One application opens up choice

Cincinnati parents camped out to enroll their children in a popular magnet school.

In Waiting For Kindergarten, a Cincinnati parent told the story of the 16 days he spent camping out in a tent to get his child into an elite magnet school.  Eventually, tents in front of Fairview-Clifton German Language School “filled the entire hillside each night.”

There’s a better way to manage school choice, writes Alexander Russo in the Washington Monthly.  Most magnets and charters hold lotteries to decide who gets in.  Often parents have to attend meetings, fill out multiple applications on paper and meet “a dazzling array of deadlines.”

Savvy parents have an edge.

Unified Enrollment is making it easier for parents to apply.  “All schools — district, magnet, and charter — operate under one timeline, one form (or website) and one lottery.”

A handful of cities already have it: Denver, DC, Newark, and New Orleans. NYC has it for high schools only. A handful more like Baltimore and LA have streamlined their process but stopped short of a fully unified system.  I’m told it’s being contemplated in Cleveland, Indianapolis, Oakland, Camden, and Detroit.

The benefits of a streamlined system are obvious. Before it created the unified system in 2011, there were 62 different forms and application deadlines in Denver. Now there’s one form, one date, and parents rank their preferences so that schools don’t have to go through an extended waiting period while parents figure out what they’re going to do.

However, it’s hard to get everyone on board, writes Russo. “Chicago and Philly both tried and failed to get it done, blocked by a variety of factors including angry parents and reluctant charters.”

America’s top high schools

The Preuss School, a charter affiliated with University of California at San Diego, topped the list of change-maker high schools.

The Preuss School, a charter affiliated with University of California at San Diego, topped the changemaker schools list.

The Daily Beast has ranked America’s top public high schools by rigor, graduation rates, college-going, etc.

Charter schools do very well, followed by high schools with selective admissions.

The most interesting ranking is 25 High Schools Doing the Most with the Least. Charter schools also dominate the “changemaker” list along with magnet and selective schools.

Getting into the right high school

Five middle schoolers try to get into one of Chicago’s selective high schools in a WTTW series. Robert, a straight A student at a nearly all-black, all-poor high school, dreams of going to Whitney Young, an elite magnet. So do thousands of other students.

Alexander Russo calls it Hunger Games, Chicago Style.

Too much choice? Or not enough?

School choice is a failure because it doesn’t guarantee access to a high-quality, neighborhood middle school in her majority-black Washington, D.C. neighborhood, complains Natalie Hopkinson in a New York Times op-ed.  The district closed the local middle school for poor performance and low enrollment, complains Hopkinson, the founding editor of a black e-zine,  The Root. She doesn’t like the new K-8 nearby — low test scores, no algebra or foreign languages — and her son has to compete with other students for admission to a high-performing charter, magnet or private school outside the neighborhood.

If the old school had remained open, surely Hopkinson would have rejected it. Choice may not guarantee her son a place in an excellent and conveniently located school, but it’s created more options than kids from that neighborhood had before.

Hopkinson envies the “shiny new middle school” in an affluent part of town, notes RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. But that’s not a product of  “Zip Code Education,” not school choice.

Furthermore, D.C. was losing public school students and closing schools for years before the first charter school was created, Biddle writes. Middle-class parents of all colors moved to the suburbs — more Zip Code Education — for better schools.

Hopkinson lives in Northwest D.C.  Students are zoned into low-performing middle schools, but they now have choices, Biddle writes.

Instead, you can enroll him in Howard University Middle School, one of the Center City Public Charter School branches — a former Catholic school converted into a charter just a few years ago — a Community Academy charter school, or  even one of KIPP’s charter schools. All of those choices are just minutes away from the Shaw metro . . .

As a middle-class parent, Hopkinson is choosing between district-run neighborhood and magnet schools, charters and private schools for her own children, but wants to restrict choice for others, complains Edspresso, which adds that she’s wrong about charter school performance.

In fact, DC’s charter schools make more and faster gains for all children, retain their students longer, and are boasting higher graduation rates. Those that don’t work do close — at a rate of 15% percent, a practice that still rarely happens in traditional public schools, even in this city where she believes officials are school closure crazy.

