NYC’s high school selection system might be the worst system for choosing a high school — except for all the others

The New York Post published an opinion piece about the byzantine high school selection system.  As someone who’s helped well over a hundred students through this system, it really is byzantine.  There are over four hundred non-charter public high schools in the city, plus dozens of charter high schools.  In eighth grade, students can complete a “Round 1” form where they rank the high schools they are most interested in.  Each of those schools have different criteria for judging admission: some are based on your grades, test scores, or attendance; others, on the level of interest you show by attending information sessions; others, on a special test you take for admission; others on a portfolio you submit; others on an interview you do; others on geography; and finally many combine several of the above.  Just as you rank the schools, the schools rank you.  Then an algorithm is done to match students with schools.  Just imagine having to research all those schools, understand each one’s admissions priorities, and then complete all those applications!

Sound complicated?  We’re not done yet.  In a separate process, there are the specialized high schools (think Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, etc.) which have their own test, the SHSAT, which you take for admission.  Admission is based solely on this one test, and many people study for years.  (A sad waste of talent.)

No, we’re still not done yet.  Based on the SHSAT and your Round 1 form, you get a school assignment in March, which could have 2 schools (if you got into one of each, you get to choose), 1 school (if you got into one “normal” school and one specialized school), or 0 schools (if you were not placed with any of your Round 1 schools nor did you score high enough on the SHSAT).  At this point, you can complete the Round 2 form, in which the same matching process is used as Round 1, but with those schools that are left over.  (Usually, not the good ones.)

If the Round 2 process doesn’t work out, you are automatically placed into a local school that has space.  But it’s still not over.  You can appeal your choice if something went wrong.  You can also apply separately to charter schools (yes, they’re in another totally separate system), which are decided by random lottery, but the more you apply to, the better your chances.

All of which is to say, the process is truly, incredibly complicated.  (I also simplified it, leaving out LaGuardia School of the Arts, private schools, and many intricacies of appealing your placement.)  As the Post‘s opinion piece justly points out, this process dramatically favors more affluent students who have much better coaching and access to information.  (Let alone that they often speak better English.)

You might think, at this point, that I agree with the author that we should abolish this system.  After all, it clearly favors affluent students and takes a lot of time for everyone.  But there is one key problem: nothing better has been proposed.  At least the current system gives students a chance to go to a better school.  At BEAM, we can coach students on how to get into a great school that will challenge them, and we have tremendous success.  Some families find their way on their own.  Compare to a system that just places students by geography, in a city that is highly segregated (by race and income) — what chance would low-income students have then for access to these schools?

This is a subtle issue.  Maybe a system based only on geography would help, because then there might be some mixed-income schools (although I find that unlikely).  Maybe the current system has another downside, “creaming” the best students from low-performing schools, leaving them worse off.  These are interesting questions, questions that deserve study.  But it’s not worth changing a system that offers some kids incredible opportunities unless you’ve done a very careful examination of the trade-offs, and we frankly have no idea!

So what should we do?  If more students had real advising on navigating the high school system, they could be vastly more successful at getting into great schools.  There are so many big mistakes that students make all the time: not filling in all 12 spots on the Round 1 form, for example, or incorrectly judging what school to apply to.  (We had a student who decided by looking at schools’ graduation rates, not realizing he’d ranked a dual-language school specifically for English Language Learners, a decision that he is now stuck with for 9th grade even though he does not speak fluent Spanish!)  Just as we need more guidance counselors for college applications, help with the high school application process might create a system that offers tremendous opportunities for all students, regardless of background.

Algebra for All in NYC

Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a plan for every New York City middle school student to have access to algebra in 8th grade, and Chalkbeat is out with a great story discussing the challenges facing the initiative.

I work with many exceptional middle school students at BEAM, and for many, the lack of algebra in their middle schools is a tragedy.  No access to algebra closes doors; it’s as simple as that.  That’s because most people who pursue science degrees have taken calculus in high school, so you’ll be significantly behind if you don’t have that background.  But getting to calculus in high school requires taking algebra in 8th grade, unless you double up on math in some year!  There are ripple effects throughout high school and college; no 8th grade algebra makes it much harder to pursue a science major in college (which is why BEAM offers an online algebra course).

Yet simply providing some algebra classes opens a host of other issues.  First of all, algebra must be taught well, which will be hard for teachers who are not experienced teaching high school level math and who may not have the mathematical background to offer a high quality course.  Moreover, in many schools a teacher will have several classes of normal 8th grade math, and one algebra class—where would you put your prep time?  But the bigger danger is that kids who are not ready for algebra will be pushed into it.

The Chalkbeat article seems to treat this as a good thing, talking about “lower-performing students who could use the early exposure to a subject that trips up many students in high school.”  But if a student does not deeply understand earlier material, then accelerating is a mistake.  A study in California (also, paradoxically, in the same Chalkbeat article) points out that when California mandated algebra in 8th grade, those students got lower scores on 10th grade math two years later.  Really understanding algebra requires really understanding math.  Otherwise, you’re just memorizing formulas and not learning anything.

In fact, algebra is something of a debacle right now in New York.  On the old, easier, pre-Common Core Regents exam in New York City, roughly a third of students had to take the test multiple times to pass.  (And let me tell you, a pass does not demonstrate mastery.)  A quarter of students had to take it at least three times.  There were 66 students in New York City who took the test ten or more times, and half of them still didn’t pass!  Even for those students that did pass, did doing so on the tenth try really mean that they got something out of algebra class?

Fundamentally, there is a mismatch between what we are aiming for, namely that all students take algebra, and what we are achieving, which is that many students take the test repeatedly, focus on memorization, and don’t learn mathematics on a deep level.  Algebra should open doors.  There are no doors being opened by memorizing formulas, which (barring exceptional teachers) is all you can do when you don’t have the mathematical thought processes down going into the class.

It is good that algebra will be available to everyone.  It is a critical equity issue.  But for students to really take advantage of this opportunity, there is a lot more groundwork that must be put in place.