School Choice & Charters Q&A

What Do Parents Think About Algorithms Choosing Schools for Their Kids?

By Arianna Prothero — September 17, 2015 5 min read
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There’s skepticism that New Orleans’ system of almost all charter schools provides a model that can be imported wholesale to other states. But what about specific policies and lessons? In this part of an occasional series, Charters & Choice explores how New Orleans has tackled issues arising from all-out school choice and what other cities and states can learn from the Crescent City’s experiences.

In cities with lots of district, charter, and private schools to pick from, school choice can become overwhelming for parents.

One innovation to deal with that issue is the common enrollment system, also called single or universal enrollment. Like the name suggests, it’s one application form for all or most schools in a city. Families submit a list of their top picks and a computer uses an algorithm to match students to schools.

It’s meant to streamline a complicated process so that parents don’t have to juggle multiple deadlines, applications, and other requirements.

Although common enrollment systems are designed to make school choice more manageable, parents are among the policy’s biggest critics, something I found out while reporting in New Orleans for a special report on the city’s schools 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.

It got me wondering: Did the parents I talk to reflect the views of other parents? And if the system is designed to make school choice easier for parents but they don’t like it, why are cities pursuing such policies?

Or is that even the ultimate goal?

I reached out to Betheny Gross, research director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, to bounce some of these questions off of her. CRPE has extensively surveyed parents on their views about school choice issues, including common enrollment systems. Below is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Q. What is the general attitude of parents toward single enrollment systems in the cities that have them?

A. The first thing that is important to realize is that for parents, the enrollment system itself, the nuts and bolts about how a match is made, is very conflated with the parent’s perception of the schools that are available to them. It’s really hard to get parents to disentangle the supply issue from the matching process.

We [researchers at CRPE] met with parents in a city that was considering going to a common enrollment system. These were parents dealing with a whole host of applications and deadlines, and I said to them, ‘there are some folks considering streamlining the system to have you submit just one application for any school you’re applying to.’ And parents were like, ‘hey, that would be really nice. That would save me a ton of time.’

And then I said, ‘there would be this computer matching system that would be programmed to maximize everybody’s best options in a lottery ... And then they were like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, who’s picking my kid’s school?’ This is a very personal decision for parents.

In New Orleans and even in Denver, there was some pushback—[parents] felt like it was a very bureaucratic process to something that is very personal to them. Especially when they didn’t get the school they wanted, they felt like they were being told through this very cold and impersonal process.

But this is really giving parents the best chance to get into the best school. The fact of the matter is, that there can be a ton of cheating when the system is not automated.

Q. What, if anything, are cities doing to tackle those concerns from parents?

A. I think there are ways that they can insert the personal back into the process. Denver did this. So instead of just doing a big old campaign to get parents out to choose, they instituted a fleet of parent liaisons. They were community-based people getting parents engaging in choice.

This is something you could imagine would provide more of the personal touch to families so this whole process feels less bureaucratic ... and you really improve the decisionmaking process of parents—to not necessarily default to the school nearby.

The other thing in New Orleans and Denver, there’s just widespread misunderstanding of how the algorithm works. It’s complicated, and a lot of people don’t understand it, and that opens up a lot of fictionalizing of how it works.

Cities told parents to list their preferences, but they didn’t tell them what was behind the curtain, how this works, and I think we really need to. I don’t think parents are going to trust that advice until we tell them how the algorithm works.

They’re still trying to game the un-gameable.

Q. No city has had a common enrollment system for very long, only a couple of years, so it may be too early to tell, but do parent attitudes improve toward single enrollment systems over time?

A. Both New Orleans and Denver started in 2012. I think it is becoming more of the norm in both of these cities. Answering that question goes back to the beginning, they will get happier over time if they can get into schools that they actually want to go to, and that pivots on supply a lot more than on the matching system.

It’s fair to say that in Denver in particular, parents find the administrative process on average easier to deal with. They have less trouble with the process of enrollment. In our surveys, after they instituted the School Choice common enrollment system, parents were less likely to report that they were having trouble managing multiple applications and deadlines.

In New Orleans we actually saw the opposite.

But when you think about how enrollment happened before, this makes perfect sense. Before in New Orleans, unless you wanted to go to one of these very selective schools, you walk down the street, you walk into the school, you sign up for school.

Schools were even out canvassing neighborhoods. Principals could enroll a kid in their living room, and that was a very personal process.

But there was loads of corruption. There’s a report from one of the Education Research Alliance researchers that found that principals were really playing shenanigans and being selective about how they enrolled. It just wasn’t a fair system, but it was easy to enroll.

Not every school was corrupt, and it may have very as well have been a minority, but there was no way to stop it or regulate it.

Q. New Orleans, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Newark all have common enrollment systems. Are there any other cities looking to adopt them?

A. Indianapolis, they’re making steps forward. Detroit has been quite open that there are some folks interested in it.

There’s certainly concerns from parents about it, but cities have an obligation to provide fair and equitable access to public schools. Parents might like to be able to work the system and be that last decider, but that is in tension with the goal of providing fair and equitable access to public schools. And that is a difficult balance.


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Photo: Sci Academy, a charter school in New Orleans. -Swikar Patel for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.