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."

Rumor: Recall on school board because of JROTC?

S.F. Insider: Recall on school board coming?

"The local Democratic Party is ready to do battle against an effort to recall three San Francisco school board members who oppose the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.


San Francisco voters in November passed Proposition V, a nonbinding measure supporting the military leadership program, which is scheduled to phase out next month.

The school board is expected to vote on whether to reinstate JROTC on Tuesday."

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Strategic plan

A writer on the mailing list posted a nicely structured strategic plan for how to move forward on these issues.

If you think you can help with any of these, please leave a comment, or write to the mailing list indicating which item you'd like to work on, or just to bounce ideas. Better yet, just do it!

Short Term Plan (this month)
  1. Increase membership of the group. Reach out to as many parents as possible. Diversity is key, families from many different backgrounds. Consider inviting 5 friends of family members to join the discussion and mailing list.
  2. Get to know each other. Setup informal meetings periodically, setup polls to learn about where we live, what we care about.
  3. Track action items and try to make progress on them.
Immediate Term Plan (1-3 months)
  1. Meet with BOE members. Find out what their positions and where they stand with respect to the SFUSD strategic plan, achievment, proximity, etc. Just as important, get them to know us. Dispel perceptions of racism or exclusivity in the desire for proximity.
  2. Learn more about family flight to the suburbs, other relevant demographic data, through the mailing list and this blog. Setup some polls.
  3. Talk to teachers and teacher unions. What are their needs/opinions on this.
  4. Involve the local media: newspapers, blogs, mailing lists, YouTube, etc.
  5. Learn about other school districts and how they do it. What can we adopt/avoid?
  6. Get other support: environmental groups, pediatricians (for childhood obesity, etc.)
Intermediate Term Plan (3-6 months)
  1. Reach out to Board of Supervisors, mayor, other political groups.
  2. Learn about 2010 BOE elections: fundraising, canvassing, etc. Maybe
  3. Get someone elected: would it be realistic to have a BOE candidate from this group?
Long Term (6-12 months)
  1. Improve all schools in SFUSD: the holy grail, this ultimately solves all problems.
  2. Educate voters about the BOE

Friday, May 8, 2009

Polling ideas

Some readers suggested useful polls that we could gather in order to learn more about public school challenges and, specifically, how it plays into student assignment and families leaving the city.

1. Poll families about applying to public school vs. private.

2. Poll families about leaving the city after X years.

3. Poll students that leave SFUSD for some other district and/or private school.

4. Poll mothers clubs, such as Burlingame Mothers or Golden Gate Mothers Club to get their perspectives on public vs. private, staying vs. leaving the city.

Any other ideas? Please leave comments with additional ideas, informal poll results, or contact the blog authors if you'd like to run such a poll.

Public school challenges in New York

A few interesting points about school challenges in New York.

"The Department of Education would not say how many schools had waiting lists or how many children were on them, explaining that officials were still reviewing the information that principals in Manhattan were required to submit earlier this week (principals in other boroughs must do so by Friday). But parent advocates and public officials in pockets throughout the city said that they had heard more complaints this year from panicked parents told that there may not be seats for their 5-year-olds at their neighborhood schools.

The notion of a waiting list for students living within a school’s zone is not unprecedented; last fall, 34 schools outside Manhattan capped their enrollment, turning away neighborhood children. But this year, after a change in city policy to standardize kindergarten admissions and encourage registration earlier in the year, the waiting lists seem to have proliferated, making their way into Manhattan neighborhoods where parents often make expensive real estate decisions with a specific public school in mind. And parents fear that the lists reflect not just the new policy but also a surge in demand, fueled by an increase in young families and an economic downturn that makes private schools less appealing."

The schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, issued a statement attributing the citywide rise in children taking the tests — up 2,412 students to 14,822 — to two factors: the Department of Education’s “further intensified” efforts to publicize the admissions process, and its decision to start all elementary school gifted programs in kindergarten (previously, some had started in the first grade).

San Francisco media articles about public schools

"The report sheds light on the simultaneous phenomena of a rising birth rate and a declining school-age population in San Francisco, and the reasons families with children under age 6 are most likely to leave the city. The data reveals that families in all socio-economic and ethnic groups are leaving, although middle income and African American families have shown the greatest decline in the past ten years. Reasons for leaving the city were probed by the researchers and include housing costs, cost of living generally, and school quality."

"We were most concerned that if we were locked into San Francisco with a mortgage, then if we got a school that was too far away or we didn't like the way it was run, we'd be trapped," Samaras said. Like many parents, she expressed frustration with San Francisco's school lottery system, which often bars children from attending their own neighborhood schools. School quality and the lottery system were two complaints that came up again and again in the parents' survey."

"We still see families leaving the city every day," Lee said. "We still feel like we're in the midst of a crisis."

"When a city loses its children, you lose a core group of citizens who put down roots and make investments in the city," says Margaret Brodkin, cochair of the mayor's Policy Council for Children, Youth, and Families and a rabble-rouser for children's issues. "People with kids play a different role in the community and feel a greater responsibility to the next generation. They're the ones with a vested interest in healthy libraries, public playgrounds, and, of course, schools." If they're leaving in droves, who's left to speak up for their needs?"

