Sunday, May 31, 2009

Carver Kids, 13 Years Later

"These Carver children are the sons and daughters of postal workers and bus drivers, musicians and airport workers. Some had parents on drugs. Others grew up without knowing their fathers. At least three had parents who had been incarcerated. Many grew up to the sound of gunshots, and nearly all knew someone who died from one of those bullets.

Many inner-city schools are not equipped to confront the issues these children face. The teachers are often less prepared for a class of children with complicated problems, the facilities and materials are subpar, and parental help, the backbone of success, is sometimes absent."

Friday, May 22, 2009

The SFUSD assignment process

You start by filling out an application where you rank-order up to 7 school choices. There are (almost) no restrictions on the schools, they can be anywhere within the district (for reference, San Francisco covers an area of 7x7 square miles, with famously uneven terrain). There are only two magnet schools with an entrance examination, so applying to these works differently. I will leave them out for the purposes of this discussion.

In addition to the 7 school choices, you also fill out the following 4 "diversity indicators" on the application:
  1. HL -- Does the student speak something other than English at home
  2. AAS -- Academic achievment status
  3. SES -- Socio-economic status (e.g. student qualifies for free or reduced lunch)
  4. EP -- Extreme poverty status (e.g. living in public housing)
For middle school or highschool applicants, there is an additional "diversity indicator" which is the API scores of the previously attended school.

The diversity indicators are binary in nature. So each student essentially is tagged with a 4 or 5 long bit-vector.

Schools are of two-kinds:
  • Attendance-area -- applicants who live within the "attendance area" for that school are considered first, then applicants outside "attendance area" are considered after
  • City-wide -- no preferrential treatment is given to applicants to that school based on location in the city, the "attendance area" is the entire city
On the day of the lottery, the algorithm does the following for every school individually:

1. Pre-assign siblings of an already-admitted student to the same school if that is among their choices; pre-assign special needs students to their top-choice.
2. Compute a preliminary "diversity index" on the basis of these pre-assignments.
3. For all students in the school's attendance area:
3a. Tentatively add her to the school, compute the new tentative "diversity index" including that student.
3b. Pick the student who contributes to the highest tentative "diversity index", give her the spot.
3c. If multiple students qualify in 3b, pick the student with the higher preference for that school on the application. If the preferences are also equal, pick randomly.
3d. Keep doing this until no student in the attendance area contribute positively to the tentative "diversity index"; at that point, repeat for BOTH attendance and non-attendance area students, and continue even if the diversity score is being brought down (pick the least negative one in that case). If there is a tie, attendance-area kids break ties.
3e. Repeat until all spots at that school are filled.

At the end, a student may be assigned to multiple schools. Assign the student to their top-choice, and repeat the steps 2-3e above to fill-in the openings.

The "diversity index" is a formula that's intended to maximize diversity at all schools, that is to say, make sure that the students who attend come from as many diverse backgrounds as possible.

If a student ends up with no school assignment, the district assigns them to some other school, close to their home, using an algorithm that is not described anywhere. In local parlance, this is called going "0/7".

A 0/7 student who wishes to continue applying for a different spot with SFUSD can now go through the "waiting-list" process, by expressing preference to a set of 8 additional schools. The assignment process is similar (diversity index-based), though more complex in some ways, and goes on until the first day of class. Some of these students get no assignments as well, that's called going 0/15.

The district advertises the following statistic about admission rates for the year 2009:
  • 78% of K-12 applicants received one of their choices.
  • 61% of K-12 applicants received their first choice.
Both of these statistics include siblings and special needs assignments (which do not go through the lottery -- they are pre-assigned by default). The district does not publish the aggregate admission statistics excluding siblings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is around 50-60% (that is 50-60% of non-sibling non-special needs applicants receive one of their choices), but that is not an official or verified number. The siblings numbers are available for a few select schools (which I quote below), but not in aggregate.

Some schools (generally, the ones with higher API scores) receive far more applications than they have seats, for example:
  • Clarendon has 66 spots per year, of which 11 are siblings, and 55 for the general pool. They received 1128 applications.
  • Rooftop has 66 spots, 19 siblings, and received 1086 applications.
  • West Portal has 66 spots, 17 siblings, and received 986 applications.
The current system is sometimes described as "total choice", it has no provisions against congestion. Although, technically speaking, some schools have "attendance area zones" which theoretically should limit the number of students who apply from outside the zone, in reality that doesn't work. The reason is that many San Francisco neighborhoods are fairly uniform across the diversity criteria. As such, unless you are somehow "different enough" from other people in your neighborhood, you won't get any boost in the lottery, on the contrary. This is known, and for that reason, lots of non-attendance-area kids apply anyway. This creates congested situations like the 3 schools above (and many others) which end up having very unfavorable odds of getting in.

Race-Conscious Policies for Assigning Students to Schools

Notes on National Academy of Education Paper (2007)

This is a comprehensive review of the impact of diversity on intergroup relations (i.e., removing prejudice) and academic achievement. The overall conclusion is that the effect of diversity on these two issues is variable but likely positive IF other programs foster true integration. 
"In summary, the research evidence supports the conclusion that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity are likely to be positive. Racial diversity per se does not guarantee such positive outcomes, but it provides the necessary conditions under which other educational policies can facilitate improved academic achievement, improved intergroup relations, and positive long-term outcomes."

