The new high schools admissions process was implemented this fall with neither public announcement nor public vetting. As students, parents, guidance counselors, and administrators at both middle and high schools scrambled to learn the details of the new policy, misinformation and frustration reigned. Only now are people starting to understand the new system.
The new admissions process was designed to be fairer to more of the 100,000 students who apply to public high schools each year. Beginning this year, students will rank 12 schools on their applications in order of preference. Unlike previous years, high schools will make their acceptance decisions without knowing how their school was ranked on a student's application. A complex computer program will match up students with their highest ranked school that also accepts them. The program is designed like the one that matches medical school graduates with residency programs (though the mechanics of the schools' matching process have not been made public). There are no more waiting lists. The one school with which a student is matched will be the only option students will be offered unless they are accepted into one of the specialized high schools, which have separate admissions processes.
Few would question the need to reform the city schools' high schools admissions process, which, in previous years, gave top students several school choices but sent thousands of other students to schools not on their list of preferences at all. Klein and company addressed the problem quickly, but they have provided limited public explanation or justification of the details. And they have not adequately prepared for the effects of the changes. The result is considerable anxiety for parents and schools alike.
What can the Department of Education learn from this?
School personnel must be able to provide accurate information about new policies. Some families found sound, reliable information about the new policies, like Insideschools.org and the Web site and handbooks produced by the Department of Education. However, many others depended on school personnel who, not infrequently, gave out wrong or contradictory information.
Better school data are needed too. Because students must list 12 high school choices (instead of five in previous years), they and their families need to learn about many more options. With students selecting a larger number of schools, they will have to look further afield, beyond the schools with which they or people around them may be familiar. To help, the high school directory should include school safety information and other basic information about school conditions now listed only as statistics on school report cards. In addition, if schools are going to continue to give preference to certain students, the directory should not only state schools' priority groups but should also give data about how many students beyond those groups are actually accepted.
Students and parents must be able to get a firsthand look at the schools. This year, schools were totally unprepared for the much larger number of students and parents attending scheduled high school open houses and tours. As a result, many of these sessions have been overcrowded and many schools unable to accommodate the number of families that wanted to visit. In the future, schools must be accessible and offer sufficient tours and open houses to accommodate prospective students and parents.
All families need to know schools' true admissions processes. As might be expected, both parents and schools are jostling to gain whatever advantage they can under the new system: They are trying to figure out how to maximize the chances that they will get their top choices, whether of schools or of students. Parents report that some schools are trying to retain the advantages they had under the old system by creating ways for students "in the know" to submit additional information about their preferences and qualifications. Many parents welcome this because they are worried that, with a larger pool of applicants, schools will make their choices based on a more limited set of criteria, judging students solely by tests scores, grades, and attendance records. But these practices may put families who go by the book at a disadvantage.
With such a wide variety of New York City public high schools, the choice of a high school is a very important one. Many city high schools are just plain bad, and many more are mediocre. Even among the good schools, there are important differences--in size, in philosophy, in curricular and extracurricular offerings. Is the reform going to be a real improvement? No one can yet say whether the new system will get the intended results or what other unintended consequences may arise. The new admissions process may ensure that the system by which students are distributed to schools is fairer to more students. Unfortunately, no admissions process is going to solve the basic problem that there are not nearly enough good high schools to go around.
Jessica Wolff is a public school parent and the director of policy development
at the Campaign for Fiscal Equity.
Josh Simons is an artist and designer with two children in the public schools. The views expressed are their own.