Allocating A Scarce Resource: "Good" Schools

In a typical school district, little kids often attend the public school closest to them. The Boston Public Schools have about 57,000 kids. Kids are assigned to schools via a complicated process. Many kids take the bus to schools a few miles away. This is expensive.

BPS has tried several times to change the system. They have a new committee this year, co-chaired by Hardin Coleman, who is dean of the BU School of Ed, just down the street, and joined by many other volunteers.

But it's tricky.

My friend Jal helped with this new study that critiques the district's plans:

The research group, led by Associate Professor Meira Levinson in cooperation with a team of HGSE doctoral students and Assistant Professor Jal Mehta, note that their analysis indicates that currently only 20 percent of BPS primary school students are enrolled in high quality zoned schools.

Access to these schools is unequally distributed with twice as many students in the West Zone having access to high quality schools compared with students in the East Zone. Additionally, more than one-third of white and Asian children are enrolled in high quality primary schools while barely 1 in 10 black children and 1 in 5 Hispanic children are enrolled in such schools.

“The five school assignment proposals put forward by BPS last Monday night make access to high quality schools even more inequitable. Under the six-zone plan, 35 percent of the seats in Zone 6 are high quality, whereas only 5 percent of the seats in Zone 3 are high quality,” notes Levinson. “This means students in Zone 6 have seven times the access to high quality seats as students in Zone 3.

Disparities get even worse under the other plans: a full third of the zones in the nine-zone plan have under 10 percent high quality seats, and over half the zones in the 23-zone plan have no high quality seats whatsoever.”

My friend Michael Jonas read the study. He wonders:

But do we even know that schools ranked "high quality" in this analysis fundamentally provide superior instruction?

Or might they simply have become the preferred choice of more middle class families, whose children, we know from reams of data, are likely to outperform their lower-income peers regardless of school quality?

He's got a point. For example, here is the MCAS growth data from one of the popular middle class schools, the Lyndon. Do kids make unusually rapid progress there? Not really. Lyndon was a little below average compared to other elementary schools in Massachusetts, a bit below the 50th percentile.

But while he's got a point, I do think the Harvard study's approach is reasonable overall.

Our School Quality Index (SQI) averages the three measures of school quality provided by BPS: MCAS composite score (combining absolute attainment and student growth over the past two years), DESE ranking by the MA Department of Education, and Popularity. Each of these measures is on a 1-4 scale, with 1 as the best and 4 the worst. It is worth noting that this index does not include important indicators of school quality such as caring teachers, demographic diversity, parent involvement, or equitable outcomes.

According to this measure, BPS currently has 12 High Quality Schools (SQI = 1.0-1.9), 29 Medium Quality Schools (SQI = 2.0-2.9), and 24 Low Quality Schools (SQI = 3.0-3.9) among zoned primary schools.

So while I might put a higher weight on MCAS growth than Levinson et al -- see this post by Shanker Institute's Matt DiCarlo -- Harvard's study is certainly a defensible approach.

So we're left with a tough question.

How do you distribute a scarce resource -- schools perceived to be good?

For that I don't have any good ideas except transparency.

* * *

I do have an idea about a different question.

How would you increase the number of "good schools?" Or more specifically, how to increase the number of BPS "parent customers" who like their nearest school?

My opinion is here. That there is no other way forward on this question besides massively improving school culture.

I think students behavior is one of my top priorities. Teachers often have to spend large amounts of time dealing with discipline and that takes away from teaching. No matter how good a teacher is, one student can disrupt the learning of all the others in such a way that the teaching will stop.

Big props to the BPS Committee which generated really terrific survey work, from which I drew my analysis.

Note that parents are not blaming teachers for student behavior issues. They typically blame other children and parents.

But we do know the massive attention to school culture can result in a big uptick in behavior....and happier teachers....and often (but not always) better results.

An example of a district "turnaround" school where improved classroom and hallway culture led to massive uptick in test scores is UP. Check out this 2-minute video.

Moreover, some district teachers -- not all teachers for sure -- hunger for this type of school culture intervention.

I think there's a teacher-friendly half-loaf opportunity here. Well maybe not a whole half loaf. Maybe a fifth of a loaf.

A. Some BPS K-8 teachers want to have their own rules and consequences.

They're set, sometimes for better (their methods work well), sometimes for worse (things aren't good but they don't want to change). Close the door, and do what they do. How the teacher next door manages a class is her own business.

B. Other BPS K-8 teachers would prefer to have a school-wide system, so they're all rowing in the same direction.

You lose a little autonomy but gain from the kids having clear expectations each hour of each day. For now, those teachers are fairly randomly scattered across all 24 "low" quality schools, so their preference for a uniform approach can't be honored.

What if BPS and the union simply interviewed teachers to identify "B" type teachers? Then have them meet similar colleagues and principals with highly specific plans? Then allow them to self-nominate, armed with information about exactly what their day-to-day teaching life would be like -- the exact rules, incentives, consequences, parent communication strategies, etc?

You'd end up with a few hundred teachers eager to try a school-wide approach to culture.

Pick perhaps 5 of the 24 schools to try this. Allow all of the "A" type teachers to transfer to any of the other BPS schools, and perhaps even compensate them for the one-time cost of change.

My guess is that the 5 could quickly become desirable district schools. Many parents would be getting exactly what the BPS parent survey data says they want.