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'Controlled choice': Does mixing kids based on family income improve education?

Two students walk in a high school hallway in this Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, photo. A prominent group of educators is pushing a concept known as "controlled choice," which allows parents to choose schools by ranking their preferences, especially in urban are
Two students walk in a high school hallway in this Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, photo. A prominent group of educators is pushing a concept known as "controlled choice," which allows parents to choose schools by ranking their preferences, especially in urban areas. The district then assigns the kids to schools based on those preferences to achieve a balance of poor and better-off students in each school.
Danny Johnston, Associated Press

A prominent group of educators is pushing a radical reform that could change schooling in urban centers.

The model was first used in the Boston suburb of Cambridge in 1981, and since then it has been used successfully from Florida and North Carolina to Illinois and California.

The concept, called "controlled choice," allows parents to choose schools by ranking their preferences, but kids are then assigned by the district to achieve a balance of poor and better-off students in each school.

“We have diversity everywhere, except in schools,” says Michael Alves, an educational consultant who is the godfather of the approach, working on it since 1979. “Where you live, you live. But that doesn’t mean you have to go to school strictly based on where you live.”

Students from low-income families benefit from going to schools with more affluent students, says Richard Kahlenberg, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C., policy think tank that supports the proposal. Schools with higher-income kids tend to attract better teachers, Kahlenberg says. They also have more conscientious parents and peers with higher aspirations, both of which change the social dynamics and aspirations of kids from less privileged backgrounds.

Controlled choice rests on two seemingly incompatible notions. First, supporters argue, diverse schools are beneficial to all involved. Second, when parents are given power to choose their own schools, parents are happier and schools perform better.

Controlled choice balances parental choice and socioeconomic integration by allowing parents to rank their school choices within a district. The school then uses a formula to balance low-income children through the schools while accommodating parents to the greatest extent possible.

The largest city currently employing controlled choice citywide is San Francisco. Now controlled-choice advocates hope to put Washington, D.C., in that column. Washington has long had one of the nation’s poorest and worst-performing school districts and has been the subject of recurring waves of controversial reforms.

A recent increase of white residents in the city, from 30 percent to 38 percent over the past decade, has coincided with a jump of over 23 percent of median income over the past 12 years, while the national average fell nearly 7 percent. This demographic shift creates an opening for integration before neighborhoods begin to resegregate, Kahlenberg and two colleagues argued in a recent Washington Post op-ed.

But time is of the essence, they argue. The city is currently redrawing its boundaries, and if the standard neighborhood schools remain in place, the newly gentrified schools may soon lose a historic shot at diversity. The answer, they say, is controlled choice.

But not everyone thinks this is a great idea. “This is not a good answer for anyplace,” says Chester Finn, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational policy think tank. Finn calls it “a social engineering scheme that superimposes someone else’s notion of what mixture would be good.”

An atypical case

Perhaps the best working example of controlled choice is in Cambridge, Mass., where parents of entering kindergartners rank their choices from among 12 elementary schools citywide. The school district then assigns kids by balancing parental preference against a rule that every school have a similar ratio of “free or reduced lunch” students.

They’ve been doing it in Cambridge since 1981. Most years, between 85 and 90 percent of parents get one of their first three choices, says James Maloney, and parental satisfaction is high.

Until 2001, students were assigned to achieve racial balance. Now, the assignment ratios are based on socioeconomic challenges, measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches.

Since roughly half the city’s schoolchildren are economically challenged — while just 11 percent are African-American — many supporters of school integration today view the socioeconomic approach best to reach those most in need.

Cambridge is, of course, far from a typical town. But it is the oldest and one of the most enduringly successful models of controlled choice, and it always the first cited by proponents.

Home to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the population of Cambridge is disproportionately educated, well-off and liberal. The city is also compact, just 6 square miles, and densely populated, with naturally integrated neighborhoods and well-funded schools.

“Cambridge is a strange town in many ways,” notes James Maloney, the Cambridge school districts chief operating officer, who readily admits that replicating anything done here could be difficult.

Maloney is careful not to overstate the benefits of controlled choice. Cambridge still struggles with disparities in standardized tests, he says, but it does much better on graduation rates. Nationally, high school graduation rates for black males are below 60 percent, he says, while in Cambridge nearly 90 percent graduate.

In any case, some of the benefits of socioeconomic mixing are hard to measure, Maloney argues. “A low-income child growing up in Cambridge going to integrated schools,” he says, “is probably going to have a perspective on life as a young adult that one might not have growing up in a segregated neighborhood in a large city.”

Learning from Boston

Cambridge started its program because it didn’t want to be Boston. For over a decade beginning in 1974, Boston’s public school system was thrown into chaos by a federal court order that sought to racially integrate Boston neighborhoods via forced busing. The result was years of friction, protests and even deadly violence, as two of Boston’s poorest — South Boston and Roxbury — were severely disrupted so white kids and black kids could study together.

