "they always say the same thing: Where were you when my kids were in school, because I would have loved to have had some help with this."


A school choice advocate argues for a student assignment proposal that no longer exists

An op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post expressed support for a "recently released proposal" that would shift DC from a system of neighborhood schools toward "a geographically broader school assignment process." But that proposal, which DC officials put forward in April, was abandoned months ago in favor of one that would keep neighborhood schools in place.

The op-ed, by the former chief executive of an education reform center in New Orleans, argues that neighborhood schools reinforce geographic patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation.

The author, Neerav Kingsland, suggests an enrollment system similar to that adopted in New Orleans, where schools serving kindergarten-through-8th-grade students reserve half their seats for neighborhood kids. The other half are open to students from all over the city. At the high school level, all seats are open to all students.

As far as the DC boundary proposals go, Kingsland seems unaware that this particular train has already left the station. Yes, the advisory committee charged with revising the student assignment system did put forward proposals in April that would have shifted away from a neighborhood school system to one in which choice and chance play a larger role.

But, as anyone who has been paying attention to this issue knows, those proposals precipitated a huge outcry of opposition from parents. As a result, the committee released a new proposal in June that embraced the idea of neighborhood schools, albeit with some redrawn boundaries.

Perhaps Kingsland, who apparently doesn't live in DC, can be forgiven for his obliviousness to recent events here. But it's surprising that Post editors were equally oblivious, given that the paper has reported extensively on the controversy over school boundaries.

These days the threat to neighborhood schools comes not from the boundary proposals but rather from DC's burgeoning charter sector. Charter schools, which now serve almost half of DC's students, have fiercely resisted the idea of a neighborhood preference in admissions. Kingsland does refer in passing to that threat, although he sees it more as an opportunity.

On the merits, Kingsland's argument against neighborhood schools underestimates the very factor that induced the advisory committee to back down from its initial proposals: parent opposition. He mentions parents' concerns about the downsides of a non-geographic assignment system—a lack of predictability, long commutes—but says they must be balanced against the segregation inherent in a neighborhood system.

But if middle-class parents dislike a non-neighborhood system so much that they pick up and leave, as many were threatening to do in DC, Kingsland's New Orleans model won't work. Even allocating 50% of seats to neighborhood children wouldn't necessarily provide parents with the guaranteed slots many want.

So instead of achieving the kind of racial and socioeconomic mixing Kingsland envisions, we could end up with a school system entirely composed of those who can't afford to escape it. In fact, that's more or less what DC's public school system did look like until fairly recently.

Kingsland also overlooks the kind of segregation that can occur in an all-choice system, where students tend to sort themselves into different schools based on achievement. That's what seems to be happening in Chicago, which has adopted an all-choice system for its high schools.

Reasonable people can disagree, of course, about the pluses and minuses of neighborhood schools. What they can't disagree about is the fact that the specific proposal Kingsland is advocating for no longer exists.


Parents need more than numbers to rank school choices

For many DC parents trying to choose a public school, facts about test scores and demographics aren't enough. They want to know what a school feels like. That information is available for many charter schools, but it's spotty and hard to find.

Photo by Marco / Zak on Flickr.

Parents often have to rely on hearsay about factors like school culture, workload, and student behavior when evaluating schools, or rely on relatively brief school tours. As a result, many gravitate toward the same handful of schools with too few open spots.

The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) used to include this qualitative information in its reports on schools. But now the board generally does it only once every 5 years. To be truly helpful to parents, this kind of evaluation needs to happen more frequently, for DCPS schools as well as charters.

With the advent of a common lottery, parents have to be more thoughtful than ever about the process of identifying schools for their children. That's because they need to rank their choices rather than just applying to a bunch of schools and then deciding later which one they like best. But how can they be sure that one school is better suited to their needs than another?

The limits of data

The My School DC website website provides information about schools so parents can compare data about academic achievement, demographics, and program offerings. Additional quantitative information is available at other sites.

But a school's test scores don't tell us whether a school is effectively implementing the curriculum it claims to use. Similarly, the number of suspensions doesn't tell us if there is a general sense of order or disruption in classrooms.

