Sunday, May 21, 2017

New York City school choice in the NY Times: Not all NYC high schools are good yet

The NY Times recently ran this story, largely critical of school choice in NYC:
The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools
The city’s high school admissions process was supposed to give every student a real chance to attend
a good school. But 14 years in, it has not delivered.

Here's a paragraph that summarizes the main point:
"Ultimately, there just are not enough good schools to go around. And so it is a system in which some children win and others lose because of factors beyond their control — like where they live and how much money their families have."

The story follows several students at a  middle school in the Bronx:
"The Times spent months following the high school application process at Pelham Gardens, where families do not have the advantages that routinely open doors to the city’s best schools. Many families are new to the country, and most are poor."

Parag Pathak (who played a critical role in organizing the NYC high school match--see e.g. here and here) wrote a letter to the NY Times summarizing his reaction to the story. As it appears that the Times won't publish the letter, he gave me permission to reproduce it:

"May 5, 2017

In “The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools,” Elizabeth Harris and Ford Fessenden miss a key point in describing the New York City High School choice system. The choice system does not create good schools.  It exists because there aren’t enough good schools.

I worked with NYC DOE to design the choice system described by authors.   By any objective measure, this system provided better access to schools than the one it replaced.  Without a comparison to the old system, Harris and Fessenden’s description of choice outcomes is misleading.  In the old system, half of applicants from Pelham Gardens (zip code 10469) were assigned to choices they did not rank; in 2003, that number drops to 23%. Under the new system, students from that neighborhood also travelled two miles further to schools they wanted.  Across the city, the new system allows more kids to go to schools they ranked and the benefits were largest for those most likely to be administratively assigned, like those in Pelham Gardens (see,   This is not to say the process is perfect and couldn’t be improved.  But it is foolish to expect the process to produce miracles, without changing the set of school options.

A broader premise of the article is that schools with highest test scores and graduation rates are indeed “the best.”  Our research, including on NYC’s exam schools (, strongly suggests otherwise.  Na├»ve discussions of school quality and the role of school choice confuse efforts to improve school quality, where our attention should be devoted. 

Parag Pathak
Carlton Professor of Economics, MIT"

For reference, here's the 2003 NY Times story that covered the school choice system when it was introduced:


Highgamma said...

Since he's part of the article, they probably won't publish a letter. He should submit an Op-ed, expanding on this letter.

Joseph Malkevitch said...

First link in the letter:
is broken.

Al Roth said...

Thanks, the link should be fixed now (I had included the left parenthesis in the url...)