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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.