Category Archives: Unified Enrollment

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.

Most students in NOLA whose school is closed end up in one of their top choices for the following year. Here’s how.

This post from Ed Navigator is worth reading. It covers schools closures in New Orleans.

Over ten years after Katrina, and under an elected school board, New Orleans continues to selectively close underperforming schools.

I view this as a good thing, given the growing body of research that shows that school closures help kids when the students end up in better schools.

New Orleans uses a unified enrollment system to help kids get into better schools.

The unified enrollment system gives preference to students whose schools were closed the year before. If your school was closed, the algorithm bumps you to the top of the list for any school you want to get into.

Ed Navigator works with families whose schools have been closed, so that they can help select great schools.

The result?

This year, 87% of students who attended a closing school and used the enrollment system received on of their top three choices for the next school year.

94% of the students will now attend a school that is rated higher by the state’s grading system.

The system is by no means perfect. My biggest critique is that the state’s grading system still relies too heavily on absolute test scores (rather than growth). I also understand the counterarguments that government should never close schools and should instead let enrollment patterns (driven by parental choice) determine which schools grow and which close.

But I would rather have the New Orleans enrollment and closure system than just about any other big city system in the country.  In too many cities, really bad schools stay open for too long. And if anything happens to them, kids often end up in schools that are just as bad.

This is not what happens in New Orleans.

It’s also great to see Parag Pathak (and his colleagues) work in action. Parag recently won the John Bates Clark award in part because of his contributions to working on unified enrollment systems.

It’s rare that an idea goes from the ivory tower to think tanks to actual implementation by a democratically elected body to  helping citizens.

This is really great to see. And really great for kids in New Orleans.

What if unified enrollment platforms were 10x better?

An emerging group of cities – including Washington D.C., Newark, Camden, New Orleans, and Denver – have adopted unified enrollment systems. With these systems, families can enroll in schools across the city via an online application system.

This is a huge step forward. For too long, parents have not had enough information or access to the public schools in their cities.

However, the new enrollment systems are still in their infancy. The best version of these systems could radically improve public education. Unfortunately, we’re very far from this endgame.

I. Early Wins: Access, Equity, and Ranking

Access: With the best open enrollment systems, families who can’t afford a house in a fancy neighborhood can now finally transparently apply to a school in a more wealthy neighborhood.

As a result of increase in access, a recent study in Washington D.C. found that the new enrollment regime would likely reduce segregation over time:

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Equity: In most cities, traditional and charter schools play a ton of games with enrollment. Traditional magnet schools use opaque entry requirements. Bad apple charters don’t take in kids with special needs. There is no equity.

With online enrollment platforms, these problems go away, as schools are no longer in control of their enrollment.

Quite simply: the algorithm is fairer than the enrollment clerk.

Ranking: These new enrollment systems also allow parents to rank their top schools. This is extremely important.

First, a family’s high desire to enroll their child in a school can now  be translated into an increased chance that they actually get into this school.

Previously, high desire meant little unless you were connected, wealthy, or dogged.

Second, ranking allows  parents to publicly signal to government which schools are most and least in demand (which will ideally affect opening, expansion, and closure decisions). It also signals to school operators what attributes make a school in high demand.

By analyzing ranking preferences, researchers in New Orleans were able to correlate school characteristics with parent preference:

Screen Shot 2017-03-17 at 9.44.39 AMRanking transforms family desire into actionable information.

II. Unified Enrollment Systems are Mediocre Platforms

In preparation for writing this blog, I spend an hour on unified enrollment system websites. It was not a great experience.

Here is the school finder homepage from Washington D.C. – I couldn’t even find a way to filter schools by academic performance!

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Here is the search function for Newark’s enrollment system – you have to download a pdf!

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By comparison, here’s the search page from Zillow:

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On Zillow, you can easily search for homes based on the most useful search criteria. Yes, Zillow is surely better capitalized than your average enrollment system, but even with modest funds a city should be able to do better than a downloadable pdf.

III. Moving From Equity and Ranking to Matching and Prediction

More sophisticated uniform enrollment could offer two extraordinary improvements: they could better match families with schools, and they could better predict how any given student would do at a school.

Matching: Right now families mostly use enrollment systems for ranking: they know the schools they want and they use enrollment systems to express this desire.

What is not really happening (as far as I can tell) is sophisticated algorithms actually helping families match with schools.

For example, on Camden’s enrollment site (where you can thankfully filter by academic performance!), I found three schools that all met the “on track” performance criteria, and pulled up the comparison page:

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This does very little to help me choose between these schools. My preference variables are limited to very broad categories such as “art classes” and “after school programs.”

After playing around on these websites, I get very little indication that that the platform knows me or the schools very well. Compare this to Netflix, Amazon, or dating websites (previous life) – platforms where I feel like the algorithms know me better than myself.

Unified enrollment systems need to more deeply understand children and schools in order to make better matches.

Prediction: Right now, government accountability systems are a basket case of poor design (generally don’t weight growth enough), brutal politics (what politician wants to tell a bunch of communities they only have “F” schools?), and awful transparency (good luck trying to navigate your average state department of education website).

Most importantly, government accountability systems evaluate schools rather than make predictions.

As a parent, it’s one thing to tell you that a school is a “C+” – it’s another thing to give you a prediction of what will happen to your child if she attends the school.

