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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.