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NYC study: 10 years of choice has not altered link between demography, destiny

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

With Philadelphia firmly committed to creating a "portfolio" of schools as a way to improve outcomes for all students, it seems worthwhile to take note of a study just released by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The study found that after 10 years of school choice and expanding high school options in New York City, "college readiness rates are still largely predicted by the demographics of a student’s home neighborhood." It concludes, "choice has not been sufficient to increase systemic equity of opportunity."

This study focused on high schools, whereas Philadelphia’s school choice initiative extends through the K-12 spectrum. There are other ways in which New York and Philadelphia are not directly comparable.

Nevertheless, there are ways in which these findings might offer guidance to Philadelphia, where policymakers and civic leaders are determined to alter the "demography is destiny" scenario — to close the so-called achievement gap — through creating more "high-quality" seats in schools.

The big challenge of this effort is to make sure that the initiative is not simply shuffling around the relatively high-performing kids among schools, but making low-performing kids into high-performing ones. This means providing high-quality options to students in the city’s poorest neighborhoods consistently from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Philadelphia is trying this through the Renaissance Schools initiative, and some early data on test scores and on student attrition rates seem to indicate that progress is being made.

But there are still vast inequities is opportunity across the city for students. Outside the Renaissance conversion schools, which are required to serve a particular neighborhood, most charter schools are hardly clamoring to enroll the hardest-to-educate kids.

And as in New York, Philadelphia has a complicated high school choice process that studies have shown throw up roadblocks to students from the city’s most impoverished areas who have attended the most underresourced schools.

The Annenberg study broke down college readiness scores — measured by the New York State Regents exams — by neighborhood of origin, regardless of the particular high school the student attended. It determined that factors such as single parenthood, unemployment rate, and mother’s education level were most closely correlated with college readiness rates.

The biggest single factor: racial/ethnic composition. "The strongest negative relationship to students’ college readiness scores was the percentage of Black and Latino residents in the city’s neighborhoods — the higher the percentage of Black and Latino residents in specific neighborhoods, the lower the college readiness scores of the high school graduates."

Overall, only 13 percent of Black and Latino high school graduates in New York City, compared with 50 percent of Whites and 50 percent of Asians, were determined to be college-ready.

So, what will change this? The report points out that in-school resources to help students navigate the maze of high school choices are inequitably distributed by neighborhood. The poorer the neighborhood, the less likely are students to be in schools with a wealth of counselors and other supports to help them find the right high school option. That is also the case in Philadelphia. More choices don’t necessarily translate into more access for the students who are lowest-performing.

Another way to fix this, the report suggests, is for the city to "invest heavily in school improvement strategies to increase the capacity of all schools." But right now, Philadelphia is in such a financial bind that it has no capacity for adequate investment in schools in all neighborhoods.

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