In my research about schools, I found one resource that provides a glimpse of what a good qualitative evaluation system could offer. The PCSB website includes links to annual School Performance Reports for each public charter school from 2008 to 2013 (with no reports posted for 2010). The reports from 2008 and 2009 were full of valuable narrative analysis. But the reports from 2011 to 2013, while graphically striking, were much less helpful.

Qualitative reports

Those older reports included paragraphs on Curriculum and Standards, Instruction, Assessment, School Climate, and Governance. The comments, based on two half-day visits by a team of consultants, were quite candid in pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each school's programs.

For example, the 2009 report for E.L. Haynes' elementary school found that science was one part of the curriculum where the school's mission had "yet to be realized." As a Haynes parent without a strong background in science, I appreciated this professional perspective. But because later reports didn't include this kind of information, there was no follow-up to reassure me or prospective parents that the situation had improved.

While they're helpful, the older reports don't always address inconsistencies or changes from year to year. The 2008 report on Washington Latin's middle school said that "safety and orderliness were not clearly in evidence," and "clear behavioral expectations were not enforced." The following year, though, the report said that the same school offered "a safe and orderly environment."

It's possible that the 2008 evaluators just visited Latin on two bad half-days (perhaps rainy days with no recess time), but the 2009 report suggests the school figured out a way to enforce its high behavioral expectations. That would have been good news for prospective parents—and even better if later reports of this kind existed to confirm it.

According to a spokesperson from the PCSB, one result of the shift from the narrative style of School Performance Reports to the quantitative style is greater uniformity and consistency across the reviews for all schools. But last year, the chartering authority began issuing Qualitative Site Review (QSR) Reports for schools whose charters are up for renewal at five-year intervals. Low-performing charters get shorter versions of these reviews yearly.

According to PCSB Deputy Director Naomi DeVeaux, the QSRs are primarily intended to help the schools in reaching their goals rather than to guide parents in their school choices. But the reports are available to parents who take the time to track them down.

The QSRs are tucked away under the Data Center/Oversight tab, far less eye-catching than the colorful link to the School Performance Reports on the home page. The PCSB takes even more care with the QSRs than with the old qualitative reports, basing them on school visits—many of them surprise visits—over the course of two weeks.

Because the reports are usually issued only once every 5 years, not every school has a current report. There is a 2014 report for E.L. Haynes, but parents looking for qualitative data about Washington Latin will have to wait until 2015, when its charter is up for review.

Expert observers

I find the QSRs informative and only wish something equivalent existed for every school on an annual basis. Professional evaluators have a valuable perspective because they visit and compare multiple schools and have knowledge that most parents lack.

Quantitative data is crucial in the current educational climate, but numbers and fancy graphics never tell the whole story. If qualitative reports were available about all DCPS and charter schools, every year, it would offer parents a meaningful way to rank their school choices in the lottery and perhaps give them the confidence to try out an unfamiliar school.

More importantly, such reports could drive improvement within schools so that all children will ultimately "win the lottery."


Montgomery's experiment with school choice really isn't

Each fall, thousands of 8th graders in Montgomery County participate in Maryland's oldest experiment in school choice, the Northeast and Downcounty consortia. Intended to prevent the school system's growing segregation, the consortia's 8 schools are not only more isolated than before, but academic performance has suffered.

SAT scores at the 3 Northeast Consortium high schools, Sherwood, and MCPS.

Since the 1970's, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has struggled to close the "achievement gap" between white and minority students and create more integrated schools. While officials had some success with magnet schools, in the 1990's, they sought a new approach with James Hubert Blake High School, which was being built near Olney.

Instead of redrawing the catchment boundaries, a long and controversial process, the Board of Education decided to let students integrate themselves by letting them choose between the new school and 3 nearby schools, Sherwood, Paint Branch and Springbrook. In 1998, the US Department of Education gave MCPS a $2.9 million grant to set up the Northeast Consortium.

From "controlled choice" to "preferred choice"

Each school in the consortium had a unique "signature program": Blake had fine arts and humanities, Paint Branch had science and media, and Springbrook had information technology. The schools would compete for students, making each program stronger and more distinct and hopefully discouraging them from leaving for private school. If the schools failed to integrate, a "controlled choice" program would take over, assigning students based on race and ethnicity.

A middle school bulletin board showing Northeast Consortium high school choices.

