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

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.