Category Archives: School System Design

What Chicago’s first year of unified enrollment tells us about what families want

Last year, Chicago adopted a online unified enrollment system for high schools. Families in Chicago can now search online to find a public school for their child, and, most importantly, apply directly on the website.

Chicago has over 250 high school programs across a 130 high schools. If families don’t know these options exist, or can’t navigate all of the different application processes, these choices aren’t really choices.

An online unified enrollment system can help families find a school that works for their child.

The University of Chicago just put out a research brief on the results of Chicago’s first year using a unified enrollment system. Full study here.

Chicago’s System is Easy to Use

The unified enrollment website is simple to use. You search by  location, performance, and program type. Here’s a screenshot from my search for a level 1+ (highest rated) IB school in Chicago.

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Some unified enrollment systems have opaque search systems, so it’s great to see Chicago’s system work so well. I’m sure this was part of the reason that over 90% of rising ninth grade students used the system.

80% of Chicago Families Received 1 of Their Top 3 Choices

Many big cities don’t have enough great public schools. Chicago is no different. So it’s alway a bit surprising to see so many families get one of their top choices, as I would have expected that most families would apply to the top dozen or so schools. This occurred to some extent: the most in demand schools averaged 10 applications for ever seat. Still, 51% of students got into their first choice. Families rank schools very differently from each other.

This is a also reminder that my preferences (and yours too!) differ from families living across Chicago. I’m not sure whether or not these preferences differ because of different values or different access to information. It’s probably a mix of both. But we should be careful to assume that others share our opinion of what makes a great public school.

What School Attributes are Correlated with High Demand?

Arts, career tech, and school rating were most correlated with high demand. Parents seem to respond to school specialization and the district’s performance labeling system.

It’s illuminating that both arts and career tech programs are in high demand. Presumably, these are very different kinds of schools. Again, different families really do want different types of schools. Meeting this diversity of family preferences is hard to achieve in a school system where every child attends her neighborhood school.

I don’t know whether it was general reputation or the district performance system that drove the performance based demand. Either way, it’s another sign that parents do care about performance. As can be seen below, while 32% of Chicago high schools receive a lower performance score (a “2” or a “3”), these schools are rarely ranked first.

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Who Chooses Public Charter Schools?

29% of students from the lowest-income neighborhoods ranked a charter school as their top choice. Only 10% of students from wealthy neighborhoods chose charters.

For many low-income families, charters offer a better public education.

This family demand is supported by research. A report by the University of Chicago found that high school charters in Chicago outperform their traditional peers.

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A Few Schools Received Almost No Applicants

So far, Hirsch High School has zero accepted applicants; and only one rising freshman has chosen to attend Douglass High School.

It is good for this data to be public. Too often, school systems try to paper over the fact that nobody wants to attend some of their schools.

A more difficult issue is what to do about these schools. My preference is to replace under-enrolled schools with high-performing non-profit operated schools. Research has shown that, done well, this can provide students with better educational opportunities.

However, if the neighborhood has lost too much population, there might not be enough students to justify a school.

Chicago has around 40,000 ninth grade seats available to students, but only 26,000 high school students, leaving around a third of seats vacant.

Thank You to the Early Adopters 

Chicago is not the first city to adopt unified enrollment. These cities also use unified enrollment systems for at least some grades: Washington D.C., New York, Denver, Indianapolis, Camden, Newark, New Orleans.

These cities vary in size, performance, and politics.

But in being early adopters, they are helping us learn a lot about how to make enrollment easier for families.

They are also helping us learn a lot about what types of schools families want for their children.

Hopefully, these cities will continue to see success with their systems and other communities will follow.

If you support neighborhood schools you also (unintentionally) support segregated schools

A reminder: for the foreseeable future, supporting neighborhood schools means de facto supporting segregated schools.

The reason is obvious: neighborhoods in our country are highly segregated.

I think our country would be better if our neighborhoods weren’t segregated, but I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.

So if every kid goes to their neighborhood school, we will have segregated schools.

There are a couple ways out of this.

We could restructure enrollment and bussing rules to avoid segregation, but this would mean that a lot families would have to attend schools outside of their neighborhoods.

And  I don’t think it’s the rich families that are going to send their children to poorer neighborhoods.

So we’ll need to be bussing in low income students into rich neighborhoods. This might be the right thing to do, but that means a lot of low income students won’t be attending their neighborhood schools.

It also means we’ll likely have a lot of white flight, which, while unfortunate, is neither good for integration nor a city’s tax base.

The other option is to create all choice systems and allow schools to preference students in a way that increases socioeconomic integration (this could be done through a unified enrollment algorithm).

For this strategy to be successful, schools will have to proactively create enrollment rules that increased integration, and families will have to proactively choose schools with this mission.

This will obviously be a slower process than forced integration via non-choice bussing systems.

But I think it will be much more durable.

Ultimately, you can’t force people to integrate our current version of segregated schools if they don’t want to. They will either move or kick out the superintendent who forces it. As a country, we rightfully changed the laws that forced segregation, but we’re still left with the fact that many people don’t really want integration, at least not if it involves any bit of giving up of privilege.

