What one sociologist learned following 36 students through Chicago’s high-stakes admissions process

What happens when a sociologist moves to Chicago with her young family in tow? For Kate Phillippo, a researcher who studies urban education policy, the answer was a project inspired by her own search for schools for her young son.

Even though he was only entering kindergarten when she embarked on her study in 2009, she encountered “families talking about Chicago Public Schools everywhere — at the grocery store, at the baseball field, at the nail salon.”

Phillippo, an associate professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago’s College of Education, canvassed the existing studies on school choice, but found it a topic ripe for exploration. “School choice programs didn’t take off in most cities until the early 2000s,” she said, “so it was an open field.”

She embarked on a study, which she details in a new book “The Contest Without Winners” (March 2019, University of Minnesota Press). You can find an excerpt here. Starting in 2012 and over the course of a year, Phillippo and her small team followed 36 eighth-graders as they applied for schools, received acceptances, and then enrolled as freshmen.

Many situations — and many decisions — stood out. But one in particular resonates, Phillippo recalls: “One of the young people in the book said, this is disguised as school choice, but I’m not picking schools — they’re picking me. “

Phillippo spoke with Chalkbeat Chicago Bureau Chief Cassie Walker Burke about school choice and brain development and how teens feel about sorting and being sorted. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Your book takes us through the school choice process through the lens of 36 eighth-graders who are applying to high schools. Why did you decide to approach this topic through the eyes of students?

We think we know what’s good for young people, but we don’t ask them before we do it, and we don’t ask them after we do it — so, I thought why don’t we ask them? Kids are going to be the ones going to schools, traveling to them. These are their friend networks, these are where they are learning or not learning.

How did you choose the young people you followed?

I got funding from the Spencer Foundation to do this work, so I was able to offer incentive payments. The young people got paid $50 to do the three interviews with me and my colleagues. I went and gave a pitch to all the homeroom classes at two K-8 schools. At both schools we had more people than we were able to accommodate. We chose students randomly from those who volunteered.  

Over the course of the study, what did the young people tell you?

I was not surprised at the socioeconomic and racial disparities in who in our study got admitted into their preferred schools and who did not. About a third of the participants in our study got into a school of their choice — and most of them were selective enrollment, or highly competitive International Baccalaureate or performing arts programs. More affluent students got into their preferred schools far more often than less affluent students did.

The surprise was the very underwhelmed acceptance of the process that most of the participants had, whether or not they got into their dream school and had to see their peers dejected and crying — they saw that as unfortunate, but were resigned to it, like, that’s the way it goes.

Likewise, young people who had worked very hard, and who were very ambitious, but who did not get into their top choices accepted that. They believed that somebody must have done better than them and therefore deserved that spot in their dream school more. 

Read more: In Chicago, the tension between school choice and student circumstance

I was very surprised that almost nobody looked critically upon these outcomes and wondered why schools’ admissions patterns look the same every year. Very few people were angry at the outcome.

The two young people who were angry had a fairly affluent lifestyle and had other resources, and I think it was a shock to them that they didn’t just get into the schools their friends got into because life’s been pretty good for them. Everyone accepted what they got as an indicator of what they probably deserved, though, even if they were upset by it.

You did a third interview after the students had settled into freshman year. What did you learn?

There were definitely students who said it would have been better for them if they had gone to high school X. Some said they might move. One of the young people in the study, Udai, was commuting very far and was considering transferring closer to home. He was spending well over 1½ hours each way on public transportation every day, and it was a Chicago winter, and it was pretty grim.

But if you asked these young people how it was working out, maybe they didn’t love it, but they thought it was fair and it was more-or-less all right. They didn’t feel wronged. There was this sense of acceptance that where they had landed was appropriate for them. A number of kids voiced that there was something about their school that they disliked — whether it was the climate or that it wasn’t very challenging — but most of them planned to stay where they were.

Where are students developmentally and how does impact the process?

As any parent of a 13- or 14-year-old knows, people at this age tend to not have mastered executive functioning — that is, the ability to anticipate, plan ahead, organize and coordinate actions toward a particular goal.

It happens all the time with my son. I’ll ask, OK, What do you have going on tomorrow? He knows it perfectly. Then tomorrow comes and none of the things he needs to take to school are in his bag and he hasn’t come up with a plan. Young people master executive functioning more toward the end of adolescence.

Also, young people are going through really rapid identity development — trying to figure out who they are, who they belong with, and where they belong. Most early adolescents are really hungry to get that information from sources around them.

They are also very concerned with peer opinion and acceptance. Rejection by peers has been found to be physically painful. Young people are becoming more independent and autonomous. They want to exercise agency and make decisions themselves; they are not looking for parents or educators to direct them too terribly much.

So how do these traits advantage, or disadvantage, eighth-graders who are trying to navigate school choice in a district like Chicago?

All of the young people that I spoke with really liked the idea of being able to pick their own schools. They very much disliked the idea of being told, hypothetically, this is the school you have to go to. And they wanted to have a voice in which high school that would be.

They are thinking about who they are. They are interested in the potential, in, for example, a pre-law or premedical program, to be able to learn about vocations they are interested in but also to affiliate and identify themselves.

When someone who grew up in Chicago finds out another person is a native Chicagoan, the next question out of their mouth is, where did you go to high school? It’s an identifier. Students at some level are aware of that — that where they go to high school reflects to others who they are.

So certainly someone who is thinking about their identity, who is thinking about where they belong, is most likely going to want to make a choice that will reflect well upon themselves and navigate away from schools that might reflect negatively upon them.

Students at this age do care about what schools tell others and tell themselves about who they are. That may do them a little bit of a disservice and nudge them away from schools that may be a great academic fit but are undesirable because of other qualities.

