Wednesday, February 27, 2013

0 EAC Recommends New Boston School Assignment Plan, But Is It Good Enough?

Though somewhat old news by now, after a year of numerous community meetings, several assignment proposals and an extension to the timeline, the External Advisory Committee on School Assignment (EAC) voted Monday night to recommend the "Home Based A" school assignment plan for Boston Public Schools. In addition to the assignment model, the proposed overlay maps for English Language Learners (ELL), Students with Disabilities (SWD), and the Middle School Feeder(MSF) were also approved as part of the EAC's recommendation. Be sure to click the link "For additional information on (ELL or SWD or MSF), click here." included on each of the overlay pages as that information will tell you about the proposed K-8 conversions and possible program sites for ELL and SWD!

According to the explanation of how the Home-Based A assignment plan works, BPS states:
This model creates choices for each address using schools that are nearby, taking school quality into account. 
Using MCAS test scores, Home-Based A designates schools as Tier 1 (highest quality), Tier 2, Tier 3 or Tier 4 (lowest quality.)*   Based on a home address, families receive a list of at least six prospective schools. Everyone’s list includes a range of options in Tiers 1, 2 & 3. 
Students could choose from:
  • Six schools that are close to home that are in the top three tiers of all schools for academic growth and performance.  Of those six, at least four will be in the top two tiers of all schools.  And, of those four at least two will be in the top tier.
In addition, they can also choose from:
  • Any other school within 1 mile of their house not already on the list above.
  • All three citywide elementary schools; and,
  • Any additional schools, close to home, that usually have available capacity.
All of a family’s walk-zone schools are included in the list. Sometimes, the walk zone schools meet all the Tier 1, 2, and 3 criteria. Other times, more schools that are outside the walk zone are added to ensure a mix of quality schools.
All elementary schools that stop at Grade 5 feed into a designated middle school. Students can automatically transition into that new school for Grade 6.
* For help understanding the BPS "Tiers", please see my earlier article "With 40 Low Performing Schools, Is There Really Quality Choice for Boston Families?"

PLEASE do not confuse the MADESE school "LEVEL" designation, which is based on MCAS data, as being the same as the BPS' "TIER" system as the BPS Tier system uses BPS choice popularity data and MCAS Student Growth Percentile (SGP) data. BPS has been told repeatedly by several reputable sources that SGP should NOT be used to assess schools or teachers as there is no way to know how much of the student's "growth" is based on school education and how much is actually attributable to outside influences (parents, tutoring, after-school programs, etc).

To find out what your school choices will be under the Home-Based A plan, please use this interactive mapping tool created by BPS. Simply type in your address and select "Home-Based A Model" on the left and hit enter, this will produce a list of the schools you will be allowed to choose from along with which BPS "Tier" the school is designated as, whether it is walk-zone or citywide and the grade span. 

Unfortunately, at this time the mapping tool does not list the middle schools which each K-5 elementary school will feed into, so you will need to check out the Middle School Feeder overlay map for that information (link provided at bottom of plan explanation). Hopefully, in the future, they will tweak the interactive tool to include the middle schools on one map if the model is approved by the Boston School Committee (BSC). And of course, if the child is in need of substantial special education or ELL services your choices may be dictated by those specific needs, so then you will need to check out the overlay map for ELL or SWD (or both) also. 

The EAC's choice of the Home-Based A plan over the other plans is because Home-Based A narrows the competitive field for seats at the schools in your "choice-set" which, in theory, means a higher chance of getting an assignment to a seat at one of the top tier schools listed in your choice set. However, as I pointed out in my previous article regarding whether there is really quality choice for Boston families, "equity access" or having a school in your "choice-set", does NOT equal assignment to a specific school. Many families may be surprised to learn that "Home-Based" does not mean you will get a seat at that great school right across (or down) the street, but could still end up with your child bused to a school over a mile away!

Under the new plan, the amount of schools available to your family will actually decrease for most families, with no guarantee that your child will receive placement at one of the top tier schools. For families where their "home-based schools" are almost all Tier 3 & 4, this is extremely concerning to advocates like myself. 