So, no, you can’t force integration. But you can give educators the opportunity to say that their school will prioritize integration. And you can make it easier for families to choose these schools.

The road to school integration is not through neighborhood schools. And it’s not through forced enrollment patterns.

The road to school integration is through people actually wanting it, and for government to create open systems that allow these desires to be actualized.

If you do nothing, people will attend their segregated neighborhood schools.

If you force it, they will flee.

If you build it, they might come.

What can we learn from school board meetings?

In forming opinions on policy, it’s good to balance research and lived experience.

Research is an invaluable tool in helping us test our beliefs, but the most rigorous research is limited to what can be measured, and not everything can be measured.

When it comes to public school policy, attending school board meetings has been a major part of my lived experience.

Over the past decade, I’ve attended two different types of school board meetings: elected school board meetings and non-profit charter school board meetings.

 

The elected school board meetings I’ve attended  range from dysfunctional (school board members screaming at each other) to misguided (school board members discussing random topics that have little to do with governing public schools) to sometimes useful (reasoned debate on systems level policy).

Unfortunately, I’ve attended many more dysfunctional and misguided elected school board meetings than I’ve attended useful elected school board meetings.

The non-profit charter school board meetings tend to be much more productive. More often than not, the board members are focused and knowledgeable. This is especially true of larger non-profit charter networks, where the board has been around for over a decade and governed through organization scaling.

Yes, I’ve attended a few dysfunctional charter school board meetings, but they are not the norm.

This lived experience in attending board meetings has shaped my policy views. Based on a decade of attending board meetings, I believe that non-profit boards will be better at governing schools than elected boards will be.

I do believe we need democratic oversight over our public schools. Elections allow us to debate values, and these values should shape how we oversee our public schools.This oversight can come in a variety of forms, from elected boards to mayoral control. The New Orleans elected school board, for example, oversees a nearly 100% non-profit charter schools system.

But while we need elections to debate values, we don’t need elections to govern individual or networks of schools.

My lived experience leads me to believe that this duty is best held by non-profit boards.

Is San Francisco progressive?

San Francisco is a thriving city and I love living here. It nearly has it all: great people, a vibrant economy, and natural beauty in all directions.

But there is one thing San Francisco does’t have: a public education system that does right by low-income African American and Latino students.

One of the wealthiest and most innovative cities in the world can’t teach low-income kids to read, write, and do math.

Nearly every other city in California performs better than San Francisco in educating low-income students, and it’s not like most of the cities are knocking it out of the park.

And the worst part of it all is that the fix is not too hard. Within a decade, I bet San Francisco could be one of the highest performing urban school systems in the country.

But I’m skeptical that will occur. The people who control the system do not want it to change.

Traditional Schools Harm Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the world. But when it comes to serving low-income African-American students, the city is trounced by other cities across the state.

recent report from Innovate Public Schools provides the details.

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Low income Latino students don’t do much better.

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Charter Schools Help Low-Income Students in San Francisco 

Is there something about low-income kids in San Francisco that makes them impossible to educate?

No.

Charter schools in San Francisco are doing a much better job educating low-income students.

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More rigorous research (quasi-experimental methadology that controls for socioeconomic variables) has also found that charter schools in the Bay Area dramatically outperform the traditional system. This study found positive .2 standard deviation annual effects in math and .1 effects in reading.

It Could Get Better But It Probably Won’t

Cities like Denver, Washington D.C., and New Orleans are proving that there’s a better way to do public education.

Denver is continuing to deliver results over ten years after its reforms began. Washington D.C. has seen its scores skyrocket on the Nation’s Assessment of Educational Progress. New Orleans achieved amongst the greatest educational gains that the nation has recently seen.

Our team has the privilege of working with cities to make their educational systems better, but I spend most of my time on the road because the San Francisco Unified School Board doesn’t have any interest in the reforms that could make the city’s public schools great.

Unlike the aforementioned cities, San Francisco Unified is extremely unwelcoming to high-quality charter schools.

Instead of partnering with high-quality non-profit charter schools, the school district continues to insist that it will fix itself.

But this will not happen. And low-income kids will keep getting screwed.

So no, San Francisco is not progressive. At least not when it comes to public education.

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High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

This is likely a crude distinction, but I think there’s a real difference between high expectations and low expectations parent organizing.

Low expectations parent organizing occurs when you simply meet parents where they are at, without having much urgency about tackling systems level issues.

For example, organizes might work for parents for a few years on issues like lunch quality, bus routes, and extracurricular activities.

If organizers and parents work hard and a few year later the lunches are a little better, what’s the point if the vast majority of the kids can’t read or do math on grade level, or if the school culture fails to build students with strong values?

This feels like low expectations: working too long on these issues is implicitly saying that parents are not smart enough to tackle the most pressing issues facing their children.

High expectations parent organizing starts with the premise that families can grasp systems level issues, and that the quicker they are engaged on important issues like teacher and school quality, the better.

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss really hard educational issues with families living in deep poverty. And while it’s surely true that they start from a deficit of policy knowledge, they tend to come up to speed quickly and, most importantly, can merry policy arguments with the brutal facts that they see day in and day out when the are forced to send their children to struggling schools.