And for all the pain, it didn’t work. During the 14 years federal courts controlled Boston’s schools, the public school enrollment dropped from 93,000 to 57,000. By 1988, the ratio of white students in the school district had dropped from 65 percent to 28 percent, according to a 1996 “Policy Review” article. And the slide continued. By 1996 just 17 percent of Boston public school students were white.

Much of this was due to “white flight,” as white families left for the suburbs beyond the reach of busing plans. Many of the white families who remained shifted their kids to private schools. In 2003, a whopping 44 percent of white children in Boston attended private schools.

Across the Charles River from South Boston, Cambridge was taking notes, as were the state legislators across town. No one wanted a repeat of the Boston mess.

Alves was hired in 1975 by Massachusetts to develop alternatives to the mess in Boston. He started by trying to build “magnet schools” — highly funded schools with special opportunities located in poorer neighborhoods, designed to attract middle-class parents. Magnet schools try to integrate students voluntarily through excellence.

Then came the epiphany. “Why couldn’t every school,” Alves asked, “become a desegregating school of choice?”

Because lawmakers were anxious to avoid the court-imposed integration, Alves had wide latitude to fashion solutions, and Cambridge, perhaps motivated by the fires across the river in Boston, was game to work with him.

An expanding model

Soon Alves was creating controlled-choice programs elsewhere in Massachusetts. To the North, in Lowell, he helped integrate Southeast Asians. In Lawrence, it was Latinos. And perhaps oddest of all, in Fall River on the Rhode Island border, he helped integrate recent Portuguese immigrants with existing Portuguese-Americans.

Then districts outside the Bay State took interest, inviting Alves to help set up controlled-choice programs. By 1985, Alves had established a similar program in San Jose, Calif., working with Latino advocates. Projects ranging from Florida to Illinois followed.

Now he is working with Fayette County, Tenn., which is launching a controlled-choice program under a court order, one of the few remaining federally managed desegregation cases. He is also working with New York City, which he calls “the most segregated school system in America in the most diverse city in the world.”

For the first 20 years, Cambridge balanced its schools by race. But starting in 2001, the system dropped racial goals in favor of socioeconomic balancing, just a few steps ahead of the Supreme Court, which in 2007 voted 5-4 to throw out a Seattle desegregation plan that relied on race. Only districts under federal court orders can use race to balance schools now.

Since 2001, parents who register their kids in Cambridge may choose to indicate whether they are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. The district then balances students from poor families with better-off kids throughout the district.

Alves says he actually prefers the socioeconomic balancing. His favorite program, in fact, is that of Champaign, Ill., which takes into account a variety of risk factors in its controlled-choice algorithm, including single-parent households, how many children the parent is raising and the parent’s own education level.

Champaign’s complex approach is analogous to considering one's medical history, Alves argues. “We don’t send a kid into a doctor's office and say, 'Give me his name and address.' That would be asinine. You want to know about the family medical history.”

Does it work?

Many proponents seem to shy away from the most obvious question: Does it work? By which they mean, Does it improve test scores? Maloney hesitates to make such a claim for Cambridge. Alves resists test scores as the primary measurement, as well.

“All I try to do is make sure that the child is going to have a fair opportunity,” Alves said. “If you have a school where there is a good mix of socioeconomic backgrounds, I know from firsthand knowledge that this is a better situation than having a school filled with kids who are poor.”

Others are less reticent about touting the statistical benefits of socioeconomic integration. Everyone talks about teacher quality or per-pupil expenditure in improving the performance for low-income students, says Kahlenberg. But both of these measures pale compared with the impact of socioeconomic status of a student's classmates.

“High-poverty schools are 22 times less likely to be high-performing than middle-income schools,” Kahlenberg says, “and low-income kids stuck in high-poverty schools are two years behind low-income kids who go to more affluent schools.”

Kahlenberg points to Raleigh, N.C., where an economic integration plan is in place, test scores are rising and 90 percent of students are reading at or above grade level. He also cites a study in Montgomery County, Md., where a carefully controlled experiment found that kids whose families were, by lottery, given public housing in integrated school areas significantly outperformed those whose neighborhood schools were given significantly bolstered resources.

Kahlenberg points to several reasons he believes integration matters more than resources, including the impact of peers on how kids form their own ambitions and the role of more confident parents in keeping a school on its toes.

Social engineering

The Fordham Institute's Finn is not terribly interested in whether controlled choice “works.” He sees the whole concept as an oxymoron. “It’s a social engineering scheme that superimposes someone else’s notion of what mixture would be good,” he says. “It’s a top-down regulatory approach.”

“We move kids around because we are unable to move teachers,” he says. “You might take teachers who drive cars and move to schools where the kids are, instead of loading the kids on buses.”

Finn argues that controlled choice is really not very different from forced busing, and he argues that racial issues are always thinly veiled behind the new language of “socioeconomic integration.”

One of Finn’s chief critiques is that such efforts always result in superficial integration, “not doing any more than nominally sitting under the same roof and maybe doing gym together.”

“I believe in school choice,” he says. “But we should leave it to the parents to sort out based on what they see as right for their kid, not try to manipulate it.”