With current date, we could probably gather basic information on your child’s age, gender, current academic performance, personality type, etc.,  and make a reasonably accurate prediction that if she attends school X she will have a Y% chance of graduating from high schools and a Z% chance of earning a post-secondary degree.

Good enrollment systems, over time, should become better and better predictive agents, and, perhaps, can end up augmenting (displacing?) government accountability systems.

IV. Root Causes and Potential Solutions 

I don’t yet have strong beliefs about the root causes of why these enrollment products aren’t getting better faster. But here’s some guesses:

Non-profits > government operated: Most of the enrollment systems are run by governments, which are not good at running tech products and have bad incentives around giving parents accurate information about schools. Non-profits would likely be better operationally and have better incentives, and avoid the privacy concerns associated with for-profits.

Lack of scale: Matching and predication can better with bigger data sets, and if all these systems are structured as isolated city based data silos, the algorithms will be dumber than they should be.

Weak Customer Demand -> Bad Economics: SchoolMint, from what I understand, is the most successful player in the market. For reasons I don’t underhand, this company has not developed a better product. Perhaps it’s because their government customers don’t actually want it. Or perhaps the economics don’t work (which might suggest philanthropy is needed).

If the above is true, a national non-profit should be backed to scale to enough size to create smart algorithms, and it should be financially structured in a manner that gets it out of the perverse incentives of being beholden to government or individual schools rather than families.

A philanthropic foundation with a great tech backbone could be well situated to support this endeavor.

V. Expectations

Better matching and prediction would probably not make the average student’s education experience 10x better, just as dating websites don’t inevitably lead to great marriages.

But I do think better matching and predication could increase the probabilities that millions of families could find a better fit for their children.

At scale, that’s a better world.

Only Normal Things Scale

Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I’m tempted to say that I’m trying to make the concept of relinquishment normal.

Right now, it is not normal to let educators operate their own schools; to let families choose amongst these schools; and to transition to government to more of a regulatory role.

Rather, it is normal for the government to directly operate schools; for families to be assigned a school based on their address; and for regulation to be handled by the same entity that is operating schools.

Every Adopter Reduces Psycho-Social Barriers for the Next Adopter 

New Orleans was the first city to build an education system on the aforementioned principles, and it did so in a very abnormal situation.

New Orleans (in so many ways!) is not normal.

Perhaps if 8-10 cities adopt similar principles, then these ideas will become modestly normal.

And then perhaps 10-20 other cities will start pushing that direction.

The more normal it is, the more quickly it will be adopted. Each marginal user slightly lowers the psychological barrier for the next user.

“Vote for Abnormality!” is Not a Winning Slogan 

Most people react negatively to abnormal things. This is why in Massachusetts, the home of the nation’s highest performing charter schools (in Boston), people in the suburbs will likely vote against eliminating the charter school cap.

For people in the suburbs, neighborhood public schools – as well as private schools – are normal. Charter schools are not normal.

When you’re in a referendum, you don’t want to be the abnormal option.

People’s Fidelity to Normality is Much Higher than Their Fidelity to Ideas 

Many people disagree with an idea when it is abnormal and then agree with the idea when it becomes normal.

This, for example, is why I think getting to ~50% charter market share is so important. All of a sudden, charters become normal – and the people who previously did not like charter schools become ok with them.

Other policies such as unified enrollment, unified accountability, the transformation of operators for failing schools…. all these things can become normal over time, as New Orleans has shown.

Abnormal is for the Moment of Disruption, Normal is for Scale

Entrepreneurs who come up with amazing ideas are often very abnormal people; however, to scale their disruption, they generally have to do a lot of normal things, including convincing others that their new idea will become the new normal.

Sometimes they fail to make this transition.

Equally problematic: sometimes people who are trying to disrupt things act too normal. They say they want to change the world, but ultimately they want to be liked… and be normal.

This doesn’t work either.

So you need congruence between your current level of normality and the level of normality that the situation requires for you to be successful.

This can be tricky to pull off.

The Answer is 6.7 Miles. What is the Question?

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The question is: how far, on average, would a family send their child to attend a school that is in the highest category of the state accountability system compared to a school in the lowest category of the state accountability system?

This is from a recent report on the DC public school system. The analysis, while useful, isn’t perfect in that it only includes families who utilized the enrollment system, but it does add to the emerging literature on the revealed preferences of families that participate in transparent enrollment systems.

 

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Here’s another answer: it increases racial integration.

The question is: does DC’s unified enrollment system increase or decrease racial segregation?

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Shockingly enough, assigning families to neighborhood schools that are zoned by property values is not a great way to decrease segregation.

 

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Answer: Unclear.

Question: Do parents care about a school’s academic growth (as opposed to absolute test scores)?

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Interesting but not shocking. Parents probably care a lot about peers and status.

Also interesting, this seems more true of low-income families:

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This raises an interesting question for policy makers: given that growth more accurately measures a school’s impact, should they design grading systems that prioritize growth (as DC’s charter framework does) even though low-income parents might care more about absolute scores?

Or perhaps not – maybe low-income families aren’t considering the growth based performance framework because the government is hiding this information:

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One last answer: Families who aren’t assigned to a school in the lowest performance category, as well as the politicians and superintendents who seek their favor.

The question: who loves neighborhood schools?

It remains shocking to me that public leaders in cities such as Oakland are vehemently opposed to unified enrollment on the grounds that such systems will undermine public education.

The only thing a unified enrollment system undermines is the privilege of those who benefit from institutional racism and widespread income inequality.