The first time I heard the term “over-the-counter” children, I was with a group visiting New York City, where we were listening to a presentation on school choice in New York from a researcher who used the term in an off-hand way. We visitors looked at each other and someone asked, “What are over-the-counter children?” “They are the children who don’t participate in school choice,” we were told. “Their parents don’t fill out the high school application, or they arrive after the school year begins, or they are homeless. They just come to the school and try to register.”
My mind jumped immediately back to January of 1960, when my family moved to Havre, Montana on a day that I clearly remember was 35 degrees below zero. We spent our first night in the Siesta Motel because our furniture had not arrived. In the morning my mother took me to the Havre Junior High School to register me for the second semester of the seventh grade. I was sent immediately to class while my mother went off to get us settled.
I was an over-the-counter child. So were most of the members of the group at our meeting that afternoon in New York City. We talked about that term, “over-the-counter children,” during dinner that night. Isn’t that a derogatory term, a term that commodifies children—sort of like aspirin, something you can buy over-the-counter without a prescription? Shouldn’t parents be able to show up to enroll their children in school? Isn’t that what “the public” in public education is supposed to be about? For most adults across America, if we moved as children to a new place, our parents took us to school to get us registered. I had not realized that the term had become an official designation in New York City until I read a report published last week by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform: Over the Counter; Under the Radar. The report exposes shocking details about how these children fare in the system despite that it ignores my own concerns about the term itself.
“Every year, some 36,000 students who enroll in New York City high schools without participating in the high school choice process are labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students and are assigned a school by the New York City Department of Education (DOE). These young people are among the school system’s highest-needs students—new immigrants, special needs students, previously incarcerated teens, poor or transient or homeless youth, students over age for grade, and students with histories of behavioral incidents in their previous schools.” The report explains that the challenge of placing such students has grown under the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as the number of zoned high schools where neighborhood students could enroll by default has been vastly diminished. Under Mayor Bloomberg school choice at the high school level has become virtually universal.
School choice plans always do the best job of serving the students who understand or whose parents understand the way the application process works and have the emotional, social, financial, and linguistic capacity to learn the options and complete the application process. In a report several years ago, the New School Center for New York City Affairs documented that a serious problem for eighth graders in New York City is that middle school counselors struggle to master the vast array of high school options, and anyway case loads for middle school counselors are so large that students who can best navigate the high school choice process tend to be those whose parents are able to guide them actively as they learn about high school options and fill out the application.
In the new report, the Annenberg Institute examines whether students classified as “over-the-counter,” who are assigned by the system to available seats, are being sent to high-scoring high schools or to schools with lower test scores and most especially to schools that have already been identified for school closure. Here is what the Annenberg researchers describe in their findings:
“OTC students are disproportionately assigned to schools with higher percentages of low-performing students, ELLs, and dropouts.” “Large and medium-sized struggling high schools had, on average, a more than 50 percent higher rate of OTC student assignment than the rest of the high schools.” “Assignments of such massive numbers of OTC students can quickly destabilize schools’ instructional efforts and dismantle long-established, supportive academic cultures.” And finally, as New York City has begun phasing out large comprehensive high schools, “During each year of the phase-out process, teachers and support staff leave as the closing school’s student population declines… In seven of these thirteen phasing-out schools, the OTC assignment rate was more than 25 percent.” The scathing report charges that the New York City Public Schools continue to assign students classified as “over-the-counter”—students who bring enormous needs—to schools that are ill-equipped to serve them. The school district has been protecting the test scores of higher-scoring high schools by neglecting to assign high-needs, “over-the-counter” students to the more prestigious high schools. At the same time the school district continues to phase out and close low-scoring high schools, where ongoing assignment of the most challenging students further diminishes the test scores and virtually ensures these schools will be deemed “failing.”
The Annenberg Institute report is particularly timely this week in the context of the emergence of an intense conversation in the blogosphere about the morality of what has become a national, corporatized school reform strategy premised on providing escapes for the students who are most motivated or whose parents can successfully negotiate school choice to get them into high-scoring magnet or charter schools. Michael Petrilli spawned the conversation in his recent post at the Education Week blog, Bridging Differences, The Especially Deserving Poor. Anthony Cody pushed back, also at Education Week, in his Living in Dialogue post, Social Darwinism Resurrected for the New Gilded Age. Finally Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute contributed to the conversation with Does “Poverty” Cause Low Achievement”? I urge you to read carefully all of these pieces along with the new report from the Annenberg Institute.
Together these thoughtful reflections raise the central moral concern about today’s school reform that devalues all the many children who might be broadly described as “over-the-counter”—society’s least precious—the children we can discount because, we might imagine, they aren’t so likely to amount to much. Once educational opportunity depends on competition for choice slots, the most able children win while those who are most vulnerable are likely to be left out and left behind. For a vision that lifts up opportunity for every child, check out the new Principles that Unite Us, also released just last week, by the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and nearly one hundred allied organizations. And consider the very profound words of the Rev. Jesse Jackson: “There are those who would make the case for a race to the top for those who can run. Instead ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”