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Quality and Equality in the NYC High School Choice Process

May 3, 2011

By Carol Boyd

Simply put, school choice lets families choose their child’s schools.  As a parent, T.G.I.F. “thank goodness I’m finished”. Many parents feel that school choice is ultimately about having access to vast array of high quality schools that will serve the needs of all children; for me, it’s about differentiation of instruction for my children.  School districts should have a legal and moral responsibility to provide families with a “choice” delivery system that is viable, transparent and accountable.  New York City is the largest public school district in the nation.  Given its sheer size and variegated landscape, is authentic choice for families in NYC actually attainable?  Over the coming months EdVox will present a wide angle view of authentic school choice across a variety of perspectives that we know will incite lively debate among our readers.

The New York City public high schools admissions process is the largest school lottery in the nation.  The city’s choice model, which permits students to select up to 12 school choices to yield “one perfect fit”, is based on matching systems used by hospitals to select medical residents.  Each December, almost 80,000 eighth-grade students and their families submit applications to an ever-growing number of high schools – having spent anywhere from more than a year to less than 15 minutes finding their perfect fits.

The Class of 2015 and their families have had access to 600 programs in more than 400 high schools in five boroughs. This year, the high school directory adopted a more user-friendly format that included clearer explanation of admissions priorities (they were tortuous) and posting of graduation rate data to round out school Progress Report and Quality Review grades.  Given these new tools, can families use the choice process to generate better outcomes for their children?

At a recent meeting I attended with the Department of Education (DOE) Chief Academic Officer Shael Suransky, it was widely agreed that families should not consider sending their children to schools with graduation rates below 50%. But currently, 209 high schools serving nearly 145,000 students, or more than half of NYC high schools, graduate less than 50% of their students with a Regents diploma (soon the only available diploma). If families used the 50% graduation standard to influence their school selection, more than 100,000 students would find themselves with no school match, and the rest of NYC high schools would be impossibly overcrowded.  That mismatch raises the question, can the DOE and their current match system offer ALL students access to quality choices?  Or for many families, does the promise of school choice offer only a selection of low-performing schools where their child is unlikely to graduate?

A preliminary analysis of the high school admissions results for the class of 2015 done by Gotham Schools revealed that, not surprisingly, families apply to schools with higher graduation rates. Baruch College Campus HS in Manhattan District 2, with a 100% graduation rate, experienced a 61% increase in applicants. In contrast, of more than 100 high schools in the Bronx, none appear in the top ten most sought after high schools. In the business model that the DOE applies to schools, limited supply and excessive demand are supposed to drive competition.   But since 11% of students applying for high schools (8,239) received no 1st round placement, and more than 25,400 students (34%) were offered seats in schools with graduation rates below 50%, the outcomes for 45% of high school students seem  extremely limited before they ever enter high school.  

So, high school choice does not always mean choice for all students. Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the upper east side of Manhattan (District 2), for example, is a high-performing high school founded to quell the protests from parents who felt there was no quality high school in the area to serve their children. In addition to its white majority enrollment, the school boasts a highly competitive screened admissions process (even Level 3s with 90 averages need not apply).  Top admissions priority is given to students who reside or attend schools in District 2, then to Manhattan students, and finally to the rest of the city.  With only 125 available seats, students from a struggling school in the South Bronx or East New York are unlikely to be admitted.

The chart below makes it blatantly obvious that higher graduation rates are more prevalent in schools with ELL and special education populations far below the city average.  Schools with higher rates of student poverty are also absent from this group.  Since, high achieving schools systematically do not admit these students, how will the DOE ever increase the percentage of all the city’s students who are college ready and graduate without remediation?


*Source: NYC Department of Education

This May will mark 57 years since the enactment of Brown vs. the Board of Education, yet public schools in NYC seem more segregated than ever. At a recent forum held by the Center for NYC Affairs, research presented by NYU professor Sean P. Corcoran  suggests that the current school match process keeps students and families in their place and continues institutionalized racism.  For families in boroughs like the Bronx, where there is no shortage of struggling schools and adult illiteracy is the second highest in the state, successfully navigating the admissions process is daunting at best, and for many families an exercise in futility. It doesn’t matter what languages we print the high school choice book in if families cannot read it. It doesn’t matter how many fairs and open houses the DOE holds if families do not attend because they are fearful of losing employment or because of their legal status, or cannot attend because they are juggling multiple jobs and other family challenges.  Students and parents do not simply need more schools.  They need more access to more schools that work to meet the needs of more students and their families.

