book talk

Why New York City’s high school admissions process only works most of the time

New York City’s high school admissions process is known for being complicated. But before its overhaul in 2003, the system was dysfunctional in big ways: it left about one in three ninth-graders-to-be without a school assignment until just before the year started, encouraged principals to admit students through back channels, and forced savvy students to develop complicated strategies for getting into desirable schools. Economist Alvin Roth, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in economics for his work in market design, was part of the team that developed today’s system, which uses a “deferred acceptance algorithm” to match students and schools based on their highest mutual preference. In his new book, Roth offers an economist’s answer to an important question: Why do some eighth graders still not get into any high schools of their choice?

School choice operates under a lot of constraints, and many people have to sign off on any innovations. Sometimes this led to unavoidable complications. Not all of these complications were unavoidable, but just as in kidney exchange, my economist colleagues and I were only advisers, and not all of our advice was adopted. (This is pretty typical of market design, by the way.)

So, for example, in practice the deferred acceptance algorithm is actually run more than once. That’s because there are several specialized schools that form their preferences strictly on the basis of exam scores or auditions. By tradition, students offered a place in these schools must also be offered a place in one of the regular high schools. Thus members of this small group of students each receive two offers of admission even before the main round of the match is run. Their offers are determined by running the full deferred acceptance algorithm on all students’ submitted preferences and then running it again for all the other students after these select students have been placed.

Another simplification I made in my description is that students can list as many schools as they like. We economists recommended that students be allowed to do just that, but on this important detail we did not prevail. So New York City students today can list only up to twelve programs among the hundreds that the city offers. Students who want to list more than that face a strategic choice of which twelve to list. But they still should list those twelve in order of their true preferences. That’s perfectly safe; they can’t do any better.

A more serious problem is that some students list too few choices to get matched. Each year the New York media report on students who listed only schools that require scores higher than they have. These students end up without school placements at the end of the main match. For them, there is a supplemental round, in which they submit a new rank order list of up to twelve schools from among those that still have seats. By that time, the most-sought-after schools have already been filled.

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In 2011, after the main round of the match was announced, I received an email from “Jimmy,” who said he was a thirteen-year-old student from Queens. He appealed for help because he’d been rejected by the five schools that he’d listed in the main match, despite solid grades. He told me that he dreamed of attending Harvard and was worried that he’d be choosing, in the supplemental match, among less desirable high schools that would limit his prospects. I couldn’t help much — my colleagues and I may have designed the algorithm, but we have no role in its annual operation. But I did inquire of a former administrator about what might have gone wrong.

He immediately focused on Jimmy’s math grade of 85 and said that none of the five schools that Jimmy had listed were likely to accept a student whose grade wasn’t at least 90. Jimmy hadn’t received good advice before he compiled his list.

I advised Jimmy to immediately talk to his middle school guidance counselor about how to approach the supplemental round. I ended with a little advice for when he applied to college — something I wished I could’ve have told him before he filled out his high school list: “Bear in mind that admission to Harvard and other top universities is very competitive, so be sure to apply to other schools, including some safe schools.” Almost no one who lists twelve schools is left unmatched in the main round of the New York high school match. So if you know someone like Jimmy, encourage him or her to submit a long list of schools, just to be safe.

These small problems don’t overshadow the benefits the new system brought to New York high schoolers. In the first year of operation, the number of students left to be matched to a school for which they hadn’t indicated a preference was 3,000, down from 30,000 the previous year. A more surprising (and equally satisfying) development was that in each of the first three years of operation, the number of students who got their first choice increased, as did those who got their second through fifth choices.

“It worked even better than we expected in terms of kids getting their top choices,” Jeremy Lack says. “It really empowered the students.”

We weren’t surprised that the new system would immediately work better than the old one, but we’d made no changes in the algorithm in years two or three, so why did the system continue to improve?

Remember those seats that principals would withhold? It appears that principals were gaining confidence in the new system and understanding that they’d actually prefer students assigned by the algorithm to those they could admit later. As a result, more and more of them released all of their saved seats to the central match. It was as if, by creating a stable matching each year so that principals would be eager to enroll students through the centralized process, the Department of Education was creating thousands more places in desirable schools.

One reason that principals gained confidence was that DOE staffers did a good job communicating to them how the new system would work. Crucial in that effort was Neil Dorosin, the DOE’s director of high school operations. The task of informing everyone about the new algorithm fell to Neil and his colleagues in the Office of Enrollment Services. Among those he had to educate was his ultimate boss, Chancellor Joel Klein.

“One day I got called down to talk to him,” Neil recalls. “He was upset because he had a friend whose child didn’t get into their first-choice school. The friend had a cousin whose child had gotten into the school, and it was their last choice. I had to explain why the system had to function that way” (i.e., to make it safe to list true preferences).

More than ten years later, New York’s high school choice system is holding up well. The clearinghouse we designed is just a part of the sometimes forbidding gauntlet that families have to run to inform themselves about schools and decide how to rank them. But with the exception of some of the complications I mentioned, once families are informed, the school choice system no longer presents them with complicated strategic problems. Most important, it’s no longer a congested process that leaves tens of thousands of students to be placed at the last minute into schools for which they’ve expressed no preference.

Excerpted from WHO GETS WHAT – AND WHY: The New Economics of Matchmaking and Market Design by Alvin E. Roth. Copyright © 2015 by Alvin E. Roth. Used by permission of Eamon Dolan Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

First Person

Two fewer testing days in New York? Thank goodness. Here’s what else our students need

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

Every April, I feel the tension in my fifth-grade classroom rise. Students are concerned that all of their hard work throughout the year will boil down to six intense days of testing — three for math and three for English language arts.

