NYC’s Choice: it’s not about charter schools

Outside of New York City, most educators seeing a headline about a “choice” program would automatically think: charter school. In Gotham, however, every public school parent knows that choice means something else; i.e. the battle to find your middle school graduate a place in a good high school. 

It is one of the largest and most taxing public school choice programs in the country. And on November 29, Lori Nathanson, a Research Associate at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, delivered a fascinating account here at CIEP of how this quasi-market driven program works for at-risk students at a CUNY Institute for Education Policy event.

Nathanson’s presentation (see her PowerPoint here) described a program meant to offer some 80,000 middle school graduates a choice in their selection of some 700 different academic programs at more than 400 of the City’s public high schools? Daunting? You bet, as both Nathanson and the panel of experts – Clara Hemphill, founding editor the popular Insideschools.org; Joseph Viteritti, Hunter College’s esteemed chair of the its Urban Affairs & Planning Department; and Robert Sanft, who oversees this pioneering choice program for NYCDOE — agreed.

In a discussion moderated by CIEP founding director David Steiner, panelists questioned Nathanson on the meaning of her team’s findings. Steiner noted that at-risk students got their “first choice” schools at nearly the same rate as higher-performing student got theirs (52.7% to 53%), but that the former chose higher performing high schools as their first choice by a much smaller margin (29% to 56%), in part, presumably, because they didn’t expect to be successful in getting into such schools.

If the idea was to re-mix students of various academic abilities into strong schools, Steiner wondered, perhaps an assertive “academic affirmative action” program might be a better alternative than choice. Viteritti, pointing out that 82% of New York City high school graduates who go to college need remediation, suggested that the city needs to “focus on supply, improving the schools that we have,” in addition to the open enrollment program. “Choice alone is not enough,” said Viteritti.  Hemphill agreed: “choice does allow you to escape bad schools, but it doesn’t fix the problem.”  Sanft too believes that “choice is not the solution, but a mechanism.” But, he pointed out, “we should keep in mind that some 30,000 at-risk students have a choice that they didn’t have before.” Indeed, Nathanson’s report and the CIEP event should start an important reconsideration of this pioneering urban education program.

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