Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Fair System? CPS Tiers

It's CPS elementary school admissions-offer letter time in Chicago, and Northside parents (and the Interwebs) can't get enough of the chatter. Everywhere I turn, whether online--CPSObsessed, NPN, Facebook--or in real life--at the park, on the train, in the office--parents are talking about acceptances, waitlist numbers, school tours, first impressions, curriculum and teachers and principals, choices or options, possible moves to suburbia, and the odds. 
It's actually kind of exciting to watch and read and hear about. I know that perspective is a luxury; a luxury that comes from satisfaction with my kids' school and therefore outside of this year's process.
The acceptance date for first-round offers is fast approaching: April 11. I picture a flurry of activity and then silence, leaving new-to-CPS families to spend 5 days hand-wringing during the District's spring break. And as the date of family acceptance or rejection of offers approaches, the annual bitching about the unfairness of the system begins. (There's always bitching, but it gets worse around process dates.)

This is most often directed at the tier system, a method adopted by the Board of Education in 2011 to improve equity of access to magnet and selective-enrollment (gifted/IB) schools by using a formula of SES and other factors to assign each block in the city a tier.
I don't think the tier system is perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it does as good of a job at striving for equity as it can do. T
he system is underfunded and under-resourced; sometimes I think the District makes asinine decisions, and sometimes I think the District is doing the best it can. The tier system of admissions in the second category.

There is a mindset among some city (and even some suburban) parents that it's "selective enrollment high schools or bust." This creates a lot of frustration, anger, tears, and threats because Chicago's nine SEHS simply do not have enough seats to educate everyone who wants to attend those schools, and a fierce competition for those seats is one of the results.  

When the public discussion turns to how unfair the (tier) system is for SEHS, I always think of the gifted schools in New York City. There are also nine, And the NYC schools offer admission considerations for disadvantaged students as well. My father attended one of the "Specialized High Schools," as NYC calls them, Bronx High School of Science. In 2013, according to the literature in the link above, the acceptance rate at Bronx Science was 5.3 percent.

When looking at Chicago's data, the complaints about how the system is unfair seem, well, unfair. The tier system doesn't seem to give a hugely unfair or imbalanced advantage to kids who live on statistically less-advantaged blocks. I mean, it's like a 5%.

For SEHS, the current system gives 40% of seats to students in order of pure score rank. Then it takes the remaining 60% of students and divides them evenly among the tiers. Looking at the mean scores among tier 1 and tier 4 students from this year's applicant class, it doesn't look like there is a huge difference in achievement levels at any of the SEHS between tier 1 and tier 4 except at Lane (85.73% T1, 94% T4). And oddly, the mean tier 4 score at Westinghouse is the mean scores for tier 2 and 3, but the percentage difference between tiers 1 and 4 is miniscule - 80.84% (T1) v. 81.79% (T4).

I do understand the frustration with the SE process. But I think it's misdirected at the tier system. I think we'd do better to advocate for stronger programs that serve the 80-92%-level achieving students within our neighborhood/magnet schools, but that isn't a popular opinion in the larger "SEHS or bust" mindset among parents who are engaged in and vocal about their children's education.

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