First Person

Why high school admissions actually doesn’t work for many city students — and how it could

It was my pleasure to read Professor Alvin Roth’s recent piece on why New York City’s high school admissions process now works most of the time. And as the city’s former deputy director of high school enrollment and a current admissions consultant who has helped thousands of families navigate the process, I see his observations play out every day.

Given how massive the New York City process is, the mechanism of assigning students to schools after families have made their choices does, indeed, work well. But the process by which those choices are made remains complicated, and very much depends on expertise or the ability to spend an excessive amount of time understanding how it works. Many students still go without either.

One family with whom I recently worked had every reason to believe they would do well: A high-achieving student, experienced school counselor, engaged parents, and a strong middle school. Unfortunately, their counselor was overloaded, they had limited time to visit schools, they were armed with less-than-accurate information, and they believed their top choices were within easier reach than they were. Other students with fewer resources or lower grades can face even greater challenges.

Yes, the ever-increasing number of apps, websites, and school search tools are helping some families evaluate their options, and the city continues to improve how information is disseminated. But there is no substitute for personal, human guidance by someone who knows schools, the process, and takes the time to get to know the student on a personal level.

For the nearly 80,000 families citywide each year navigating the transition from eighth grade to high school, middle school counselors play that role. Typically, each will support hundreds of families through the process.

Part of my role at the DOE was to train middle school counselors, whose workloads, savvy, and degree to which their students’ parents were engaged in the process varied widely. Over time, many counselors have developed into admissions experts who do an outstanding job informing their families. A Manhattan school counselor entering her third year recently told me, though, that it was a challenge for her to become familiar with schools beyond the “brand name” schools that everyone talks about.

It’s a problem Roth acknowledges. “Although it’s great to have a marketplace that gives you an abundance of opportunities, these may be illusory if you can’t evaluate them, and they can cause the market to lose much of its usefulness,” he writes.

A lot of work remains to ensure that counselors in every school are supported, bolstered, and rewarded for their efforts — in part to ensure that talented counselors don’t flee those important roles. A more comprehensive, citywide strategy to take advantage of alternative, community-based support where counseling is in short supply is also well overdue.

That’s just one piece of the puzzle. In my experience, even in middle schools with veteran, effective counselors, families continue to struggle to understand what represents a sound choice.

"Even in middle schools with veteran, effective counselors, families continue to struggle to understand what represents a sound choice."Maurice Frumkin

Part of that struggle is just the size of the system. Sifting through over 700 high school programs and narrowing the list down to 12 viable, acceptable options is no easy feat. To do it, most families turn to the city’s massive high school directory.

But significant parts of the book are still not as clear as they could be. The listings for selective high schools — which look at students’ grades, test scores, attendance, and other figures — should provide actual, historic numbers rather than a school’s often-inaccurate targets. All schools should be required to provide information about exactly how they weigh those factors, as well as open house information.

And rather than force families to identify and understand dozens of school-specific requirements like writing samples, portfolios, online exercises, the DOE should consider devising a common exercise used by multiple schools.

Make no mistake: Simply meeting a program’s selection criteria does not guarantee a candidate will be considered for that program. Unfortunately, the published criteria are often misunderstood, resulting in families listing inappropriate, uninformed choices, or not listing any viable choices at all.

It’s not only the number of choices that plays a role in a child’s chances of matching. Roth’s model was also overlaid by geographic school admissions priorities, where certain students have less access to school options than others.

I speak with families every day who are convinced that although there are 5,000 applicants to a selective program with 100 seats, an offer is inevitable because their child meets the published selection criteria. They will, therefore, list fewer choices – and often only choices that represent the most sought-after, screened programs.

Wherever I go, families are shocked when they learn that at certain selective, screened schools, they can be ranked #1, yet not receive an offer to that school because of geographic priorities. Others are elated that they can be ranked #500 and match ahead of the student ranked #1, simply because of where they live or go to school.

Unfortunately, until we have a portfolio of schools with sufficient quality for all — where families don’t need to hold onto their priority status for dear life — true, equitable citywide school choice will remain an unattainable vision.

Without question, Roth and his team introduced a system that brought significant benefits to New York City’s families. Their efforts brought us much closer to a fair, effective marketplace. But until we have a level playing field, the process will, indeed, only work most of the time.

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.