What About the Crazy Talk of “Moving Students into High Quality Seats”?

These days, as part of the rhetoric of technocratic school reform, you often hear people talk about the goal of moving more students into high quality seats.  It’s a puzzling way of talking, as though education is purely a function of any student’s placement–part of the idea that moving kids around from school to school via school choice will make up for a state’s failure to invest enough money to ensure that every school has excellent teachers, a full curriculum, and a range of co-curricular opportunities. Such talk is a symptom of a lack of public generosity. School districts intent on moving  kids to “high quality seats” invest lots of money in exclusive magnets and boutique charters instead of the even more expensive project of investing enough in the traditional neighborhood elementary and middle schools and the comprehensive high schools that serve the mass of any school district’s students. By selecting some children for elite schools, the school district will be able to boast about high scores at “successful” schools and graduation rates at the elite high schools.

In Chicago, due to affirmative action policies at the elite high schools, a significant number of students from families with low income have now been admitted. Researchers from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research just conducted a study to test how poorer students at selective-admissions high schools are faring.  Here are the assumptions researchers set out to examine:  “High-quality public schools may be a lever for closing the gap by providing equitable educational opportunities for students who have fewer economic resources at home. We know that low-income students can succeed in school, but many who are high-performing in elementary school fail to make it to college, suggesting that high-achieving, low-income students may lack good high school options or that there are barriers to entry into high-performing high schools for students who have fewer resources. If selective public schools improve student outcomes for low-income students by a greater amount than they improve outcomes for high-income students, then selective public schools may help close achievement gaps by family income.”

The study’s findings do not confirm the assumptions. “Overall, we find little effect on test scores or educational attainment, but students admitted to selective schools have lower grade point averages (GPAs)… Looking at estimates by neighborhood SES, we find no evidence that admission to elite public schools in Chicago helps close the achievement gap between students from high- and low-poverty neighborhoods.  Selective high school admission has no effect on test scores, regardless of neighborhood SES….  When it comes to grades, the negative effect of selective high school admission on GPAs is larger for students from low-SES neighborhoods than for students from high-SES neighborhoods… (W)e find that students from low-SES neighborhoods who are admitted to a selective high school are 13 percentage points less likely to attend a selective college than students from low-SES neighbohoods who just miss the admission cutoff.”

The researchers explain why Chicago’s unique affirmative admissions policies make it important to study the effects of selective high schools on low-income students in Chicago: “Selective enrollment high schools command a lot of attention—they generally serve the most academically successful students, the seats are highly coveted as there are many more applicants than available slots, and they are often hailed as the best schools in the system.  These schools also receive criticism for serving student bodies that are much less racially diverse than the district in which they are situated.  The affirmative action admission policy in Chicago, reserving seats for students from low-SES neighborhoods, makes selective schools the most racially diverse public high schools in the city. This feature also allows us to look at separate effects for students from different SES backgrounds.”

Here is what the new study says about students’ test scores: “We find that when it comes to test scores, attending a SEHS (Selective  Enrollment High School) has no statistically significant impact. Simply put, on average, these students would have performed well on tests with or without selective schools.  This finding is consistent with previous studies of selective schools in the U.S. This paper extends the scope of prior work by allowing the effect of selective school admission to differ by students’ neighborhood SES status. Nevertheless, even for students from the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, we find no positive impact on test scores.”

What about college admissions?  “High school GPA is another important academic outcome that affects both college admissions and college scholarship eligibility.  We find negative effects of being admitted to a SEHS on GPA, and this effect is primarily driven by the large, negative impact on GPA for students from more disadvantaged neighborhoods.  The negative impacts on GPA in combination with unaffected test scores do not translate into a decreased likelihood that SEHS students enroll in college…. Our results suggest that admission to a SEHS reduces the probability that a student from a low-SES neighborhood attends a selective college, while potentially increasing the probability that a student from a high-SES neighborhood attends a selective college. This finding is particularly troubling.”

Competition, as usual, favors the privileged; the researchers conclude that poorer students are not losing ground academically even though their grades are lower than their wealthier peers: “We do not believe that it is the case that students from low-SES neighborhoods cannot do well in elite public school programs.  In fact, there is no evidence of learning declines, as test scores for less affluent students are unaffected.”

As elite magnet schools do not seem to be expanding equal opportunity for their students’ college admissions, the researchers wonder whether the Chicago School District should eliminate its elite magnet high schools?  The advantages of maintaining such schools, according to these researchers, derive to the reputation of the district itself, not to the competitive edge of students being admitted to elite high schools through affirmative admissions programs. First, at a time when school segregation is increasing everywhere, their affirmative admissions policies have turned the elite high schools into Chicago’s most diverse high schools, economically and racially.  And the elite high schools increase the school district’s tax base and what the researchers call the “overall social capital” of families in the school district by serving as an incentive for families who “would otherwise leave the district for private schools or suburban districts.”

However, the researchers do find one advantage for poorer students who have been admitted to the elite high schools: the students believe their school experience is more positive. Selective high schools “have a positive effect on students’ perceptions of the high school experience. When it comes to relationships with students and teachers, SEHS students are more positive than their counterparts in non-SEHSs.  Students in SEHSs also report a greater sense of safety—they are less likely to worry about crime, violence, and bullying…. Perhaps it is factors like these that make SEHSs highly desirable to students and families—more so than the potential to improve test scores and college outcomes.”

All this leads one to contemplate the moral implications in a school district like Chicago where school funding has been in crisis for decades and where Standard & Poor’s just dropped the school district’s credit rating again this month. Investing generously in all of a city’s high schools is far more expensive than creating elite institutions where a city’s brightest students are educated. What would it take to make it possible for every high school in Chicago to ensure small classes so that every student is known and the student’s learning needs accommodated? What would it take to hire enough counselors and social workers and college and career guidance staff to support every student?  What would it take to support a band and orchestra in every high school along with classes in drawing, sculpture and art appreciation and with a full range of sports and other co-curriculars? For years now charters and elite magnet schools have been designed as escapes for academic stars and students whose motivated parents know how to work the system. What would be required to provide a climate of safety and support in all of Chicago’s high schools?

Last month the national NAACP passed a resolution demanding a moratorium on the authorization of new charter schools—that public funds not be diverted to charter schools at the expense of the traditional public system, and that the charter schools “cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.”  The NAACP’s demands speak to the role of selective magnet high schools as well as their privatized but publicly funded charter cousins.

A system of public schools has been understood historically as our society’s moral responsibility for all of our students. Public schools have also traditionally been understood as the path by which society can benefit from the academic gifts, the skills, and the talents of every student.  The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s prophetic words come to mind once again: “There are those who would make the case for a ‘race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

All the mechanical talk about attracting students to “high quality seats” through school choice only makes it easier to forget about our broader obligation to the personal and academic needs of the mass of children and adolescents who fill our public schools.

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