It was my pleasure to read Professor Alvin Roth’s recent piece on why New York City’s high school admissions process now works most of the time. And as the city’s former deputy director of high school enrollment and a current admissions consultant who has helped thousands of families navigate the process, I see his observations play out every day.
Given how massive the New York City process is, the mechanism of assigning students to schools after families have made their choices does, indeed, work well. But the process by which those choices are made remains complicated, and very much depends on expertise or the ability to spend an excessive amount of time understanding how it works. Many students still go without either.
One family with whom I recently worked had every reason to believe they would do well: A high-achieving student, experienced school counselor, engaged parents, and a strong middle school. Unfortunately, their counselor was overloaded, they had limited time to visit schools, they were armed with less-than-accurate information, and they believed their top choices were within easier reach than they were. Other students with fewer resources or lower grades can face even greater challenges.
Yes, the ever-increasing number of apps, websites, and school search tools are helping some families evaluate their options, and the city continues to improve how information is disseminated. But there is no substitute for personal, human guidance by someone who knows schools, the process, and takes the time to get to know the student on a personal level.
For the nearly 80,000 families citywide each year navigating the transition from eighth grade to high school, middle school counselors play that role. Typically, each will support hundreds of families through the process.
Part of my role at the DOE was to train middle school counselors, whose workloads, savvy, and degree to which their students’ parents were engaged in the process varied widely. Over time, many counselors have developed into admissions experts who do an outstanding job informing their families. A Manhattan school counselor entering her third year recently told me, though, that it was a challenge for her to become familiar with schools beyond the “brand name” schools that everyone talks about.
It’s a problem Roth acknowledges. “Although it’s great to have a marketplace that gives you an abundance of opportunities, these may be illusory if you can’t evaluate them, and they can cause the market to lose much of its usefulness,” he writes.
A lot of work remains to ensure that counselors in every school are supported, bolstered, and rewarded for their efforts — in part to ensure that talented counselors don’t flee those important roles. A more comprehensive, citywide strategy to take advantage of alternative, community-based support where counseling is in short supply is also well overdue.
That’s just one piece of the puzzle. In my experience, even in middle schools with veteran, effective counselors, families continue to struggle to understand what represents a sound choice.
Part of that struggle is just the size of the system. Sifting through over 700 high school programs and narrowing the list down to 12 viable, acceptable options is no easy feat. To do it, most families turn to the city’s massive high school directory.
But significant parts of the book are still not as clear as they could be. The listings for selective high schools — which look at students’ grades, test scores, attendance, and other figures — should provide actual, historic numbers rather than a school’s often-inaccurate targets. All schools should be required to provide information about exactly how they weigh those factors, as well as open house information.
And rather than force families to identify and understand dozens of school-specific requirements like writing samples, portfolios, online exercises, the DOE should consider devising a common exercise used by multiple schools.
Make no mistake: Simply meeting a program’s selection criteria does not guarantee a candidate will be considered for that program. Unfortunately, the published criteria are often misunderstood, resulting in families listing inappropriate, uninformed choices, or not listing any viable choices at all.
It’s not only the number of choices that plays a role in a child’s chances of matching. Roth’s model was also overlaid by geographic school admissions priorities, where certain students have less access to school options than others.
I speak with families every day who are convinced that although there are 5,000 applicants to a selective program with 100 seats, an offer is inevitable because their child meets the published selection criteria. They will, therefore, list fewer choices – and often only choices that represent the most sought-after, screened programs.
Wherever I go, families are shocked when they learn that at certain selective, screened schools, they can be ranked #1, yet not receive an offer to that school because of geographic priorities. Others are elated that they can be ranked #500 and match ahead of the student ranked #1, simply because of where they live or go to school.
Unfortunately, until we have a portfolio of schools with sufficient quality for all — where families don’t need to hold onto their priority status for dear life — true, equitable citywide school choice will remain an unattainable vision.
Without question, Roth and his team introduced a system that brought significant benefits to New York City’s families. Their efforts brought us much closer to a fair, effective marketplace. But until we have a level playing field, the process will, indeed, only work most of the time.
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