Assignment choice examples: 

If you live at 132 Seaver Street, Boston, 02121,(which is a multi-unit apartment building) under the Home-Based A proposal, you will have a total of eighteen schools in your choice-set: fifteen "home-based" and the three "citywide" elementary schools.  Of the fifteen home-based schools, eight are within the one-mile walk-zone and the other seven are listed as "Zone/Other" as they are anywhere from 1.05 - 1.53 miles away (which will surely mean busing of some sort). Under the current BPS assignment policies, city-wide and charter* schools do NOT have a walk-zone priority. 
  • Of the eight walk-zone schools, seven of the schools are designated as BPS Tier 4 (lowest 25% of schools) (according to MADESE designations two are "insufficient data"; three are Level 3; and, two are Level 4), with the single un-tiered school, which is an Early Education Center (EEC), listed as "Insufficient Data" according to the MADESE Accountability Data because EEC/ELCs grade span is usually K-0 through 1st grade, which means there is no MCAS data to use for assessment.
  • Of the seven Zone/Other schools, two of the schools are designated as BPS Tier 1 (according to MADESE they are both Level 2); four are BPS Tier 2 (according to MADESE one is Level 2, two are Level 3, and one is Level 4); and, the last one is BPS Tier 3 (according to MADESE this is Level 3). 
  • Of the three city-wide schools, all of which are un-tiered under the BPS Tier model, I reviewed the MADESE Accountability Data which lists the schools as follows: one is designated as a Level 2 and that school is "Not meeting gap narrowing goals", so it's MCAS Level may change within the next year to a Level 3; one of the schools is a charter school which only opened in September 2012, so there is no MCAS data or even "insufficient data" designation yet; and, the last school is a current MADESE Level 3 school which was on the brink of becoming Level 4 according to the 8 years of NCLB AYP data available, so it is being "transformed" into a charter school in an attempt to improve the school.
*Charter schools are city-wide based upon current Massachusetts Charter School Laws and transportation to all charter schools located within Boston must be paid for by BPS.

Choices for 132 Seaver Street, under the current three-zone BPS assignment model, include twenty-eight schools and at least thirty-one seats (as the integrated classroom choice is listed separately from the regular ed choice this gives you two opportunities to choose the same school). After a quick review, I can tell you that there are four Level 1 schools (none in walk-zone) and seven Level 2 schools (again, please do not confuse the BPS "Tier" designation with the MADESE "Level" designation)

Of course, under the current model, your competitive field is also much large, which is part of the issue we currently face, but at least you tend to have more quality choices under the current plan than the proposed plan, which I would think would give you a statistically higher chance of getting a seat at a higher level school. Also, as the current interactive mapping tool for the proposed new assignment plan does not give the same choices regarding the types of seats available, there is no way to compare how many seats are available under the new proposal without more information to do an in-depth comparison between the lists, though it will definitely be less than are available under the current three-zone model.

Another example: 

I live in Roslindale and based on my address I will have a total of 10 schools in my choice-set: seven "home-based" and three "city-wide". Of the seven "home-based" schools, six are within the one-mile walk-zone and the last one is "Zone/Other" as it is 1.00 mile away. 
  • Of the six walk-zone schools: three are designated as BPS Tier 1 (according to MADESE they are all Level 1), two are BPS Tier 2 (according to MADESE one has insufficient data and the other is Level 2), and one is a BPS Tier 3 (according to MADESE this is a Level 3).
  • The "Zone/Other" school is designated as a BPS Tier 4 (according to MADESE this is a Level 4)
  • My three city-wide schools are the same three as those for 132 Seaver Street, which I already listed the MADESE data for.
Another factor for me personally is that the school *I* selected as the best for my daughters (which was chosen prior to NCLB and they both graduated from) is no longer in my choice-set at all, though it is in my current walk-zone, so if I were to have another child (not happening lol), I would be unable to send that child to the school I spent ten years helping to improve and which I feel has the best elementary teachers for any type of child. For me, this would be an issue and though I love all of our Roslindale schools I would rank four of the schools in my choice-set as lower choices the same as I did for us under the current assignment plan as I don't think their school climate would work as well for my child. So, if I based my decision solely on whether a school was ranked as a Tier 1 or 2 school, we would only have a single school choice left for my child and who knows how many others will be competing for the same seat? 

My fear is that the proposed plan will create the exact issues above that are of concern to me for a lot of families. I also worry that the new plan may lead to further inequalities across the system because this assignment plan by itself, will not increase the quality of our schools. If the BSC votes to pass this plan, I urge them to also incorporate concrete recommendations for quality improvement at all of our schools by the EAC as well as those offered by community members, because without those caveats in place, I am not sure we will see the improvements needed! 

