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Measuring Access to High-Quality Schools

In a new report, HGSE’s Nancy Hill probes the inequities in Boston’s school assignment policy.

According to a new report co-authored by Harvard Graduate School of Education Professor Nancy Hill, the school assignment policy adopted by the Boston Public Schools in 2014 has failed to significantly improve inequities in access to high-quality schools and, in some cases, has increased inequities among students.

The BPS’s Home-Based Assignment System set out to provide students with access to high-quality schools closer to home. Hill and her co-author, Northeastern University’s Daniel O’Brien, evaluated the system’s effectiveness over three years, at kindergarten and sixth grade.

Their report, released today by the Northeastern-based Boston Area Research Initiative, describes how pre-existing disparities in the number of students living in different neighborhoods, along with the uneven proximity of high-quality schools in the city, led to greater competition for seats among black and Latino students, compared to white and Asian students. For black and Latino students, the policy had the unintended effect of making it “harder for them to get the educational foundation they need to succeed,” Hill says.

The report underscores the need for a system that defines access to quality in terms of equalizing competition for seats, rather than the number of school options.

In a conversation, Hill discussed the findings and what they reveal about how schools can address inequities in school assignments.

Q. What are the key findings? Did the findings surprise you?

Nancy Hill: The goal of the Home-Based Assignment Policy was to increase access to high quality schools close to home. In practice, this meant that every family will have high-quality (Tier I) schools among their options and that, ultimately, students will attend schools closer to home. Its implementation was based on guaranteeing a minimal access to high quality—Tier I—schools. The policy stipulated that families’ choice options, or “baskets,” would include the two closest Tier 1 schools, the next four closest Tier I or Tier II schools, the next six closest Tier I, II, or III schools, and then capacity schools.

However, because high quality schools are not evenly distributed across the city, there are some neighborhoods that have fewer Tier I schools that are in close proximity. This inequitable distribution existed prior to the policy, but the policy did not improve upon it.

The policy was successful in enrolling students closer to home. This was especially true for elementary school students. This improvement was largely driven by a reduction in the number of students who travel the farthest distances.

When looking at access to Tier I schools and enrollments, I was not surprised that black students, and especially those living in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, had access to fewer Tier I schools and even Tier I seats. This is evident when looking at a map of the city and was true under the prior school assignment policy. However, I was surprised by the large inequities in the competition for Tier I seats and their impact on access to high quality schools.

Compounding the problem of having fewer Tier I seats available in these communities, there are more students vying for those seats.  Because more children were vying for fewer seats in these communities, fewer children in these communities received their first choice, and—in a cascading fashion—more of these students were assigned to Tier III and Tier IV schools or were administratively assigned. 

A second thing that surprised me was the error that was made in implementing the policy for middle schools. Whereas the policy states that families will have access to the closest two Tier 1 schools, for middle school children, the algorithm was set to determine school quality based on the closest Tier I schools with kindergartens. Then, those schools that did not have 6th grade were removed, and pathway schools were added. Removing the schools without 6th grade, in many cases, meant that no Tier I schools remained. This was especially true for communities with strong elementary schools that serve grades K through 5. The result was that many communities had no access to Tier I schools with 6th grade. This was both surprising and avoidable.

Q. What can be learned from this study that can help improve equity in schools?

NH: Whereas the policy itself and the evaluation are at an aggregate level—equity in number of schools or even seats—we cannot lose sight of the fact that real children living in Boston have differential access to schools. We cannot lose sight of the fact that black and Latino children, many of whom are already disadvantaged in other ways, face greater competition to get into Tier I schools. The deck is already stacked against them in this society, and this policy has made it harder for them to get the educational foundation they need to succeed. 

These are real children. These are the experiences of real parents trying to navigate a school assignment system and get the best school they can for their children. The policy has had the unintended effect of making it harder for those with the fewest options. This is not to say that a child who attends a Tier III or Tier IV school might not find a good teacher and gain a good education. But the odds are against them.

School assignment policies are blunt tools for increasing equity. Increasing the number of high quality schools in the district is the most direct way to improve equity and access to high quality education for all. But even as BPS works on increasing the number of high quality schools and seats, they can begin to increase equity by focusing on equity the competition for seats.

Q. What actions can be taken by BPS to help correct the situation?

NH: First, BPS can focus intensely and purposefully on increasing the number of and widening the distribution of high quality schools across the district.  When there are more high-quality schools and seats available, especially in neighborhoods that currently have fewer options, competition will diminish and access increased. Rearranging school assignment, without increasing the number of high quality schools, merely rearranges those who have access to high quality schools and those who are left out. All children should have access to high quality schools. 

Second, BPS can consider accounting for seat competition when comprising families’ choice baskets equitably. They know how many seats are available in each school and can easily determine how many times a school appears in a choice basket. With these, they can easily assess equity in competition for seats.

Third, BPS can fix the glitch in the implementation of the policy for 6th grade. It is difficult to understand whether and how the policy, as designed, impacted equity and access to high quality middle schools because it was not implemented properly. Using the framework from this evaluation they can approximate the outcomes and determine next steps.

Read Northeastern University's news story about the new report on school assignment in the Boston Public Schools.


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