I remember reading Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery when I was ten or twelve years old. It’s a great story that cleverly foreshadows danger, building to the unexpected climax and conclusion: the “winner” of the lottery is stoned to death in a small town ritual to ensure a good harvest.
In Boston, we have our own annual ritual and rite of passage for 4-years olds: the Boston Public School Lottery. Starting one year before children are eligible to attend kindergarten, parents visit prospective schools and choose the “best” school for their kids. Parents submit ranked choices and then assignments are made with priority awarded to siblings and people in the “walk zone” with a random number lottery used to break ties.
There is no neighborhood school based on address. Instead, the city is divided into 3 geographic zones. Parents can choose any school in the zone. In our case, we are eligible for 21 different elementary schools. In addition to these 21 schools, we can also apply for a spot in a public charter school (in a separate lottery).
The process is confusing for Boston residents and incomprehensible for everyone else. First of all, Boston is unique in offering what they call “K-1″–kindergarten for 4-year olds. There are not enough spaces for every child, but if you do get in, you have the opportunity of a free public education for 2-years of kindergarten before starting first grade. It is great that the city can offer that–but because it’s not universal, a lottery is necessary to determine who gets a spot.
K-2 is universal in Boston…but you will find that if you are not already in a school and moving up from K-1, there may be many fewer openings at the school you want…
Let’s stop right there. The school assignment system process begins with a “showcase of schools” and continues thorough the Fall with “preview days” when parents can tour the two dozen schools they might choose from to determine what school is the right fit. It ironically reminds me of my first days at MIT when we went through Residence/Orientation and chose our dorms or pledged fraternities. The feature of choice was a powerful element of beginning to establish an identity and develop a personal connection to the community.
But in Boston, choice subverts community and undermines parental involvement by encouraging a system of year-to-year decisions and an artificial diaspora of children who are bussed from their neighborhoods to innumerable destinations across the city.
But there is good news on the horizon! In the annual State of the City address, Mayor Tom Menino said:
I’m committing tonight that one year from now Boston will have adopted a radically different student assignment plan – one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.
Apparently, it’s been said before, but it’s about time we challenge some of the fundamental assumptions that keep this system alive. We should start from a new set of priorities that recognize ameliorating racial strife from the 1970s is no longer a valid reason to subject our children and their parents to a crazy game of chance. But neither is a quasi-free market system of competition and choice.
We are not making education better through this regime of false choice. We test kids who barely speak English and wonder why they don’t pass. We have schools full of special needs kids–and other schools with advanced work programs. We offer minorities the opportunity to be bussed out of Boston to suburban schools and we use taxpayer dollars to fund an increasing number of charter schools that are virtually impossible for existing students to enroll in. Then, we bus kids all over town to make this mess work.
And yet, in many cases, our local schools are doing just fine. I attended a talent show at my daughter’s school last year about a month after we moved to Boston and I was amazed at the enthusiasm and positivity of the students. I’ve gotten to know teachers and the principal and feel more connected to our school than I did when we were going to an elementary school in the suburbs that is one of the top schools in the state. But every year, there is a new lottery for the incoming kids.
I’ve been trying to write this blog post for a couple weeks now…and I keep running into the endless complexity of explaining the system, why I still believe in the school system that my kids are a part of, and yet why I think this approach needs to be radically-scrapped. Many others have complained. Some have been labeled racists for desiring a return to neighborhood schools. Some become so frustrated they feel they have to leave the city and move to the suburbs.
We moved to the city and I want to make things better. I think the challenges of diversity will enrich my kids and my own education as we navigate this system. I believe a classroom of kids from all ranges of background, interests, motivations, and family is more like the real world than a classroom where all are the same and success is scoring the highest grade. In life, credentials do not matter and no one makes your life fulfilling for you. We must constantly deal with a world that is not fair and does not care what our expectations are. We must learn to find the passion in life, find what is interesting, and motivate ourselves always to learn–not just to compete or win approval.
But we ask our kids to navigate this mess in a sea of instability. Schools do not serve the community because they are not of the community. We need to find a way to make our urban schools grounded in community before we can build them up to the standards we would like for all.
I have a suggestion for implementing the radical reform Menino promises. Eliminate choice.
Take away the fundamental assumption of the lottery process–that parents have a right to choose their kid’s schools–but replace it with a commitment to ensuring that kids are guaranteed the right to attend a school close to their homes. Allow exceptions for special cases, but limit those cases to justifiable situations.
How would this work? I would start by simplifying the registration process and moving it to later in the year. Instead of having a month-long period starting in January where parents submit preferences, there is a deadline in the Spring for parents to submit their intent to enroll and prove residency.
Then, in an initial assignment round, kids would be assigned to the nearest available elementary school until 90% of the seats in that school were full. Existing data could be used to model the impact of this on the most recent group of enrollees to determine what a neighborhood map would look like. Re-running the assignment at higher percentages would generate multiple possibilities for families.
This system would not result in a “boundary-based” school district plan, but a probability map. If you live half way between the Sumner and the Bates, then you would know that you have a probability of attending either school or the Conley (also nearby)–depending one whoever else is applying this year. You have zero probability of attending the Lyndon or the Trotter however.
In my example, I held out 10% of the seats in each school…that is to allow some degree of adjustment. Parents receive an initial assignment and may accept it or apply for discretionary transfer in the next round. So, we receive a notice that our son is assigned to the Sumner, but is also eligible for the Bates or Mozart. We can return the form asking to transfer to the Bates. When the next deadline arrives, all the parents who resubmitted are preferentially-reassigned and the enrollments are adjusted to 100% of available seats.
This modified lottery is not just an effort to preserve some choice, but recognizes the reality that enrollments are not stable. Apparently, in some schools in Boston, they do not know who will be in the classroom until a few weeks into September when kids actually show up. I think a modified, limited choice approach to assignments could help that uncertainty sort out without resort to waiting lists and the current system of cascading re-assignments.
Now there are a million other issues…what about the city charter schools? What about METCO? What about how we have advanced work classes at some schools which result in enrollment shifts from 3rd grade to 4th grade? What about the K-8 schools and the Roslindale K-8 “pathway” to the Irving Middle School? What about the fact that K-1 is not guaranteed? What about schools that are fully integrating special needs kids vs schools that are not? We can’t solve all the issues at once! We cannot scramble the current enrollments either. So this whole approach needs to be limited to one cohort of students to begin. As Mayor Menino promised, “one year from now Boston will have adopted a radically different student assignment plan – one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.”–so let’s limit the solution to one year from now, not try to change everything at once.
I’m afraid the only solutions we’ll see are tweaks to the current model–increasing the walk-zone priority percentage or increasing the number of school assignment zones to limit, but not eliminate choice. “Radical” is necessary to break from the incremental and unsatisfying creep away from the 1970s.
Our choice is a weak one at best. Because there are no guarantees, the “choice” parents currently have in the process is often a false one. Sure, you can choose to list the most popular school as your top choice, but you could just as well end up in a school across town that you know nothing about. I would trade meaningless choice for the right of my children to attend a nearby school.