I will include some of the important points below, with page number in parentheses.

The two most important points I found were:
  • Certain conditions need to be present for diversity to have a positive effect: equal status, cooperation, and opportunities for individualized contact. (26) => Personal note: What programs is the district putting in place to ensure these conditions occur? Otherwise the effort for diversity is wasted. Maybe this is why the achievement gap has not narrowed even for those students who attend diverse schools.
  • "Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that any benefits are only indirectly associated with racial diversity. Striving for such diversity should be understood as an attempt to avoid the harms of racial isolation and to create an environment that allows for positive intergroup relations. It should not be understood as a guarantee of positive relations, which are likely to come about only in an otherwise beneficial school environment." (36) 
Other points:
  • This paper did not focus on the ultimate outcome of education quality as a way to make school assignments. "We did not consider, nor do we question, the wisdom or efficacy of those programs..." They go on to say that they think it apparent that these programs are not designed to address race-based outcomes such as intergroup relations. (40) => Personal note: Why is the district interested in diversity? Is it to address academic achievement or intergroup relations? The strategic plan suggests the former. This report suggests that there are other ways that are more effective to accomplish getting to the ultimate outcome of educational quality. A 2004 Report by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights identifies programs that can improve achievement without using race - "Achieving Diversity: Race-neutral Alternatives in American Education."
  • The impact of racial isolation of African American students on academic achievement is associational, not causal. (18)
  • The overall beneficial effect of desegregation is not large but it is better than most programs. The policy question is whether it is worth the cost. (18)
  • High teacher turnover is associated with racial make-up of student body and this impacts achievement. (20)
  • Whites are not usually negatively impacted by desegregation. (20)
  • Positive effects for African Americans are larger in earlier grades. (20)
  • For long-term outcomes: "Under some circumstances, and over the long-term, experience in desegregated schools increases the likelihood of greater tolerance and better intergroup relations among adults of different racial groups." … "However, self-selection may explain part or all of the differences between students who attended desegregated schools and their counterparts who attended segregated schools." (32)
  • "Token representation invites self-segregation because token numbers expose the outnumbered students to harassment from their peers, constrict the possibility of equal status between numbers of different groups, and limit the amount of available interracial contact opportunities and thereby limit the benefits of learning in a diverse classroom context." While it's not easy to pinpoint an exact number that avoids tokenism, it is likely at least 15%. (34) => Personal note: How do we avoid tokenism in a district that has the following racial composition: Chinese 31%, African American 13%, Hispanic 23%, White 10%, Filipino 6%?
  • The paper evaluated race-neutral alternatives and found that unrestricted choice makes segregation worse while controlled choice seems to have a small but measurable effect on desegregation. (38-39)
  • The use of socioeconomic indicators can help desegregation a little. (40)
  • Overall, no race-neutral alternatives are as effective as using race to diversify schools. (42)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dream Schools

"This past fall, Davis reopened its doors as one of San Francisco's first three "Dream Schools" -- the name for a controversial reform initiative spearheaded by the San Francisco Unified School District's superintendent, Arlene Ackerman. The idea behind the program is to transform some of the city's lowest-performing schools in some of its poorest neighborhoods into high-achieving "academies" whose graduates go on to college. Three Bayview schools, including Davis, were selected as the initiative's first, with seven others in the pipeline for this fall.


The reality is that underneath the campus facelifts and burgundy blazers that give the Dream Schools a veneer of success, there are deep problems that will take years to work out -- assuming they ever can be."

"But staffers and parents are beginning to paint a more nuanced picture that exposes how challenging it can be to reform a neglected school. Almost everyone who's been close to the reform effort acknowledges that it's been exhausting and often confounding. Some voice deep concerns about aspects of the program. Yet for every critic, there is an enthusiastic supporter who believes that in spite of the challenges, the Dream Schools program could truly rehabilitate the educational opportunities in this African American sector and, eventually, throughout the entire southeast part of town."

"Thus, the Dream Schools purge the lower performers out of a school, the very kids who need the most support end up getting the least."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Presentation from BOE ad-hoc meeting

This is the PowerPoint presentation from the BOE ad-hoc meeting on student redesign, which took place on May 12, 2009.

Legal resources about SFUSD

Some resources regarding the legal history of the SFUSD, in particular about some of the landmark lawsuits that shaped SFUSD's current student assignment process:

"This Article reflects back on the San Francisco Consent Decree two years after its termination. Informed by the findings and conclusions of our systematic monitoring over a nine-year period, it seeks to reassess both the efficacy of race-conscious reform strategies and the value of court supervision itself as vehicles for change in education settings."

Goodwin Liu has written a lot of articles, in particular another on "Seattle vs. Louisvile". You can see more articles like that on his web page.

Gary Orfield has also written extensively on the subject, see more on the Civil Rights Project.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Eliminating the achievment gap in New York

The Harlem Miracle

"Promise Academy produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students. Let me repeat that. It eliminated the black-white achievement gap.


Over the past decade, dozens of charter and independent schools, like Promise Academy, have become no excuses schools. The basic theory is that middle-class kids enter adolescence with certain working models in their heads: what I can achieve; how to control impulses; how to work hard. Many kids from poorer, disorganized homes don’t have these internalized models. The schools create a disciplined, orderly and demanding counterculture to inculcate middle-class values."