But Sherwood never made it into the consortium, due to parent complaints about the uncertainty of a new school and long bus rides. There were unspoken concerns about mixing students from Sherwood, which was predominantly white and affluent, with Springbrook and Paint Branch, which were poorer and majority-minority.

"Sherwood parents [were] afraid of their kids going to Springbrook," said Pat Ryan, a civic activist who helped plan the consortium, during a 2008 interview. "I talked to a lot of parents who said they moved to Olney because it's a predominantly white area and they wanted their kids to go to school with white kids."

While some neighborhoods in Olney were still redistricted into the consortium, MCPS created "base areas" for each school as a concession, guaranteeing that those residents could attend Blake. Officials called this "preferred choice."

The problem repeated itself with the Downcounty Consortium, which MCPS started in 2004 with Montgomery Blair, Albert Einstein, John F. Kennedy, Wheaton, and Northwood high schools. While the Board of Education originally considered including adjacent Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, parent outcry led them to drop it.

Schools unsuccessfully compete for middle-class students

Some Sherwood students resisted being redistricted, but school officials quickly noticed that Blake, the emerging top choice, was siphoning white and affluent students from Springbrook and Paint Branch.

The percentage of white students at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

To encourage a similar demographic mix at each school, in 2006 the Board of Education gave extra weight to the choices of students on free and reduced lunch (FARMS). A federal appeals court had declared the system's prior use of race in school assignments unconstitutional.

Immediately, the number of students who received their first choice fell. In 2002, every single kid in the consortium got their first choice, but only 85% did in 2006. Not surprisingly, parents and students were livid.

The percentage of students now or ever on free or reduced lunch at the 3 consortium high schools, Sherwood and MCPS over time.

But instead of becoming more integrated, the Northeast Consortium schools lost white and higher-income students, even as Sherwood's racial and socioeconomic mix remained steady. SAT scores plummeted in the consortium, but stayed the same at Sherwood.

To compete for a dwindling pool of middle-class students, each school began copying the others' signature programs. Here's what they offer today:

  • Blake: The arts, humanities and public service, science, technology, engineering
    and mathematics, business and consumer services
  • Paint Branch: Science and media, finance, engineering technology, child development
    and education, NJROTC, and restaurant management
  • Springbrook: International Baccalaureate, International studies, technology

  • Blake High School's jazz band, shown in 2009, is part of their signature program.

    Today, 97% of Northeast Consortium students get their first choice. With a new building that opened last fall, Paint Branch is now tied with Blake for first choice. But given very similar choices, students seem to end up at their base school, whether by choice or default. In 2008, 73% of students at Paint Branch came from that school's base area, compared to 59% at Blake and 58% at Springbrook.

    Were the consortia worth it?

    In recent years, county officials have questioned the value of the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which have neither improved academic performance nor provided socioeconomic and racial balance. That may have been less of an issue if Sherwood and B-CC had been involved, or if the "base areas" hadn't been added.

    I was in one of the first classes to participate in the Northeast Consortium, and I chose Blake, where I graduated in 2005. I had a great experience, and certainly a different one that had I been sent to my neighborhood school, Paint Branch. But it appears that less than 10 years later, East County students have very different choices.

    In 2009, the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight asked if the consortia, which cost over $3 million to run each year, were a good use of public funds. When she ran for office, Councilmember Nancy Navarro, whose district includes both consortia, said she's open to making them neighborhood schools again.

    But school administrators say that regardless of the consortia schools' demographics, they can be fixed. Next, we'll talk to MCPS superintendent Dr. Joshua Starr about his thoughts on integration, school choice, and his plans to turn around Wheaton and Springbrook.


    De facto segregation threatens Montgomery public schools

    Montgomery County Public Schools are often regarded as one of the best school systems in the nation, with schools routinely topping regional and national rankings. But as the county grows more diverse, MCPS is becoming a system of haves and have-nots.

    Percentage of students on FARMS versus percentage of white students in MCPS high schools.

    In recent years, MCPS has experienced dramatic demographic shifts. In 2000, MCPS was predominantly white. Today, 2/3 of its 149,000 students are racial or ethnic minorities. 42% have at one time received free or reduced lunch (FARMS), a measure of poverty.

    But those demographic changes haven't occurred equally across the county. Despite claims to the contrary, a look at MCPS' own data shows that who you are and where you live in Montgomery County is the best indicator of what kind of education you'll get.

