Who Is that Masked Man?

Sandy got out of here just in time for trick or treating. Boston was luckier than many other places. Unfortunately, there are lots of streets along that weren’t full of ghosts, Spidermen and fairy princesses like our was tonight.

El día de las brujas is the perfect time to talk about the mystery man who has come on the scene in the Boston School Assignment debate…(here’s a Halloween word puzzle…replace one letter in “debate” with the two letters at the beginning of Superman’s real first name to get a word that describes what I fear is really  happening around school assignment in Boston…What is it?).

Back to the mystery man…He’s a young (always dangerous to guess people’s ages, but this guy is young) graduate student from MIT named Peng Shi. He apparently appeared at a meeting of the Superintendent’s External Advisory Committee (EAC) and asked if he could sit in. I’m sure his arrival was a matter of great curiosity on the EAC, but the meetings are public. so sit in he did.

In a few short weeks, Peng Shi has quite radically transformed the debate on school assignment, at least within the EAC. He listened for a couple of meetings, asked some questions and then said, “Oh, you want an assignment plan that minimizes transport and maximizes equity. I can do that.”

The guy must do a lot of those energy drinks, because I don’t know when he sleeps. In a very short time, he cam back to the EAC with a proposal that has since been revised at least once. His plan has the same starting point as the Quality-Choice Plan. That is, families start the choice process with the four schools closest to them. If their “walk zone” has more than four schools in it, then they get all of those in their choice menu, too. This is not a place where I usually like this conversation to start.

But Peng realizes that this “closest four” idea–while increasing predictability and minimizing transport cost–will be really unfair to families who happen to live in poorly-schooled neighborhoods. With this in mind, he builds in an “override” mechanism that allows students in such neighborhoods access to some higher quality schools through a school “pairing” or “grouping” scheme. The basic idea is that families with low-quality schools on their choice menu get other choices from outside of their walk zone.

The devil is, of course, in the details, which is also appropriate on Halloween. There are many details to be sorted out, but Peng offers an important correction to a big problem of the Quality-Choice Plan. He builds in an override mechanism in from Day One that at least tries to offer immediately some high-quality choices to families who don’t get them from the “closest four” formula. He is emphatically not saying, “Let’s get this assignment mess sorted out and trust our commitment to improving the quality of the schools.

Peng’s plan opens as many questions as it answers. What about the walk-zone preference? How do we decide what are quality schools? Won’t some students need to be bussed from areas with high quality schools to low-quality schools in other neighborhoods in order for this to work?

In the EAC meetings, the Boston Public Schools staff are remaining quite open to Peng’s ideas and his plan has been posted on the website that the BPS is using to share information about the assignment debate. In it’s own public pronouncements, however, the district acts as if its five original proposals are still all that really matters.

For the moment, the BPS is allowing Peng’s plan and many other flowers to bloom, but the judgement time approaches. If school “pairing” or “grouping” means that some children from poorly-schooled neighborhoods can go to better-performing schools outside of their walk zones, then it must surely be possible that some bad-luck neighbors of those “good schools” will have to leave their neighborhoods to attend troubled schools. Will they do that, or will they seek other options, outside of the BPS?

It’s not an easy question, for any BPS parent. At a parent meeting just the other night, someone with long experience in the BPS wearing many different hats said:

We don’t have to belittle parents who wouldn’t send their kids to some of these schools. If my child got into the …, I wouldn’t send her there. I’ve been in these schools and I know some of the craziness that goes on…

Agreed. No need to belittle parents who won’t send their children to substandard schools. But nor is there a need to limit some kids to such schools because that’s what happens to be available in their neighborhood.

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4 Comments

Filed under School Assignment

4 responses to “Who Is that Masked Man?

  1. This will continue to be a debacle as long as there are substandard schools. This plan only works when all the schools are up to par, then having a choice of four walk schools would be great. But this will disporportionately affect the poor neighborhoods, with substandard schools, keeping the caste system alive and well. Where’s a real plan to improve the schools first? That seems like the better first step to me.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cheryl, in the wee hours. You’re exactly right, and it should probably be said in every conversation about school choice in Boston. Quality is so scarce in some areas of the system that it becomes very difficult to talk about equal access to it, and that equation has to change. But the Mayor has chosen to focus the City on assignment policy right now and he has the power to do that. We can either say, “Assignment isn’t really the problem,” or try to engage in this discussion. The QUEST group thought long and hard about whether or not to even get into this “debate,” but we eventually decided that a bad outcome on assignment could have very bad implications for kids in Boston for a long time. I agree, so here I am (even though I know that there are 8-10 other problems that deserve just as much, if not more, attention).

  2. Kristina

    Is the QUEST group the only group that isn’t being listened to or considered by the EAC/Superintendent? There seems to be no luck in slowing down this whole thing. It appears that the mayor is insistent on a change to the assignment process by December no matter the consequences. Your thoughts?

    • Thanks, Kristina. I share your frustration…believe me. The EAC has been very open to dialogue with QUEST, and I think both groups have benefited from the interaction. The Superintendent and the BPS, in general, has also heard what QUEST has been saying. In the first presentation of their five plans, the BPS said very clearly that quality improvement and assignment change were two different tracks, and access to quality was not even a variable in their assignment decision framework. They’ve changed a lot since then, and seem at least somewhat open to new thinking from places like the MIT proposal, but orders on the timeline are still coming from City Hall. This is an artificial timeline from a technical standpoint, but is very important, politically, to someone. I think that people in the BPS know that the timeline is going to rush an important decision, unnecessarily, but they are not “frying these eggs” as my father would say. If the Super were to put her foot down on this, her very next footfall might be outside of the system.

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