High School Choice System Needs Improvement
Improvement was the key word at the forum “High Stakes Decisions: How NYC Students have Fared Under High School Choice” held by Insideschools.org and the Center for New York City Affairs. The forum opened with a presentation by Sean Corcoran, an associate professor at NYU, regarding the high school choice system, implemented in 2004 by Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein. Under this system, eighth-grade students in New York City can apply for admission to up to 12 public high schools, rather than being obliged to attend their local zoned school. According to Corcoran, the goals of this change were to create an incentive for high performance within schools, to offer better opportunities to students in economically struggling neighborhoods, and to respect parents’ freedom to select schools for their children.
Corcoran said that his research looked specifically at “inputs — student choices, and outcomes of the process — where students are ultimately placed.” There are several factors that influence students’ “choice sets,” he said, including specific needs and interests, school size, geographic location, achievement rate and socioeconomic composition.
Surprisingly, he found that 72 percent of New York City students who participate in the system are placed in one of their top three high school choices, and 53 percent are admitted to their first-choice school. While the top-performing students list highly selective programs as their first choices, students at the bottom of the academic distribution choose less competitive, lower-achieving programs as their first choices, he said.
The panel raised several questions: Are students being provided with the data they need to make an informed choice? Are there enough high-achieving schools in the city to provide all students with programs that meet their needs and interests? And finally, do students participate in the choice system at all? The speakers indicated that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “not yet.”
According to Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, a doctoral candidate in international education at NYU who conducted interviews with parents from various socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, the choice system has been especially ineffective among the recent immigrant and non-English-speaking population.
Carol Boyd, an activist from the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice agreed, explaining that these students and their parents often do not have adequate information to make informed decisions. Boyd said that the Department of Education High School Directory, the book used to research the vast number of options available to students in the city, is infamously difficult to navigate.
Sattin-Bajaj added that many students and parents in these populations not only fill out applications uninformed, but many neglect to fill out the form at all. In such a case, a guidance counselor fills out the student’s form, placing the neighborhood zoned school as the No. 1 choice, which these students inevitably receive.
Arlen Benjamin-Gomez, a staff attorney at Advocates for Children in the Immigrant Students’ Rights Project, said that other students who do not fill out an application become “over-the-counter students,” meaning they are placed in schools with remaining space. These are likely to be low performing, large schools that lack resources. The schools’ over-the-counter students, are English-language learners and students with special needs, Benjamin-Gomez said without specific programming for these students, the schools’ achievement and graduation rates plummet even further.
Despite the dissatisfaction, it was unanimously agreed that the new system is better than the old system, though it remains a work in progress. The DOE plans to increase its outreach to particular communities and to continue improving students’ options.
“The supply isn’t moving as quickly as the demand,” Robert Sanft, CEO of the Office of Student Enrollment at NYC DOE admitted. “We don’t have enough good options to serve all New York City students and we need to continue to improve that,” he said. #
Grace McCarty, a student at Columbia University, is an intern at Education Update.