    Increase in minority, low-income students concentrated in East County

    Nowhere has the makeup of MCPS changed more than in the Northeast and Downcounty consortia, which were established in the late 1990's in an attempt to promote racial and socioeconomic integration in the county's east side. 8th graders living in the Northeast Consortium are allowed to pick between Blake, Paint Branch and Springbrook high schools, while in the Downcounty Consortium, they choose between Einstein, Northwood, Kennedy, Wheaton and Blair, which is also a magnet school.

    Graph of changes in white and FARMS student population at each school.

    Over the past 15 years, they've experienced massive increases in low-income students and drops in white students. Today, the 8 consortia schools contain almost half of the county's black, Hispanic and low-income students in a system with 26 high schools. Minorities make up at least 75% of the student body at each school. Nearly 80% of students at Wheaton and Kennedy high schools are on reduced lunch, while 10% of the county's black students attend Paint Branch.

    The Northeast and Downcounty consortia and "Top White" school clusters. Click for an interactive map.

    Meanwhile, 6 top-ranked high schools contain a plurality of the county's white students: Sherwood, Bethesda-Chevy Chase, and the vaunted "W schools," Winston Churchill, Walter Johnson, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wootton. We'll call these the "Top White" schools.

    Black, Hispanic and low-income students are a small minority at "Top White" schools, and in the case of Whitman, almost nonexistent. While they've all lost some white students in past years, the proportion of low-income students barely changed.

    MCPS is growing, but white flight is occurring too

    To an extent, these changes reflect the demographic shifts of the county as a whole, which became a majority-minority jurisdiction for the first time in 2010. MCPS is also growing, and demographer Bruce Crispell estimates that as many as 85% of the county's kids attend a public school, compared to 80% in 2000.

    The proportion of white students in MCPS (solid lines) versus white kids living in the county (dotted lines).

    If more students are attending MCPS, one might assume that it would look more like the county as a whole. But the gap between how many white students are in MCPS and how many live here is large and growing. Between 2000 and 2011, the percentage of teenagers living in Montgomery County who were white fell from 60% to 54%, while the proportion of white students in MCPS high schools fell from about 50% to 33%.

    This suggests that white families either have left MCPS or moved to higher-ranked schools while other families take their places.

    Your income level determines the quality of your school

    Like most public school systems, MCPS school assignments are based on where a student lives. This results in what education analyst Michael Petrilli calls "private public schools": high-ranked schools that serve few or no low-income students because the surrounding neighborhoods are prohibitively expensive.

    Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda is a "private public school."

    According to local agency MoCoRealEstate, the median sales price of a home in the Whitman cluster was $860,000 last year. That's compared to $330,000 in the Northeast Consortium and $322,000 in the Downcounty Consortium.

    Home prices in each high school catchment versus the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch there.

    Though MCPS boasts a high graduation rate, just 74% of students at Wheaton graduate within 4 years, below state and national averages. 1 out of every 8 students at Wheaton and Northwood drop out each year. But nearly all students in the "Top White" schools graduate on time.

    More students are suspended, withdraw from school or drop out entirely in consortia high schools.

    MCPS officials boast that every school offers Advanced Placement classes, a sign of academic rigor, but consortia students failed 60% of their AP exams last year. While most high school students countywide failed their math exams this year, the failure rate was much higher in the consortia. 4 out of every 5 students at Wheaton failed their math exams, compared to just 17% at Whitman.

    AP and math exam failures are dramatically higher at low-income schools.

    There's evidence that segregation has had a negative effect on student performance. A recent study from the County Council's Office of Legislative Oversight revealed that black, Hispanic and low-income students are falling further behind white and Asian students in performance on AP tests and the SAT.

    It's not that low-income or minority students are inherently inferior. But they often lack access to amenities like early education that can't be made up at school, especially when that school is dominated by kids with the same needs. Studies show that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds do better in a mixed environment, which I'll talk about in future posts.

    Montgomery's future depends on its schools

    This isn't a new problem. A 1994 study from the Harvard Project on School Desegregation found that past attempts at desegregation were ineffective, but MCPS administrators were unwilling to admit it. "The county's progressive image has created a fierce resistance to serious analysis of rapidly changing conditions," wrote author Gary Orfield.