Washington D.C. didn’t offer good schools in working-class neighborhoods before parents had charter options and private-school vouchers. There was little incentive to create the kind of schools parents wanted. Few parents could afford private school tuition and they couldn’t all move to the suburbs.  If Hopkinson wants better schools and fewer wait lists and lotteries, she should support more choice, not less.

New York tops school choice index

Brookings’ interactive Education Choice and Competition Index rates the nation’s 25 largest school districts. The index will be expanded to the largest 100 districts in the future.

New York City earns the highest choice score with Chicago in second place, notes Grover (Russ) Whitehurst. Both received a B grade. The low scorer was Orange County, Florida, which received a grade of D.

New York performed particularly well in its assignment mechanism, its provision of relevant performance data, and its policies and practices for restructuring or closing unpopular schools.  Chicago, in contrast to New York, has more alternative schools, a greater proportion of school funding that is student-based, and superior web-based information and displays to support school choice. If the best characteristics of Chicago were transferred to New York and vice versa, both would receive letter grades of A.

Orange County students must attend their local school — unless they opt for the Florida Virtual School, which is open to all students in the state.

Some of the nation’s biggest choice districts, such as Milwaukee and New Orleans, aren’t included because of size, but will be in the expanded index.

The index doesn’t distinguish between vouchers, charters and magnet schools, complains RiShawn Biddle.

 Because magnets have largely been geared towards desegregation instead of offering families high-quality school options, those forms of choice have done little to improve student achievement. Given that magnet offerings often end up skewing in favor of wealthier households (who can use their political clout within districts in their favor) at the expense of poor and minority families (who cannot), magnets aren’t exactly a high-quality form of choice.

Adding a Parent Power category such as ability of families to overhaul an existing school in their community would also make sense; this could be done simply by looking at which states and cities have Parent Trigger laws already in place.

But the Brookings does reveal the “sobering” reality, Biddle writes. “Far too many families and their children have far too few choices of any kind, much less those of high quality.”

'Gifted' classes produce few gains

Gifted students in special classes and magnet schools don’t learn more than students who just missed the cut-off for special programs, concludes a working paper (pdf) by the National Bureau of Economic Research. From Education Week:

The University of Houston researchers who conducted the study found that students in these programs were more likely than other students to do in-depth coursework with top teachers and high-performing peers. Yet students who barely met the 5th grade cutoff criteria to enter the gifted programs fared no better academically in 7th grade, after a year and a half in the program, than did similarly high-potential students who just missed qualifying for gifted identification.

“You’re getting these better teachers; you’re getting these higher-achieving students paired up with you,” said Scott A. Imberman, an economics professor

The large, southwestern district provides enrichment, rather than acceleration, to gifted students. That typically means “more detailed and in-depth course materials, taught by high-performing teachers, with other high-performing peers.”

Students qualified as gifted based on high grades, teacher recommendations or scoring above the 80th percentile on a standardized exam.  However, students with average academic performance — as low as the 45th percentile in reading and the 55th percentile in math — could qualify if they had disabilities or limited English proficiency or if they lived in poverty.  About 20 percent of students were designated as gifted, an unusually high number.

Magnet scores vary in LA

Parents shopping for a magnet school in Los Angeles may not be able to compare test scores, because so many magnet programs housed on larger campuses don’t report their test scores separately. Now parents can check a map of magnet school test scores, provided by the LA Times.

Scores vary greatly with the gifted programs, not surprisingly, leading the pack. Among the programs with abysmal math scores and very poor English scores is the Teacher Training Magnet at troubled Crenshaw High.

‘Best high schools’ are charters, magnets

Charter schools do very well in Business Week’s list of America’s Best High Schools.

Working with GreatSchools, the magazine identified the highest performing and most improved high school in each states, the best high school serving a low-income population and the public and private schools rated highest by  GreatSchools visitors.

According to Charter Blog, only 5 percent of high schools are charters, but 14 percent of top performers and 14 percent low-income top performers, 21 percent of most improved and 18 percent of the favorites are charter schools.

Many of the non-charter public schools use admissions tests to choose students. Charters aren’t allowed to screen students, but they have the advantage of being schools of choice: Parents have decided that’s where they want their kids to be.

You have to click on the pictures to see the best in each state, which is annoying. It took me five tries to find California. My daughter’s alma mater, Palo Alto High, is listed as “best improved,” which is odd.  It didn’t have much room for improvement. I guess science scores went up.