After I suggested a way to fix the Boston Public School lottery process here, I attended the first of a series of community meetings in Boston designed to make good on Mayor Menino’s promise to “[adopt] a radically different student assignment plan – one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.” I left the meeting frustrated in different ways than I had anticipated. I saw none of the parental angst I expected, and I did not hear any significant conversations about what real parents want because the exercise was dominated by speechmaking, self-congratulation, and carefully managed participation channeled into a narrow, pre-determined plan of discussion.
The event was well-attended–by facilitators, observers, recorders, media, politicians, and assorted Boston Public School staff along with over 100 parents. But before we could get to a discussion of anything we sat through an hour and a half of introductions and speeches, including an interesting history lesson by State Representative Byron Rushing about race relations in Boston since the Pilgrims.
Finally, a consultant/facilitator announced the plan for the rest of the day: break up into small discussion groups to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what we’d change about the current school assignment system.
In my room, there were round tables set up with signs. One for “Chinese,” two for “Spanish,” and a third, full table that was presumably for the English-speakers. I thought this a rather bizarre way to start what was supposed to be an inclusive discussion.
I sat down and introduced myself to the person next to me…and then we discovered that everyone else at the table was either an observer, facilitator, or a reporter from the Boston Globe. Other official-looking people with different name tags milled about the room and observed. We moved to a table with a couple of parents and half a dozen high school students.
We were told to review a 2-page document describing how school assignment works in Boston and mark it up or ask questions about it. Then we were referred to a worksheet to write down answers to question of “what is working for you,” and “what needs to be changed or improved.” This led to a fumbling, awkward attempt at discussion.
As time wrapped up, a student summarized our ideas and wrote them on a board for everyone to see. What came out of that didn’t even really make sense to me. As the 3rd hour of my attendance approached and the group went back to the main auditorium, I chatted with one of the candidates I’d met in the city council race and then went home.
I’m not cynical. But this was theatre of some sort. So much effort was put into facilitation to no actual purpose. I have participated in “visioning” exercises like this in my job…it was ambitious to attempt such a thing with a public meeting. But I was overwhelmed at the sheer number of non-productive warm bodies occupying the space.
We did have the opportunity to voice our concerns…I heard two other parents in my group talk about the overwhelming number of choices and agree with my desire for greater certainty (or “predictability” as the facilitator helpfully summarized). I heard a student talk about their concern about being assigned to a particular school that would be better for them as English Language Learners and of the value of having siblings at the same school. I heard an interesting perspective from a student that sometimes neighborhood schools are not so great because the kids will just leave and go home.
But the entire exercise was tightly organized around a presumption of the merit of choice in the system. Our objective is to design a better system for parents to choose their kids’ schools. What constitutes a quality school is something the facilitators seemed to want to take off the table: impossible for consensus. Early on, the facilitator showed a drawing with choice in the center, surrounded by quality and then access/fairness. Focus on choice. That seemed backwards to me.
After the meeting I went home and then to my school’s fundraising event–where I had the good fortune to talk with our city councilor who gave me a bit more perspective. He gets to hear the parents I thought would be at this meeting–unfiltered by a cumbersome process. He said this meeting was very early in the process…the real discussion will happen when the follow on meetings happen in the neighborhoods.
I felt like the meeting was designed around someone else’s agenda. What is really at stake is the fact that nobody wants a choice between quality schools and “not.” The process seems designed to avoid the kind of conflict that derailed things in the past. Good luck with that. These efforts…assembling a blue ribbon panel of experts and hiring consultants to manage the “dialogue,” while casting the whole exercise as a monumentally difficult effort of historical complexity serves only to undermine trust.
Imagine you are at the airport, about to board a plane with thousands of other travelers. Only problem is, some number of the planes will probably crash. It’s not clear how many, but you can tell you don’t want to be on those planes that are missing engines, have smoke coming out of the tail, or have the doors duct-taped closed. To make things fair, the airport sets up a lottery and you get to inspect the planes ahead of time, then submit your preferences. If you don’t play the lottery, you are pretty much guaranteed to end up on one of those duct-tape planes.
Travelers don’t like the lottery. So the solution is to improve the means by which people are assigned to the crashing planes?
In our case, I do not feel like our plane is crashing. I don’t regret our choice to fly this way. I believe the illusory array of false choices undermines community…but it’s not the cause. If we did abolish the lottery and make our schools neighborhood schools, it would not magically result in increased parent engagement and improved schools. As I realized driving home…this exercise is really a waste of my time. If BPS can design a system that will stop these parents from complaining that they have to move to the suburbs if their kids doesn’t get into a top elementary school, that will save me a few minutes of annoyance, but call me back when you have something I can do to answer the complaints of a parent who has no choice.