Tag Archives: urban education

Boston’s Education System Is a Microcosm for the Country

My colleagues Bonnie O’Keefe, Melissa Steel King, and I have a new report out this week looking at recent educational trends in Boston Public Schools (BPS). Even if you’re not from Boston, Boston’s educational outcomes are on a similar trajectory as the nation as a whole. We write:

In general, Boston’s performance on standardized tests has tracked the national trends since the early 2000s, but Boston made faster progress when the nation as a whole was improving, and Boston’s slowdown in the past five years has been more pronounced. Furthermore, while Boston continues to outperform many other large urban districts, some peer cities have instituted reforms…that have contributed to more rapid progress in recent years compared to BPS. Meanwhile, BPS has struggled to make a dent in persistent racial and ethnic disparities in test scores and graduation rates. Without the launch of new and innovative initiatives to improve equity and address stagnating achievement trends, BPS could be at risk of losing its status as a national leader in pre-K-12 education.

Speaking personally, I found writing the report to be a sobering exercise. BPS was certainly busy over the last ten years — including big changes to teacher hiring practices, an expansion of pre-K, and a change to how it funds its schools, among other things — and yet student achievement scores didn’t budge. Worse, some initiatives, like a re-designed school assignment system, led to increased racial segregation and may have contributed to declines in achievement for black and Hispanic students. Meanwhile, other efforts, such as plans to deal with Boston’s aging school facilities and to create a unified school application process, have struggled to get off the ground amidst political battles and public pushback.

Boston’s education system is unique in its particulars, but the broader story is similar to what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Boston, like the rest of the country, is now at an inflection point. Boston is currently searching for its fifth superintendent in 10 years, so it will be critical for that leader to articulate a clear vision forward. While we don’t claim to have answers, we hope our report is useful to leaders in Boston and elsewhere to diagnose current trends and give some historical explanations of what happened and why. (You can also watch a live discussion of this report here.) Like Boston, the country is becoming more diverse, and any future gains will depend on how well schools are able to provide educational services to our most disadvantaged students.

Straight Talk for City Leaders on Unified Enrollment: A Q&A with Shannon Fitzgerald

In many cities across the country, school application and enrollment processes are built like high-stakes obstacle courses, where families with the most time and resources at their disposal tend to come out on top. A unified enrollment system is one way that cities with broad school choice have tried to level the playing field, and make enrollment processes less burdensome and more equitable for families. In cities like D.C., Denver, and New Orleans that have unified enrollment systems, families submit a single application and rank the charter and district schools of their choice. Then each student is matched to a single school via an enrollment algorithm.

These systems can decrease inequities by making enrollment processes for families easier to accomplish and harder to “game,” maximizing students’ likelihood of getting into their top choice schools. Unified enrollment can also decrease budget instability for schools caused by unexpected enrollment changes in the beginning of the year. For city leaders, data from unified enrollment systems can reveal important lessons about family demand for specific schools or programs. But that does not mean there are no risks, speed bumps, or potential problems. There is a lot that has to happen behind the scenes to create an enrollment system that meets families’ needs and avoids unintended consequences.

Shannon Fitzgerald knows what it takes to implement a lasting unified enrollment system. She was one of the first in the country to do it as the Director of Choice and Enrollment for Denver Public Schools from 2008-2013. Now, as an enrollment systems consultant, she works with other cities and districts who are interested in reforming their enrollment systems. I talked with her recently about the lessons she’s learned along the way and her advice for city leaders.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define a unified enrollment system? What differentiates unified enrollment from other enrollment approaches?

I think about enrollment systems as a spectrum. On one end, you have “wild west” systems. Nothing is coordinated: families have to go all over the place and apply to each school individually, and there are different deadlines. You have students enrolled in multiple schools — who knows where they will show up in September? On the other end, you have truly unified enrollment systems like Denver, Indianapolis, and New Orleans. They include all public schools in the city, district and charter; they have common tools, a common timeline, and a common application; and every student gets matched to a single school of their choice. In between those two ends of the spectrum are about 50,000 different variations.

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