In Chicago, unfortunately, schools that are physically located in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods are schools that a lot of people will avoid for that reason alone, whether they are cognitively aware of it or not. The social stigma attached to racially isolated neighborhoods and schools may lead some students to deselect even schools that provide excellent opportunities.

You write about a young man who has two acceptances: the higher-rated school is further away in a neighborhood that his parents don’t deem as safe. What was it like to watch that decision making process unfold?

That was one of the incidents that told us we needed to look more carefully at students’ patterns of selection and deselection. That student — I call him Udai in the book — had been in the U.S. for three years. His parents’ social networks were not huge — his father knew some people through his job. Udai was incredibly industrious in researching schools, not only looking at materials that CPS had released, but found materials on his own.

When it came down to the two schools that accepted him, one was a legendary selective enrollment high school on the South Side of Chicago that does really impressive work and the other was an International Baccalaureate school in a predominantly white neighborhood. They had pretty similar performance indicators, although the selective enrollment high school had many more assets on paper and opportunities in terms of languages taught and extra-curriculars.

Udai’s parents cared very much about the quality of the education he’d receive. One of his parents was very upset that he had not gotten into what he considered a better school. I’ll never forget Udai telling me that his dad felt like he’d slacked off. This was a kid who researched high schools more than I researched the colleges I applied to!

Now he had this choice of two schools, neither of which was his top preference, and his parents, as soon as they found out the school with the IB program was in a white neighborhood, said this is the school we’d like for you to attend.

What happened?

Even though the South Side school was an easier school to get to — the public transportation routes were faster — he went to the school his parents preferred. And this was the young person I mentioned earlier who was slogging through this 90-minute one-way commute every day, to go to a lower performing school that wasn’t any closer to his home. He thought about transferring to a closer school, but would have ended up at a far lower performing school if he did so.

Why did you choose pseudonyms for the students and the schools and how did what you learned about reputation and branding factor into that decision?

Given that I was going to ask students very sensitive questions about what schools they did and did not want to go to, and why they did not want to go to them, and also what they did to get into those schools, I didn’t want to put the school at risk. Or educators or students. I wanted to hear everything they had to say. And to be honest, a few people did things that were not 100 percent ethically clean.

As far as identifying schools, I feel like so many schools have unearned reputations that are often very highly racialized. I did not want to add to either positive or negative reputations by repeating the attributions that students, and sometimes educators, gave to schools. A lot of those reputations, in my opinion, were not earned by the performance of teachers or students.

What did you see that people did that was unethical or questionable?

One of the participants in the study, for example, hedged their bets very substantially. They were admitted to a selective enrollment high school and some private schools as well. That student filed [an appeal] to try to get into an even higher-ranked selective enrollment school, and was admitted, to their credit, through principal discretion, but ended up deciding to enroll in a private school.

That student did not relinquish their spot in the selective enrollment school until after the school year had started, just in case something didn’t work out. That was their technical right to hold on to the spot. But I describe it as ethically questionable because there was someone else who wanted more than anything to go to that school who did not get offered that spot until after the school year had already started.

But the stuff you hear about people buying homes in lower socioeconomic tiers to get a spot, or cheating or gaming the system, I did not hear that from any participants or educators in the study.

You observe in the book that educators were put in awkward, hands-off positions as their students went through this process.

The educators I worked with at all of the schools in our study were very admirable professionals. They saw what a big deal this was in the lives of their students.

There simply wasn’t that much they could do. They were wary of telling students of where they thought they should or should not apply. They didn’t want to tell students to aim too low, but they also didn’t want to give students false hope of getting access to schools they had a sense they might not get into.

How much did you see family wealth and resources — or lack thereof — become a factor? Were there students who navigated this process on their own?

There were. While some parents choose schools, some parents really rely on their children to navigate the system.

One of the problems with this setup is that, because there are such varying numbers of applications that go into the selective enrollment high schools, the eligibility cutoff to apply is fairly low. You’ve got to basically score in about the 40th percentile in state standardized tests, but whoever gets a 40th percentile on a state standardized test does not have a score high enough to be admitted to most of the city’s (more competitive) selective enrollment schools.

Some parents will say, you’re eligible for that school, apply there. Why not?

There are a lot of parents who believed they were doing what’s best for their kids, but even among highly educated parents, their social capital didn’t always match up with how complicated the system was.

There are parents who have their spreadsheets, who drive their kids to attend required open houses, who pay for test preparation courses. Those are the kind of things that parents with more capital and more flexibility with their jobs and their childcare were able to give their kids. Not all parents, regardless of how much they love their children, are necessarily able to give that.

What questions were you left with that you weren’t able to answer?

I think CPS is making some really impressive moves in terms of trying to make the process more streamlined and navigable. But what can urban school districts do when they see this unevenness in some schools being massively oversubscribed?

And other wonderful schools are not receiving nearly as many applications as they should. What can be done to motivate young people to take underenrolled schools more seriously? Could we handle a more random distribution of seats across qualified applicants, in the name of equity?

What do you hope people take away?

That young people really care about the opportunity to get a high-quality education. Their parents and teachers care as well. And the high school choice policy in place does what it can to provide opportunity — but it is hamstrung by the limited number of seats at the schools students prefer.

Young people find themselves in the position of competing for access to important educational resources, in a city where inequality is sturdy and growing. This makes the competition uneven. Only some students have resources that will help them get access to the schools they want.

The policy can be adjusted to make access more equitable, but as long as the seats are limited, students will still compete. As a city we all need to consider whether this is what we want for our young people, as learners and Chicagoans. If it’s not, we will need to reach for something different.

Kate Phillippo will discuss her book on April 26 at CityLit Books in Logan Square, on May 8 at Women and Children’s First Bookstore in Andersonville, and on May 9 at Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park.