KQED discusses SFUSD's lottery with school officials, parent.

How do other cities assign students to schools?

Many other large US cities have a default assignment policy that looks at your address or the geographic cluster in which the parents live:
  1. Boston: priority given to siblings + geography, random assignment is used as a last option.
  2. New York: you register at your zoned school, determined by home address.
  3. Seattle: you register at your reference area school, determined by home address.
  4. Los Angeles: register based on home address.
  5. Washington DC: register based on home address.
New York City in particular uses a successful highschool assignment method designed by Al Roth (a well known researcher and expert in "matching" methods). This is a useful summary paper about it. Excerpts:

"Roth later helped design the market to match New York City public school students to high schools as incoming freshmen. Previously, the school district had students mail in a list of their five preferred schools in rank order, then mailed a photocopy of that list to each of the five schools. As a result, schools could tell whether or not students had listed them as their first choice. This meant that some students really had a choice of one school, rather than five. It also meant that students had an incentive to hide their true preferences. Roth and his colleagues designed an incentive-compatible mechanism and presented it to the school board in 2003. The school board accepted the measure as the method of selection for New York City public school students."


"New York City needs more good schools. But for a given stock of school places, more students can be admitted to schools they want if the matching process is free of congestion, so that students' preferences can be fully taken into account. The new clearinghouse, organized around a stable matching mechanism, has helped relieve the congestion of the previous offer/acceptance/wait-list process and provides more straightforward incentives to applicants."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

School Assignment Meeting with Rachel Norton


Some background from Rachel
  • People who have gone through it and landed in the public school system are generally happy (like childbirth – you forget)
  • A lot of committed families now
  • The last two years have seen unprecedented demand
  • Up until the last year you could get a proximate school if you went 0/7 within a mile of your home
Meredith shared information on scope of problem and meeting: focus on proximity for elementary school

Rachel shared ideas on why the district is not pursuing geographic based assignments
  • "neighborhood" has racist baggage and means no change in diversity – "I only want to send my child to school with children like mine."
  • "Proximity" is different than "neighborhood"
  • While proximity is not officially a priority in the redesign, the BOE will consider how proximity factors into assignments from a common sense standpoint – for example, if the new system requires an extensive network of busing then that will be an issue.
Why the focus on diversity?
  • Schools with >60% African America/Latino/Pacific Islander student body have lower achievement and a collection of issues that hinder progress such as high teacher turnover
  • When you send low scoring kids to higher scoring schools the low scoring kids don't improve
  • When you send mid-scoring kids to higher scoring schools they improve and when you send them to lower scoring schools they degrade
  • The bottom line is that school composition matters
  • Question from parent: shouldn't keeping the high achievers in the system therefore be a priority?
Redesign Plan
  • One simulation is geography based and the others are diversity based – there is no proximity-diversity hybrid
  • The simulations are just helping the district examine the options but are not meant to be the options to choose from
  • Question from parent: What information will be presented to respond to? RN answer: don't focus on your specific case but think about effects on whole system
  • RN noted that the district has not used data well until recently
  • Carlos Garcia thinks neighborhood schools would be just fine because he feels that the district has the ability to make all schools good, no matter where they are or who attends them
  • BOE has not adopted this approach
  • Some families don't want to send their kids to neighborhood schools
  • To define diversity, the simulations use: home language, public housing, free lunch, and race (maybe others, too)
  • Rachel (and others) favor a cluster approach where families would have some choice within a set cluster of schools – gives some predictability and some choice
  • Any system will have to stand up to Prop 209
Rachel thinks there should be some tweaks to the system for 2010-2011
  • Rachel would like to scrap the diversity index since it is not working but she has no idea if there is support for this
  • Rachel supports running the system by 1st choice, 2nd, etc.
  • Parent suggested creating a geographic hardship – 0/7 families assigned to schools > 2miles from home would get a hardship priority in the waitlist
How do the parents support the concept of proximity-diversity clusters?

Positions of BOE members:
  • Rachel and Norman Yee are already in favor
  • Norman wants geography and is frustrated that we're mired in this mess
  • Hydra Mendoza probably supports this
  • Jill Wynns might support it but is die-hard for choice (see below)
  • Jane Kim, Sandy Fewer, and Kim-shree are into diversity at any cost
  • They are all very focused on the achievement gap and would even accept a complex network of busing to deal with it
  • We probably won't change Kim-shree's mind
  • Jane Kim is pretty reasonable and often agrees with Rachel – we could talk to her
  • Sandy Fewer?
The BOE/district don't like the BOS telling them what to do. Carmen Chu does not yet have a lot of credibility for this issue but Bevan Dufty does.

Most metropolitan school districts in the US are cluster based

  • Since choice the whole district has seen marked improvements
  • Choice forced people to consider a wide range of schools
  • Parent involvement seems to have played a critical role in "lifting up" schools
  • We may be up against the limit of what choice can do – most of the schools that need help are on far from those with resources who would help lift these schools up
Next steps
  • Meeting with Jane Kim (and other BOE members) – call BOE office to schedule
  • Emails are ok but meetings are better
  • Don't use the word "neighborhood"