out of bounds

How school choice differs for black and white families in New York City and other takeaways from a new report

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
New Heights Academy charter school in Washington Heights.

In New York City, a surprising number of elementary school students opt-out of their neighborhood schools — but who travels, where they go, and who stays put, is tangled in race, class, and gentrification.

Those are some of the findings in a report released Wednesday by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School. For the first time, researchers used a decade of student- and school-level enrollment data to track where kindergartners go to school, and where they live.

The report challenges the argument that city schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. In fact, 40 percent of kindergartners last year did not go to the school they are zoned for, instead attending charter schools, gifted programs, other special programs, or just regular schools that aren’t assigned to their address. That’s up from 28 percent in the 2007-08 school year.

But the findings show that families experience that “explosion” of choice differently depending on whether they are black or white, middle-class or affluent.

Here’s what we learned from the report, “The Paradox of Choice: How school choice divides New York City elementary schools.”

The growth of choice might have made some schools more segregated.

One idea behind letting families choose schools beyond their neighborhood is that they might wind up sending their children to school with classmates from different backgrounds. Research is clear on the benefits of doing so: For the most part, all students benefit from being in classrooms that are economically and academically integrated.

But if New York City students were to stay put, schools would actually be slightly less segregated than they are today by some measures, according to the report. About 6,300 more kindergarten students would attend schools that are close to the citywide average in terms of student poverty. About 2,300 students would attend schools that the education department considers racially representative, meaning between 50 percent and 90 percent of students are black or Hispanic. (Some have criticized that metric, saying that schools within those ranges should still be considered segregated.)

The numbers are based on a big assumption: that parents would continue to live in the same neighborhoods and stay within the public school system if they lacked choice. In practice, not allowing school choice could drive some families, especially affluent ones, to choose to live elsewhere or enroll in private schools.

The theoretical impact of removing school choice is relatively small, compared to the 75,000 kindergarten students who started school in New York City last year. Still, the data shows that choice hardly adds diversity in a city where schools are deeply segregated.

“If you thought school choice was going to make things more integrated, think again,” said Clara Hemphill, one of the report’s authors. “It doesn’t make things more integrated. And in some neighborhoods, it makes things more segregated.”

Families aren’t just heading to the new school next door.

Nearly half of city schools admitted out-of zone students last year, compared with only 28 percent in 2007-08, according to the report. Much of that growth has come from an expansion of charter schools.

Many of the new school options that have emerged in the last decade have aimed to offer families choices within their neighborhoods. The city has added gifted programs in most districts and created unzoned schools that draw children from across their swath of the city. In the case of charter schools, new choices sometimes are located even within the school buildings that house zoned schools that children would otherwise attend.

But many families are traveling far afield to take advantage of choice. A third of kindergarten students who traveled did so across district lines, according to the report — often into higher-income neighborhoods, from Harlem to the Upper West Side; from Crown Heights to Fort Greene; or from southeast Queens to Bayside.

Families in gentrifying neighborhoods travel most – and, now, so do black students.

Recent studies have found that school choice increases the likelihood that a mostly black or Hispanic neighborhood would see an influx of wealthier residents — who can now move in with the knowledge that they don’t have to enroll in local schools.

Those findings are born out in the New York City report. Living in a gentrifying neighborhood was found to be “the largest predictor of choice,” with 60 percent of families choosing to send their kindergartner elsewhere.

Regardless of where they lived, black students were also among the most likely to travel outside their zone. About a third of all students who opt out of their local school are black, with 59 percent of black students choosing a different school — more than any other racial or ethnic group, and over 50 percent more often than they did a decade ago.

“Families of color are bearing this extraordinary burden of having to go through school choice and making the trek every morning to just find a better school,” said Nicole Mader, one of the report’s authors.  

The most affluent and poorest families tend to stay put.

The researchers found that some students are far less likely to opt out of their neighborhood school — and that their reasons likely differ.

In high income areas, more families stay in their zoned school — one that families might be spending heavily to be assigned to. “Zones provide families of means with exclusive access to the schools they like, while choice allows them to flee the ones they don’t,” the report says.

But students who qualify for free lunch — a common measure of family poverty — were 80 percent less likely to travel outside their school zone. Students who are still learning English as a new language were 73 percent less likely to leave. The report notes that “may reflect the high costs of choice to families,” which requires them to navigate opaque admissions systems without the advantages of social networks that more wealthy families can tap into.

The choices families make maps to who they are and where they live.

One argument in support of school choice is that it allows families to enroll in higher performing schools. The report found that often happens in New York City: Students tended to travel to schools where test scores are higher.

But even among families who choose, there were clear differences in the types of schools that parents prefered depending on where they live and their race.

White parents who live in gentrifying neighborhoods headed to schools that were less diverse. They enrolled their children in schools with 19 percent fewer poor students and 14 percent fewer black and Hispanic students than their zoned option. Black, Hispanic, and Asian families in gentrifying neighborhoods tend to enroll their children in schools with the same total proportion of students of color — but where students are less poor.

For black students, opting out often means enrolling in a charter school. The report found that 30 percent of black kindergarteners attended a charter school — compared with 13 percent of all students. White and Asian students, meanwhile, were more likely to travel to a gifted program.


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”