    If administrators seriously want to help their low-income and minority students, they can't continue to ghettoize them in a handful of schools. Otherwise, MCPS will become a two-tier system, with a small group of highly-ranked, predominantly white and affluent schools, and another group of lower-ranked, predominantly poor and minority schools.

    MCPS is also integral to economic development. The county's efforts to revitalize East County neighborhoods, like Wheaton or White Oak, hinge on the perception of its most troubled schools.

    How did this happen? And what can we do about it? Over the next few days, I'll try to answer those questions, starting with a look at the the county's attempts at school choice.


    Community of civic hackers for education takes shape

    With so many school options, applications, and lotteries, there is a dire need for information that will help parents make the best choices for their children. Code for DC's DC School Decisions project aims to use data and develop code that helps DC parents and students better navigate school lotteries and decisions.

    Photo from video by the World Bank.

    The two of us started the volunteer-run project in late 2012, and got a huge boost at a recent "hackathon" for Open Data Day. On Open Data Day, participating cities host citizen-organized events where programmers, data experts and regular people come together to hack away at problems using technology.

    But first, the School Decisions project needed meaningful data. We wrote a letter to Mayor Gray asking the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to release several data sets. On the night before the Hack Day, OSSE's Data Management Director, Jeff Noel, sent 12 data sets.

    While OSSE could not provide all of the data we'd asked for (especially given the short notice), there were some useful pieces in what they shared. One set of DC CAS (standardized test) results shows how students of varying ethnicity, migrant status, special education needs, and more perform on DC's regular standardized test. Other sets broke down math, reading and science DC CAS scores by grade and student groups. Another listed schools by DC's new accountability categories.

    More important than the actual data, this step signaled that the Mayor and OSSE are willing to be open and transparent, and to empower the community as partners.

    Coders join the project at Open Data Day

    Hack days begin with project leaders making pitches for what they want to work on. If other people want to help, they join, but only if the pitch is compelling. Our project attracted a small but super-talented team including local information architect (and prospective DC schools parent) Jami, NYU data scientist Aaron, and college student Alex. Tom Shen from OSSE's Data Management team also joined us at the hack day, and Tom volunteered to help with our project as an expert on the data. Folks from other projects helped scrape datasets (Dave), and stopped by with ideas (Ayana).

    What did the team do with this data? A few things. The most important track for the long term was to start to build the groundwork for organizing and managing the diverse sets of data we expect to integrate over time. We need to build a "schema" which relates the data sets to each other and helps people use multiple data sets to answer more complex questions.

    To get started, we also built a few visualizations based on the data OSSE shared, like this one:

    It shows the location of DCPS (circle) and DC public charter (triangle) schools, color-coding each school as designated by DC's Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) school accountability system.

    Note that most "reward" schools (purple) are located in the north and west of DC. Most "priority" schools (red) are south and east. According to OSSE, reward schools have "high" autonomy over school activities and flexibility over use of federal funding, while "priority" schools do not.

    What's next? We keep going. We hope to continue dialogue with OSSE, DC families, NGOs, and anyone else with an interest in DC education data. Working with Code for DC and our Open Data Day team, we will proceed with the longer-term work of building out the schema and data sets, hoping to build up a more complete picture of each school.

    We also are looking for help from programmers to build easy-to-use tools to help busy parents weigh their options and make decisions according to their values and priorities. Want to help? Join our meetup group and get notices about future hack days and other events!


    How do you choose a school?

    Schools are important. That's what everyone says, at least. But while much of the public discourse revolves around big picture school reform issues, parents just need to find a good school for their child.

    Photo by Sint Smeding on Flickr.

    Every parent in the country has school choice to a certain extent, but for the overwhelming majority of them it involves an expensive decision to move to a better school district. Washington residents can avail themselves of that option, and many do, but the bar is radically lower in the District thanks to both charter schools and the DCPS out-of-boundary lottery.

    There's been quite a bit of discussion recently about charters vs. DCPS, but that has little to do with the main decision for most parents: picking a school for their child. Most parents don't send their kids to "a charter" or "DCPS"; they pick a specific school. There are any number of advocates saying what they think schools should be, parents have to deal with what schools are today.

    With this brave new world of school choice, how should a parent choose a school? There is a wealth of data out there, like the DCPS school profiles and DC Public Charter School Board resources. The problem, of course, is that numbers often don't reflect how "good" a school is. So what should a parent look for?

