The Choices Behind School Choice in Boston



The Choices Behind School Choice in Boston

Edward Glaeser Faculty ResearcherEdward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics, Harvard University, Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, Harvard Kennedy SchoolPaper Title
What Do Parents Want? An Exploration of School Preferences Expressed by Boston ParentsCoauthors
Steve Poftak, Executive Director, Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston; Kristina Tobio, Assistant Director, Taubman Center for State and Local Government; Harvard Kennedy School

The Boston Public Schools (BPS) system is undergoing a major overhaul of its school assignment process. Until recently under an arrangement in place since 1988, families submitted a list of their preferred schools, but they might not get their top choice or, in fact, any of several top choices. The city was divided into three geographic zones, and in order to fill enrollment at all the schools, students were sometimes bused from one end of Boston to another. This approach grew out of a 1974 federal court order to end racial segregation in the city’s schools and to redress imbalances in educational quality and opportunities.

Boston looks a lot different now than it did 40 years ago: Total enrollment in the public schools has dropped from roughly 96,000 to 56,000, and white children make up just one sixth of the student population, compared with about two-thirds in 1974. The school system’s new plan does away with mandated busing in the hope that this will enhance social cohesion in neighborhoods as well as save money. Each year $80 million was spent to ferry students crosstown; now some of this is being plowed back into classrooms.

While BPS worked out the details of its new school assignment system, Edward Glaeser, Glimp Professor of Economics, and Kennedy School researchers Steve Poftak and Kristina Tobio decided to find out what criteria parents rely on most heavily in choosing among schools. Rankings of the city’s most popular and least popular schools have been available for years, but Glaeser
and his colleagues identified the key factors that make a particular school desirable or not.

The authors focused on placement preferences for three years—kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade—which they call “the gateway years for elementary school, middle school, and high school, respectively.” Rather than dwell on the tendency of people to select schools that are close to their homes, all other things being equal, or the fact that schools in neighborhoods heavily populated with college graduates tend to be in greater demand than schools in areas by less educated residents, the study concentrated on the intrinsic features of a given school.

In particular, Glaeser and his collaborators found that scores on the statewide standardized tests called MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) “play a dominant role in determining parental preferences for kindergarten and ninth grade.” (The correlation between test scores and parental preferences is “weak,”’ however, for students entering sixth grade. Although this finding appears puzzling, it may simply reflect the complexity of the Boston system, in which selected students attend prestigious “exam schools” like Boston Latin from grades seven through twelve, and promising students targeted for exam schools are often asked to switch schools in grade four or five.)

Although parents strongly value higher test scores in their school choices, the authors raise questions about the extent to which elevated test scores reflect the ability levels of students entering a given school as opposed to the superiority of the education offered there. “We still need to come up with more comprehensive and durable measures of school quality than MCAS scores,” Poftak says.

Parents put more stock in a school’s average test scores than in attributes such as the square footage per pupil, having a gym, ready access to computers and the Internet, and the availability of art, music, and various extracurricular programs. The authors issue a caveat on this score: “The presence of computers and gyms [for example] might have positive effects on student skills and health that have significant social value. Further research is needed before leaping to any definitive policy recommendations.”

Nevertheless, by putting academics first, “parents are displaying reasonable preferences,” they write. It is therefore important to pay attention to what parents think, Poftak adds, especially in a school system “engaged in a multi-decade struggle to retain and attract students.”

- by Steve Nadis

“Parents put more stock in a school’s average test scores than in attributes such as the square footage per pupil, having a gym, ready access to computers and the Internet, and the availability of art, music, and various extracurricular programs.”