Lawrence community gets educated on school choice

On Feb. 22, a lecture was delivered as part of the Erickson Public Policy lecture series. The topic of the lecture was school choice; specifically improving the school choice system for students living at or below the poverty line in New York City by providing targeted information to those students when they are making a choice about which high school to attend. The lecture was delivered by Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, an associate professor in the Department of Education Leadership Management and Policy at Seton Hall University. The lecture focused on the mechanics of the school choice system in New York City and on the findings of a new study undertaken by Sattin-Bajaj and her colleagues Sarah Cohodes of Columbia University, Sean Corcoran of New York University, and Jennifer Jennings of Princeton University.

The system of school choice in New York City is a rather complicated one, partly because the city is simply so large that the number of students and the number of schools makes it hard to administer efficient policies and procedures concerning the matter. It is also difficult for students to navigate this system because of all the options available to them. The process begins for students in September of their 8 grade year when they are delivered a book that lists every single high school and program available in the entirety of New York City, totaling over 700 programs across the five boroughs.

“You get a telephone book sized book that has over 700 options and you get to choose up to 12, but you must list something on a form, otherwise you’ll get administratively assigned,” Sattin-Bajaj said, emphasizing the context surrounding the study. “When students who are low-income are choosing, they are choosing high schools [with a] 77% per year graduation rate compared to non-low-income students and the gap between the graduation rates of the schools they are matched to is even bigger. They get matched to schools with a 70% per year graduation rate compared to their higher-income peers.”

Students are matched to programs based on various measures of priority and eligibility such as neighborhood, grades, attendance of an open house, tests, auditions and other factors.

“In addition to trying to sift through 770 options, you have to be knowledgeable about what you actually need to do to get in,” she added.

Students in New York City then receive an admissions decision in March about which high school they will be attending the following fall.

The gap in graduation rates among the schools being chosen by low-income students compared to their higher-income peers drove Sattin-Bajaj and her colleagues to develop an informational tool to try and decrease the gap. One strategy was to try and reduce the amount of information that students would have to sift through.

The tools developed included several different versions of a sheet called ‘FastFacts’ that students could use to get information about high schools that met certain criteria as well as a system of sending text messages to students in order to encourage them to attend information sessions that gave priority for certain schools that met those criteria. The sheets included information such as graduation rates, eligibility requirements and, in one version, the theme of each program such as medical sciences or different careers. The first version was a single sheet, meanwhile the second and third versions were both multi-page documents.

“It might not be that they care so much about graduation rates; we also want to offer information that responds to students’ interests in a career or theme,” Sattin-Bajaj said.

The development of this tool led to the study that was the subject of her lecture.

The study performed by Sattin-Bajaj and her colleagues examined the impact of differing amounts of information on school choice. To do this, they used a randomized block design, or a design where test subjects, in this case schools, were grouped together and each group was assigned either a control treatment or an experimental treatment. The control was no intervention and the experimental treatment was the use of the FastFacts sheets. They found that there was no significant impact on which schools students listed, but that it did change the schools they were matched to higher graduation rate schools. Students who used the tools were also less likely to be matched to low graduation rate schools.

“We sort of cut off the bad end of the tail and really did so for immigrant students and non-English speaking students,” Sattin-Bajaj said. The tools they developed were also distributed in Spanish and a myriad of other languages to match the diversity of New York City.

“When you do work in New York City, where the schools serve over one million students, the eternal question is ‘How does what we learn from New York transfer anywhere else?’” Sattin-Bajaj said. She later added that at least some of the research is applicable just about anywhere.

“The scale, the scope, the idiosyncrasies of the admissions methods and the timing are unique to New York, but there are some characteristics that tend to be transferred or similar to other places,” she said, citing priority admission for siblings as one example.

Sattin-Bajaj’s lecture was informative and extremely interesting in a climate of uncertainty in the school system—her words brought a sense of renewed invigoration for equal rights in America.