Based on my experience (and I still have a lot to learn in this area), I’d say the following are the key components of great high expectations parent organizing:

  1. Organizers begin with the mindset that families can grasp and advocate for systems level policy solutions.
  2. Organizers provide unbiased (as much as feasible) educational classes and experiences to families so that families can grapple with systems level policy issues.
  3. Organizers both possess and cultivate a sense of urgency – so that educational experiences start leading to powerful systems level actions.
  4. Family leaders fairly quickly take the reigns in terms of determining the future policy and advocacy agenda.
  5. Family leaders increase their operational chops so that the actions and campaigns they are less reliant on external organizers.

Ultimately, this is a two step high expectations game: first, you need to believe that families can understand systems level issues, and second, you need to believe that they can lead the charge.

I’m still trying to get smarter in this area, so I hope that the organizers who read this blog  will correct errors in the comment section.

Quick feedback for the New York Times

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The NYT just published an article on NYC’s school choice system.

The article is worth reading for its qualitative insights into what it’s like to navigate the system. I have deep empathy for families that struggle to find great schools for their children. They deserve much better.

But the framing of the piece is flawed, and I hope other journalists don’t repeat this mistake in future articles.

The authors argue that school choice has not delivered on its promise because many students still don’t have access to great schools.

But school choice does not increase the supply of great schools; rather, it is a mechanism to allow families to choose from schools that already exist.

School choice is about access and fairness. You can assign families to schools based on their address, or you can try to create more just systems. I strongly believe we should do the latter.

But increasing equity of access will likely not lead to dramatic jumps in quality.

It is only be creating new schools, scaling the best schools, and improving existing schools that quality increases. This is not the job of a citywide enrollment system.

Moreover, if you increase access but restrict supply you well get frustration. And this is exactly what has happened in New York City. The city’s enrollment system persists, but its efforts to increase supply have faltered.

When NYC leaders have focused on increasing supply – both through the small schools movement and growing the charter sector – rigorous research found that school quality increased. The results of these efforts are detailed below.

In sum:

School choice is all about equity in access.

School supply is about creating better options.

We should not confuse the two, and we should not expect school choice to increase school performance in and of itself. It must be coupled with a deep focus on school supply.

Small schools results:

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Charter results:

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Applying portfolio reforms to postsecondary problems

I just got back from a trip to New Orleans, which continues to be a well of friendship and inspiration.

I. Where should you spend the next philanthropic dollar? 

In a few conversations, the following questions came up:

  1. Are the kids we serve going to succeed in life after high school? What will their lives be like when they are 30? Will they be living meaningful and happy lives?
  2. Is the marginal dollar of philanthropy best spent on making the K-12 system better (after 10 years of improvements) or trying to overhaul the post-secondary landscape?
  3. If you wanted to radically improve post-secondary, what would you do?

II. Post-Secondy portfolio 

The K-12 portfolio mindset entails viewing an educational system in terms of operators (running schools) and seats (how many students are served).

This mindset could also be applied to post-secondary.

By 2020 or so, New Orleans will be graduating around 3,000 students a year.

Let’s say that about 1,500 of them will be prepared to succeed in a four year college; 1,000 of them will be prepared to succeed in a 1 to 2 year credentialing program; and 500 of them will need deep support to enter the workforce and exit crisis situations.

Of the four year college students, you might need 500 to 1,000 “KIPP to College” type supports to ensure students make it through.

For the credentialing programs, you’d need 1,000 seats that can reliably produce students with employable credentials.

For the crisis students, you’d need employment and social service operators that could transition students into jobs.

III. Post-Secondary investment intermediaries 

Instead of assuming this will naturally happen in New Orleans (or any other city), you could capitalize a new or existing non-profit intermediary to launch, recruit, and support post-secondary providers.

At the outset, the intermediary would create a business plan where it laid out how money it would need to get X% coverage on the aforementioned 3,000 seats.

High-Quality existing local providers (like the coding bootcamp Operation Spark) could cover some of the seats, and national providers like Match Beyond could be recruited in.

Overtime, you’d expand what was working, close what wasn’t, and support new entrepreneurs to keep innovation going.

IV. Getting funding streams right

Most states subsidize mediocre public universities; the federal government tops this off with Pell grants.

To make the 3,000 seat post-secondary strategy viable, you’d need to blend a mixture of public support and tuition to make providers sustainable.

Louisiana’s course choice provides a revenue stream for programs that started working with kids while they’re in high school.

Creating a new university that housed many of these programs could allow for the accessing of Pell grants.

Wage contigent loan programs could also be an option for programs that were consistently placing graduates in high-performing jobs.

V. Who are the entrepreneurs that will seek out the 10x play?

The early New Orleans K12 entrepreneurs felt that they could deliver something to students that was significantly better than the existing system.

They were right.

A post-secondary transformation won’t happen on its own.

It will take a set of entrepreneurs to put forth a plan, galvanize funding, and spend a decade building the new system.

Is this the right play? If so, who will step up?