School reformers have long promoted accountability and school choice as the best methods to provide greater academic opportunities for all students.
But even though both get lip service from the city Department of Education, accountability seems to be given more priority as a goal.
Take the incentives provided for schools whose test scores reach a certain level. Principals can receive cash bonuses of up to $25,000 if their schools receive an A on their progress report, and schools risk being closed if they do poorly.
School personnel throughout the city have consequently become singularly focused on reaching the targets set by the accountability framework of tests and evaluations.
Where does that leave school choice? Anything not tied to a reward or punishment system in this
high-stakes era seems to receive limited attention at the school level.
I found this to be the case in a number of the middle schools I studied where informing families about high school choice was a low priority relative to all activities associated with the progress report grade.
For example, after having very few parents return the Learning Environment Survey one year — a survey that factors into the school’s final grade on the school progress report — the following year the principal led a school-wide campaign to improve response rates. He engaged all levels of school personnel — from assistant principals to paraprofessionals — and offered prizes to homerooms that collected the greatest number of parent surveys.
The principal was clearly invested in improving in an area that had brought down the school’s progress report grade in previous years, and he dedicated time, energy and resources in response.
By contrast, during this same two-year period, the principal did nothing to enhance the school’s outreach to parents and students about high school choice.
On the contrary, in the first year the school hosted a well-attended informational event about the choice process, but in the second year no similar event took place since neither the principal nor the guidance staff took the initiative to plan it.
I would argue that New York City’s middle school students stand to benefit more from receiving better information about high school choice than attending a school with a higher response rate on the Learning Environment Survey; the principal, however, acted rationally in response to the Education Department's signals about what should be prioritized.
At a different middle school, one that had received an A on its previous year’s progress report, officials hosted one information session for parents on school choice during the 2008-9 school year.
Despite the large number of non-English speaking parents at the school, the event organizers did not provide professional translators. Instead, after a one-hour presentation entirely in English, parent volunteers were asked to translate in order to answer any questions from the non-English speaking parents in the audience (about a third of those in attendance).
Only 15 minutes were allotted for their questions. After the English-only presentation, few of the parents understood enough about it to even have questions.
Despite the New York City Department of Education’s grandiose rhetoric about the importance of school choice, its public statements have not been accompanied by guidelines, requirements or school-level incentives to ensure that school choice lives up to its promise as a lever for educational equity.
Middle-school personnel are granted full autonomy to decide when, where and how to prepare students and families for high school choice, and without mandates or oversight, some schools invest minimal resources so they can focus more on high-stakes activities for which they are evaluated.
By not formally recognizing the gravity of the high school choice process for students’ long-term educational trajectories, and by putting so much emphasis on accountability, the Department of Education in fact contributes to a historic imbalance in students’ access to high quality educational opportunities.