NYC Ignores Cracks in School Choice System

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Editor’s Note: This op-ed offers an alternative perspective to the post defending the New York City’s system of high school choice by the deputy chancellor for the division of portfolio planning at the Department of Education, Marc Sternberg.

When the New York City Department of Education expanded its high school “choice” policy, they promised that it would level the playing field and reduce the achievement gap by giving parents more options. However, a sweeping federal complaint filed by parents and community groups on May 20 charges that this very policy has created a dramatically uneven playing field.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, claims that the D.O.E.’s high school admissions policy consigns African-American and Latino students overwhelmingly to schools with the highest concentration of high-needs students, which significantly diminishes their chances for obtaining a high school diploma. Moreover, the city has known about this inequity for years and has done nothing to address it.

Although the Bloomberg administration prides itself on the use of data in its efforts to reduce New York City’s achievement gap, the complaint reveals that for at least seven years the D.O.E. has ignored its own data demonstrating that its policies have contributed to widening that gap.

As far back as 2006, the D.O.E. was advised by its consultants, the Parthenon Group, that concentrating high-needs students -- defined as over-age/under-credited students and low performing students -- in particular high schools reduces the overall graduation rate of those schools.

Parthenon’s study showed that large concentrations of high-needs students affected the entire school population, negatively impacting students who may have otherwise succeeded in high school. For instance, students who entered high school barely proficient on state tests had the same graduation rate as highly proficient students if they were placed in a school with a low concentration of high-needs students. However, when that concentration increased, the graduation rates for barely proficient students dropped twenty percentage points, while the graduation rates of the highly proficient students remained constant.

D.O.E. data also clearly shows that schools with the highest concentration of high-needs students are also predominately minority, that is, over 90 percent African American and Latino. Conversely, the schools with the lowest concentration of high-needs students are disproportionately white: 24 percent white or double the percentage of white students in city schools. Of the schools with the highest concentration of overage/undercredited students, 80 percent are predominately minority. These schools have a graduation rate of 55 percent, a full ten points below the citywide average.

Ninety-three percent of the schools with the highest concentration of low performing students are predominately minority. The graduation rate at these schools is even lower: 52.7 percent. Of the schools with the highest concentration of both over-age/under-credited students and low-performing students, 87 percent are predominately minority schools. For students at these schools, the graduation rate is a shocking 47.5 percent.

Parthenon advised the D.O.E. in 2006, and again in 2008, to adjust its admissions policies to dilute the concentration of high-needs students to give students in high-concentration schools an equal opportunity to obtain a high school diploma. The DOE ignored Parthenon’s recommendations.

In 2011, New York State's education commissioner, John King, advised the D.O.E. to change its high school admissions policies to address the disproportionate representation of high-needs students in certain high schools, noting that the D.O.E. had the capacity to redress this problem within its choice system. Again, the D.O.E. did nothing.

Faced with willful inaction by the D.O.E., parents and community groups had no other choice but to appeal to the federal government. Coincidentally, parents in Chicago, another bastion of mayoral control, filed two federal lawsuits last week charging that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s policy of closing an unprecedented number of public schools disproportionately harms African-American students and students with disabilities.

It is impossible to escape the parallels between New York and Chicago: both administrations claim a laser-like focus on reducing the achievement gap. Both administrations define that gap almost exclusively in terms of test scores. In their quest to increase test scores, both administrations have ignored basic notions of equity. The evidence in both cities is clear. If we fail to close the opportunity gap and if we ignore the need for equity in education, we will fail in any effort to close the learning gap.