Tuesday, April 17, 2012

School Choice in New Orleans with top trading cycles

Something exciting is happening in New Orleans Recovery School District: a novel school choice algorithm is being tried out for the first time. And it's being rolled out with some pretty good communications to the community. Here's a story by Andrew Vanacore in The Times-Picayune yesterday: Centralized enrollment in Recovery School District gets first tryout

The newspaper story even comes with a graphic meant to convey an important piece of the top trading cycle algorithm:

"Somewhere inside the jumble of narrow beige corridors on Poland Avenue in the Upper 9th Ward, in the state-run Recovery School District's headquarters, someone will hit a button on a computer in the next few weeks, and presto: Almost all of the roughly 28,000 students in New Orleans who applied for a seat this fall at one of the district's 67 schools will be assigned a place. With that final keystroke, the school system will move for the first time from a frustrating, ad-hoc enrollment process handled at individual campuses to one centralized at district offices.

"Every child will get a spot. But because schools don't have an infinite number of seats and some schools will doubtless prove more popular than others, not every family will get their top pick. More than likely, some small percentage won't get any of the eight choices they ranked when they filled out their application earlier this year.

"So it's worth considering: Who will decide the fates of these 28,000 students? In a district unique for giving children the right to pick the school they attend, instead of the right to attend the school down the street, who decides what's fair?
"The short answer is nobody, or at least nobody with a pulse. As the technical experts working with the Recovery District explained to a group of community groups and reporters last week, a computer algorithm will go to work trying to match every student with a school that's as high on their list as possible. Students with siblings at a particular school will get a first shot at open seats at that school, followed by those living nearby. But much will hinge on a randomly assigned lottery number.
"This, officials say, will give the greatest possible number of students as close to their top choice as possible in a way that's fair and transparent.
"For parents, there are some key ideas to keep in mind. The experts who developed the algorithm -- folks from Duke, Harvard and MIT -- say there is no way to game the system. If what you really want is a seat at KIPP Renaissance High School, you should not rank Sci Academy first, thinking that you're more likely to get your second choice. Ranking KIPP as your top choice gives you your best shot at getting in. 
"There's also no way to lose a seat that your child already has. If a second-grader at School A applies for a transfer to School B and doesn't win a spot, he will automatically remain where he is.
"For now, there's no way of telling which percentage of families will get their top choice, but a small number will almost certainly get none of the eight schools they ranked on their application. That's simply because they were unlucky in the assigning of lottery numbers, picked eight very popular schools or both.
"Until all of our schools are equally amazing, not every family is going to get everything they want," said Neil Dorosin, founder of the Institute for Innovation in Public School Choice, which helped develop the new process."
"Another important caveat: The 17 schools that are still overseen by the Orleans Parish School Board will not be included. "That's the missing link, " said Debra Vaughan, a researcher at the Cowen Institute. It means students who want to reach for a spot at one of the city's prestigious magnet schools still have to navigate two separate enrollment systems. The Recovery District and the School Board have been in talks but haven't reached an agreement on how to merge the systems."
Previous posts on New Orleans schools (most recent first):

New Orleans launches its new school choice process


Anonymous said...

Why is the algorithm novel? It looks like an adaptation of TTC.

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