Winner of Nobel Prize For Economics Designed HS Admissions System

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The New York City school system has two reasons to applaud the Nobel Prize committee's decision to award it economics prize to Prof. Alvin Roth.

For one, he attended Martin Van Buren High School in Queens. His biography from Stanford University says he dropped out in his junior year and went on to Columbia University after taking weekend classes. DOE spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said Van Buren counts him as a graduate who completed high school in three years.

Roth also helped design the matching system the city uses to admit students to high schools.

“I want to congratulate Alvin Roth for winning the Nobel Prize and creating the algorithm on which our high school admissions process is based and which has benefited thousands of students since we first implemented it in the 2003-04 school year," Chancellor Dennis Walcott said in a statement.

According to the Associated Press, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded Roth, formerly of Harvard and now at Stanford University, and Lloyd Shapley, professor emeritus at the University of California Los Angeles, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences because of their work on "the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design."

Their research focused on the problem of matching different agents in a market - doctors with hospitals, students with schools and human organs with transplant recipients - in situations where prices aren't the deciding factor.

Roth developed the "deferred acceptance algorithm" which allows New York City eighth graders to rank their preferences and get matched, in theory at least, to one of their top choices for high school. Last year, SchoolBook reported that almost half of the students were matched with their first-choice school and 84 percent were accepted to one of their top five. For those who weren't matched -- about 10 percent of all applying students -- the city held a second round of applications.

Deputy Chancellor Marc Sternberg was principal of Bronx Lab School at the Evander Childs campus in 2003-04, when Roth and his team designed the new matching system. Back then, he said, too many students wound up in struggling local high schools because they could only pick up to five high schools. Some students wound up getting multiple offers and others didn't even bother picking schools.

"Schools held the reigns on how many seats were actually available or not," he said. "If there was a wait list it was handled in a not necessarily fair-handed way by the school."

About 30,000 of 90,000 high school applicants didn't get matched at all, said Robert Sanft, chief executive officer of the office of student enrollment. Roth's system enabled students to pick up to 12 schools and Sanft said the majority now get one of their top three. "Nobody is disadvantaged the way they were previously," he added.

The algorithm has stayed the same since 2003 but the matching process has been fine-tuned since then. Students who apply to specialized high schools learn about their offers at the same time as all other students, in February. Previously the other students found out in March. And a second round is held in the spring for the percentage of students who aren't matched with any schools and students who are not satisfied with their match.

The landscape of school choice has also changed considerably. In 2004, there were 279 high schools taking part in the admissions process; today there are 391. Those numbers don't include transfer schools and programs for students with special needs.

You can read Roth's paper describing the new choice process.