Parents are not ignorant by choice, but by design.   The results of this year’s high schools admissions process show that an ever-growing number of families are continually seeking and demanding high quality school choices for their children. But excessive demand and inadequate supply may well not stimulate competition and, over time, yield more quality school choices. Simply dismantling behemoth high schools to create more new small schools is not a panacea.  New, small schools need time to gel, gain traction, and foster sustainability. The danger is that within five years, new small schools become phase-out schools themselves, as we saw happen this year. We must hold the DOE and the New York State Education Department accountable for creating sustainable smart education systems that provide more immediate quality options for all students. As families, activist groups and political leaders from under-served communities continue to demand equal access and opportunity for all children, parents fully recognize that a different system cannot be created by indifferent people. We must all dare to be different and reject mediocrity for our schools, our children and ourselves.  At least that choice is ours. Otherwise school choice will continue to be used as justification for band-aid fixes that do not stick and do not improve the quality of the vast majority of high schools.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Redpoint permalink
    May 6, 2011 11:47 am

    You make some fantastic points. I just want to suggest that the title of your graph should not be “The Top NYC High Schools” but “The Most Popular NYC High Schools,” the schools that get the most applications. Those who don’t know might think these schools have the best academics. Not to say their academics aren’t good.

  2. May 9, 2011 10:43 am

    According to a May 8 New York Times article, education – not student processing – but true education, the kind that wealthy parents pay many thousands of dollars for, is a scarce resource in New York City. This thing that parents hold onto, as a promise for their children’s future, is meted out like food in a besieged fortress. Because New York is a city under siege; it is encircled and oppressed by vested interests: racial politics; social stratification; economic hegemony.

    The Times featured in its article a young student, Radcliffe Saddler, who is representative of thousands of other New York City middle school graduates. Radcliffe, like many of his peers, failed to get into a high school of his choice – though he had not applied to any of the specialized schools that require examination for entry and he had indicated a total of nine that he was inclined toward, city-wide. The Times article, well written and thorough, focuses on the byzantine, almost impenetrable nature of the bureaucracy which sifts through student applications and determines the educational trajectory of young hopefuls like Radcliffe. While the article clearly highlights deficiencies of the high school selection system, unexplored is the one question that is central to educational insufficiency in New York City – why is there any at all???

    Why are students left standing, with unanswered petitions, outside the gates to knowledge? Why are these students deprived of a kind of nourishment which will alter the course of their lives, perhaps irrevocably?

    Radcliffe Saddler weeps at the prospect of lost opportunity. How can the rest of us be at ease knowing why this child cries and knowing that it is in our power to prevent the injustice that he suffers.

    There are students in New York City who get an excellent education in public schools. These students are the lucky few who, by dint of parental influence, guile, ambition and skill – or by dint of extraordinary talent – are selected to attend premier schools.

    So much of what befalls each student in the selection process is predetermined, the New York Times article stresses. Not only socio-economic status, but neighborhood and borough are powerful influences. These factors will always favor the advantaged and disparage the less advantaged – always, that is, unless basic assumptions underlying public education are eschewed. Unless there is true open enrollment. Only then, when every child has the opportunity to go to any school, without prejudice, will there be an end to discriminatory disbursement of educational resources.

    So long as neighborhoods remain racially and economically segregated, a neighborhood-based school system will inevitably reinforce the patterns of segregation. However, if all children, and all parents, could choose to send their children to the “best” school, then the “worst” schools would disappear – for who would choose to go to them? Right now, these failing schools are propped up artificially by an arcane structure that allots and distributes, like an indifferent god, the keys to children’s futures.

    The United States has historically demonstrated an unshakable faith in “markets”, and New York City is the acknowledged center of free-market wheeling and dealing. What better place, then, to apply laissez faire principles than the public school system. Let the market rule and, as with any bartered commodity, worth will tell. Consumers of education, selecting freely, will decide which schools survive and which die.

    But the operation of the free market in public education will never be, not without a virtual storming of that bureaucratic Bastille, the New York City Department of Education. Just as pre-revolution France supported and was supported by the pampered nobility, the current education system serves and is endorsed by the city’s elite. The children of New York’s plutocracy do not end up in the “worst” schools. Not only do the privileged know how to negotiate the maze of paper work and evaluation, but they also can afford to live in the best neighborhoods and provide their offspring with the finest early childhood enrichment programs. By the time the young from this privileged class apply to high school, they are geographically, intellectually and socially equipped to do well in the selection process.

    So, the responsibility for change falls, as it always and inevitably does in a democracy, on the rest of us, on all who have a conscience – and an eye to the future. For, we must consider what will happen to Radcliffe Saddler, and other students, who end up in schools that nobody wants to attend. These students will be adults one day. They will be – and they are – the fabric of our nation. If we cheat them at the beginning of their lives, we cheat ourselves. We rob ourselves of their talents, their ambition, their undeveloped skills. And we become, by design, a nation defined by paucity and not by strength.

    As posted on my website,, Sunday, May 8


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