    Here are a few data points that I, and many of my fellow parents, have found useful. It is in no way comprehensive. It is geared to DC public and charter schools, so there is no weighting for cost (if you are considering private schools) or time (if you are thinking of homeschooling).

    Nor does it include geographical proximity, as I assume that's a given (and it should be) in evaluating school choices. Finally, there is an inevitable bias towards elementary schools here, as that's where my, and the majority of my compatriots', experience lies.

    Here are 7 tips that can help screen school choices.

    Wait lists: This may be the very worst single number metric to use to choose a school, except for all the others. After all, you're not looking for the best overall school, you're looking for the school that is the best fit for your child. This is doubly true if you have a special needs child, but you certainly don't need me to tell you that. But, in the big picture, if there's demand for school A and not for school B, that's a sign that school A is worth investigating more deeply.

    Morning drop off: Schools are at their most open when children are being dropped off. Is the principal out and engaging with parents and students? Does he or she know their names? Is the process orderly? (It won't be, by the way, but can you find order in the chaos?)

    Are the kids eager to go to school? Are they greeting their friends and are parents stopping to chat with each other? A school is a community, not a building. Take this time to chat with teachers, parents, and the principal, if you can do so without getting in their way.

    Reach out to them: Drop the principal a note. She's a busy person, but if she doesn't respond personally to you within a day as a prospective parent, she probably won't to an attending parent, either. Your child will almost certainly have an issue or problem of some sort in the many years he attends the school. Do you get a response? Not agreement with your position, necessarily, but an honest engagement with you?

    The principal may hand you off to a current parent to answer some of your questions. This isn't a bad thing, but it's another data point for you to evaluate. How smoothly was it done, and do you feel that you are still being engaged or is the buck being passed? Good delegation skills are important, and this is a chance to see if the principal is ducking you or using a strong parent community as the asset it is.

    Parents: The other parents will be your allies and often your friends for the next few years. Are the PTA meetings well-attended? In general, I place little stock in the utility of meetings per se, but they are a good indicator of how many people care enough to show up. Talk to friends and friends of friends whose kids attend the school. Find the cheerleaders, and find the complainers. All schools have both, and they both have quite a bit to share.

    Library: Frankly, this didn't even occur to me, until a friend of mine, a former DCPS librarian pointed it out. He noted, quite correctly, that the library is a microcosm of the school. Does a librarian greet you, or is the library locked up and only accessible at certain hours? Does the school provide a library budget (some don't)?

    Are the books new, or old and worn out? That's a good indicator of how involved the school and/or parents are with the library. In these days of test scores, libraries, and especially school librarians, can easily be regarded as "fat" to be cut, to pay for focused reading instructors for student test takers. Is that the school's priority?

    Curriculum: Many parents care deeply about curriculum, and have priorities on this topic before kids even go to school. If that's you, you probably already have a list of questions written already. If it's not you, don't feel left out. But know what you are getting into.

    Some schools have strong parental involvement in developing curriculum, some already have it scripted out, and most fall into a spectrum somewhere in the middle. When you talk to the principal and teachers, note if they are engaging in a conversation with you about it, or if they are just telling you what the curriculum is. There are pros and cons about both approaches, but know before you go what you're getting into.

    Finally, don't bother: As I noted, wait lists are often a metric of a good school, as is an energetic, noisy parent community. So, nearly by definition, you're not going to get your child into all the schools you're interested in.

    Apply to as many as the DCPS lottery will allow, throw in the charters you have your eye on, and walk away. Just walk away. Many a parent has been driven mad by this process. Don't join them.

    If your child gets into multiple excellent schools, then start winnowing them down. But you're going to want to keep that to yourself, as other parents are going to view you like a deer that walked in front of the Donner party.

    You know what didn't make the cut? Test scores. Because I don't care. As a parent, I don't have to, and I don't want to. The teacher has my child for 8 hours a day, if they can't tell me how she's doing without relying on a yearly standardized test, we've got bigger issues. Relying on test scores to choose a school is like picking a spouse based on taking someone's pulse on a first date.

    These are but a few data points I use and recommend to choose a school. Do you have others? Middle schools are coming up for my child, and I'm looking for tips.

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