Saturday, July 24, 2010

Advice for Wake County schools

It sounds like the troubled Wake County school system is about to get some advice on school choice.  But, to the extent that you can judge from a newspaper story, they may not be looking for the right kind of advice, or in the right places (more about right places at the end...)

Here's the problem. Suppose you want a school choice plan, and would like to be able to say that it results in lots of families getting their first choice. That might be hard, if the most popular schools are overdemanded.  But you could adopt a choice procedure that is punitive to those who fail to get the school they list as their first choice. That would present families who liked overdemanded schools with a risky decision, and the safe choice would be to choose a school (e.g. their local school) that they could be pretty confident of getting into, and saying that was their first choice. When parents feel compelled to play it safe this way, it looks like they are getting their first choice, even though they aren't really. Once upon a time that was how schools were chosen in Boston, and that kind of system is still used in some places, including Cambridge, MA.

So, here's the news story that makes me worry about this.

Idea intrigues Wake school board factions
"A controlled choice model for Wake would create a dozen or more attendance zones, each of which would reflect the makeup of Wake County - no rich zones or poor zones, said Massachusetts education consultant Michael Alves, who's helped design dozens of such systems nationally.

"Parents would be able to choose from a wide range of school offerings in their zone, with a lottery to make another choice when schools are too crowded or apply to a countywide system of magnets, Alves said. He will be in Raleigh on Tuesday for a presentation before the board committee charged with developing a new plan. Parents would not be guaranteed of getting their first choice, but in systems that use controlled choice, such as Lee County, Fla., and Cambridge, Mass., a large majority do.

"We've been looking at a number of plans from a number of districts across the country," board chairman Ron Margiotta said Wednesday. "He's very close to what we have in mind, to my understanding."

Here's some background on School choice that pays attention to making it safe for families to reveal their true preferences. Which brings me to where the Wake County school board can look for advice. 

One of the world's experts on the design of school choice systems is Atila Abdulkadiroglu, who is a professor at Duke, in Raleigh NC, the largest city in Wake County. So he's on location.  Here is Atila's blog on school choice.

Here are my previous posts on Wake County: School choice in North Carolina, School choice gets contentious in Wake County, NC


Anonymous said...

Duke is neither in Raleigh nor Wake County.

dWj said...

Do we have data, from school systems with incentive-compatible systems, on how many of those students would get their (true) #1 choice under the proposed system? Would that offer a compelling hook to explain the problem with such a system to the relevant people?