Along with the proposed plan and overlay maps, several recommendations are being made by the EAC regarding the new assignment process. I received a copy of the "Working DRAFT" Recommendation Memo from Rebecca Frisch, Sr. Policy Advisor to Mayor Menino, so please keep in mind that some of this information is still in the process of being updated (i.e.: *Walk-Zone info is from my notes from the EAC meeting on Saturday, February 20, 2013, so I am sure it will be more detailed in the memo!)

Some of the recommendations being made by the EAC are as follows:
  1. *Walk-Zone: Keeping the walk-zone priority and process as it is now: 50% of seats at each school currently are assigned to students within the "walk-zone". For elementary students this is a 1 mile radius, for middle school it is a 1.5 mile radius (more to come on this);

  2. Grandfathering: We recommend that all current students assigned to BPS schools as of September 2013 retain their school assignments (i.e., be “grand-fathered” into existing school) with transportation provided as needed.  Their families will have the option of choosing to enter the new student assignment lottery and request a new assignment, but they will retain their current assignment unless they accept a new one.  This “grandfathering” with transportation will continue through the 2019-2020 school year.

    In response to feedback from families, we also recommend that “grand-fathering” extend to younger siblings of BPS students and that the year 2019-2020 will be the final year in which younger brothers and sisters who have not yet entered the system will receive sibling priority to an out-of-zone school. Sibling priority will still apply for in-zone students.  Others in the system can remain, but may lose transportation after that time.; 

  3. Transparency and Data-driven Approach:  The district should continue to assemble, analyze and make public the large quantity of data requested by the EAC through the student assignment redesign process.  This availability of data will provide ongoing accountability and progress related to the recommendations in this memo.  More importantly, this data will provide accountability and transparency to the families, partners and many stakeholders concerned with ongoing improvements in our schools.;

  4. Comprehensive Quality Measure:  The district should speed the development of capacity to track and analyze a more comprehensive set of quality measures and that BPS school improvement and strategic plans more explicitly focus on improving overall school quality and not just performance.  We recommend that the district, by December 2014, develop and publish additional valid data-driven measures corresponding to additional indicators of quality articulated by the EAC (listed earlier in this document).  The EAC recognizes that all eight elements of its quality definition may not be perfectly measurable, but some additional number of them should be included in a more comprehensive quality measure.  This more robust quality metric should be inclusive of but not limited to academic performance.  Finally, the new metric once developed should be incorporated into the tiered ranking system used to organize and analyze the student assignment system.; and,

  5. Accountability and Oversight:  The district should prepare an annual report to the School Committee, City Council, and the community.  The report should be available to the public on or before October 1 each year.  The report should include data and analysis outlining the impact of the new student assignment system on all student populations (including students eligible for free/reduced meals, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners, and also by race/ethnicity and geography).  The report should measure changes in equitable access to quality seats for all students, as well as changes to school academic performance and overall quality. The School Committee will be responsible for reviewing and endorsing the plan in writing.  We further recommend that the School Committee consider appointing a Task Force (similar to the English Language Learners Task Force) to assist with monitoring and evaluating the district’s efforts to increase equitable access to a quality education for all students in Boston.
There are many more pieces to the proposal being made, which I will delve into in detail as soon as possible as there is a lot to understand. 

The next steps in this school assignment odyssey start Wednesday, February 27th, when the EAC Recommendations will be presented by the Superintendent to the BSC at the 6:00 p.m. School Committee meeting (26 Court Street, Boston). 

The BSC members will most likely ask many questions and we should expect some in-depth discussions regarding the proposal and recommendations. The BSC can decide to make changes to the proposal in whole or part, and if they decide to do so, some of those changes will come about due to feedback from the community. 

The BSC will most likely schedule meetings for public feedback on the proposal and recommendations very quickly as they will also need to establish a deadline for voting on the proposal and recommendations. In fact, there is already a rumor that BSC Chairman Michael O'Neill is going to propose an aggressive two-week timeline for the BSC to hold meetings and even schedule the vote on this assignment proposal at their March 13th BSC meeting, inclusive of suggesting changing the previously scheduled "Budget Hearing" dates to hearings on the school assignment proposal instead! We will find out at the February 27th meeting for sure, which I will be tweeting from!

The time is NOW folks, if you care at all about this issue, even if you think there are other issues that should actually take higher priority than changing the school assignment model, you need to speak up quickly! I urge all families and community members to get involved, because whether for or against the proposal, the BSC meetings (both regular meetings and community forums) will be your last chance to weigh-in on the BPS school assignment proposals and recommendations prior to anything becoming a "done deal". 

You can follow me on Twitter @bpsnightmare for important updates and information!


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