When It Comes to High School Choice, Who Does the Choosing?

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Amid a frenzy of fall high school tours, it dawned on me that the most bothersome aspect of getting my son into a New York city high school is the illusion that it is our choice.

Anyone who has studied this elaborate process for five minutes could tell you that the schools themselves — at least the popular ones — do the bulk of the choosing. This is why we call it school choice.

Amy-Stuart-WellsTeachers College Amy Stuart Wells

It is true that parents and students, after seemingly endless visits to Web sites and overcrowded open houses, rank the schools according to their preferences. But at the same time, the most coveted high schools — those with far more applicants than they can accept — are also ranking the students.

The specialized high schools — Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, etc. — which accept students based only on the specialized high school exam, rank students by their test score.

The so-called “screened” schools — those admitting students based on a variety of criteria that could include grades, test scores, attendance, portfolios, interviews and/or essays — also rank the applicants based on whatever combination of these factors they chose.

Then the real sorting begins. We are told that a computer matches students’ preferences against the schools’ list of favorite applicants via a magical algorithm, and — poof! — the next four years of our children’s lives are determined.

Sounds simple, organized, etc. But what the heck is an algorithm? I hear many parents asking this question, wanting to know how one of them — whatever they are — is able to decide where our children go to high school.

According to Webopedia, an algorithm is a “formula or set of steps for solving a particular problem.”

For those of us who are not math or computer science whizzes, we should be heartened to know that an algorithm “must be unambiguous and have a clear stopping point” — in this case a high school acceptance or rejection.

Yet perhaps the most interesting aspect of an algorithm is that we unknowingly use them every day, even when our children are not trying to get into a New York City high school. No kidding. In fact, a recipe for baking a chocolate cake is an algorithm, ending in a simple step: “eat.”

This comfort food metaphor to describe the “thing” that gets our children into a school may help make us more comfortable with the process. But we have to remember that as the computer is taking each step toward defining our children’s options for next year, one side of the equation is much longer than the other.

In other words, when it comes to the high schools that are most in demand citywide, each of these has many more applicants than the applicants have good options.

In fact, the high school principals and Web sites, as well as the New York City Department of Education, are not shy about telling you how many students “applied” to the most coveted schools versus how many were accepted e.g., nearly 25,000 applicants for only 830 seats at Stuyvesant High School, or about 16,400 applicants for 90 seats at the High School for American Studies at Lehman.

Granted, these large “applicant” numbers include any student who listed each of these schools at all. Still, the ranking, algorithmic system of high school choice in New York City means that only the schools, with their amazing lists of potential ninth graders, can have their cake and eat it, too.