Students know they need to be prepared to sit in a room for anywhere from 90 minutes to three hours with no opportunity to leave, barring an emergency. Many of them are sick to their stomachs, feeling more stress than a 10-year-old ever should, and yet they are expected to perform their best.

Meanwhile, teachers are frustrated that so many hours of valuable instruction have been replaced by testing, and that the results won’t be available until students are moving on to other classrooms.

This is what testing looks like in New York state. Or, at least it did. Last month, state officials voted to reduce testing from three days for each subject to two, to the elation of students, parents, and teachers across New York. It’s an example of our voices being heard — but there is still more to be done to make the testing process truly useful, and less stressful, for all of us.

As a fifth-grade teacher in the Bronx, I was thrilled by the news that testing time would be reduced. Though it doesn’t seem like much on paper, having two fewer days of gut-wrenching stress for students as young as eight means so much for their well-being and education. It gives students two more days of classroom instruction, interactive lessons, and engagement in thought-provoking discussions. Any reduction in testing also means more time with my students, since administrators can pull teachers out of their classrooms for up to a week to score each test.

Still, I know these tests provide us with critical data about how students are doing across our state and where we need to concentrate our resources. The changes address my worries about over-testing, while still ensuring that we have an objective measure of what students have learned across the state.

For those who fear that cutting one-third of the required state testing hours will not provide teachers with enough data to help our students, understand that we assess them before, during, and after each unit of study, along with mid-year tests and quizzes. It is unlikely that one extra day of testing will offer any significant additional insights into our students’ skills.

Also, the fact that we receive students’ state test results months later, at the end of June, means that we are more likely to have a snapshot of where are students were, rather than where they currently are — when it’s too late for us to use the information to help them.

That’s where New York can still do better. Teachers need timely data to tailor their teaching to meet student needs. As New York develops its next generation of tests and academic standards, we must ensure that they are developmentally appropriate. And officials need to continue to emphasize that state tests alone cannot fully assess a student’s knowledge and skills.

For this, parents and teachers must continue to demand that their voices are heard. Until then, thank you, New York Regents, for hearing us and reducing the number of testing days.

In my classroom, I’ll have two extra days to help my special needs students work towards the goals laid out in their individualized education plans. I’ll take it.

Rich Johnson teaches fifth grade at P.S. 105 in the Bronx.

First Person

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder

High schools have become obsessed with “million-dollar scholars,” and it’s hurting students.

Across Memphis, students often are pushed by counselors to apply to as many colleges as possible — as many as 100 — all to push students to reach that million-dollar scholarship mark. The more dollars and college acceptance, the better!

I graduated in 2016, and my experience offers a case study.

I’m a pretty well-rounded individual: In high school, I was a finalist in the Let’s Innovate Through Education program and was able to launch SousChef-Memphis, a culinary nonprofit organization. I was a dual-enrollment student and took honors courses. I was committed to community service. I was vice president of my high school organization, Modern Distinctive Ladies. I was on the bowling team, managed the basketball team, and participated in debate forensics and drama.

I was also told by counselors to apply to 100 colleges. I was never told why that number was chosen, but my peers were told the same. We were often pulled out of class to complete these applications, which took away from instructional time — about an hour per day. My high school also ran on an infraction system, and not turning in college applications and other documents led to disciplinary actions.

The quality of those applications only shed a dim light on the student and person that I am. A hundred applications was never my goal. A hundred applications doesn’t measure the capability, intelligence or worth of me as a student. A hundred applications is just ridiculous!

Schools with similar approaches, though, get glowing media coverage. Meanwhile, a lot of that scholarship money is irrelevant, since a single student obviously can only attend one school.

I think that if I had been counseled properly, I would have had a better grasp on my high school-to-college transition. I ultimately chose to leave Memphis to attend another state university on a full scholarship. Looking back, that school was not the best fit for me. I returned to Memphis to attend our local public university.

A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.

I was more than capable of getting back on track, and I did. But not every student can afford to go through what I went through.

High schools need to realize that, while students amassing millions of dollars in scholarships and hundreds of college acceptance letters seems like an accomplishment, the outcome for many students is the total opposite.

Too many students end up not going to a school that is the best fit for them, taking on piles of debt, and dropping out with no workforce experience.

The goal should be that each high school student will graduate having a grasp on their career path (and experience in that field), scholarships to the school of their choice (full rides or little to no debt), and be confident in where they will be spending the next four to six years of their life. Being thorough in the college search and submitting quality applications is what leads to a college that is the best fit for the student, obtaining scholarships, and ultimately graduating.

Here’s what I wish a counselor had told me:

"It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next."Anisah Karim

Try things you like, but don’t overload yourself. Look for summer internships that pay, rather than minimum-wage jobs. Build a network of people who can help you make good decisions about college and work. Research schools with a major you’re interested in, and find out what scholarships they offer. Keep an eye on your GPA and make sure you’re taking the classes you need to graduate. Apply for colleges when applications open and submit the FAFSA form in October.

And most importantly, through all four years of high school, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

It is time to start thinking about quality over quantity. Quality counseling. Quality applications. And quality choices about what to do next.

Anisah Karim is a psychology student at the University of Memphis. She plans to continue her education in speech pathology and otology and eventually start her own private practice. She also plans to launch two new business ventures in the fall and relaunch SousChef in the fall of 2018.