In this post, guest blogger Norm Fruchter, co-author of the new Annenberg Institute for School Reform report, “Over the Counter, Under the Radar,” argues that the Department of Education should change its current method for assigning students to high schools. A “controlled choice” model would be more equitable and help all schools succeed, he says.
Some 36,000 late-enrolling, high-need students, traditionally labeled as “over-the-counter” or OTC students, are annually assigned to NYC Department of Education high schools. Most of those over-the-counter students are disproportionally placed in struggling schools, essentially setting up the students and schools for failure, according to a new study [PDF] from Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
To improve the placement process for over-the-counter students, the Annenberg Institute study made the following recommendations:
- The DOE should identify high schools in which over-the-counter students achieve significantly higher academic performance than systemwide averages, and then identify the exemplary practices of these “beat-the-odds” schools.
- Schools targeted for closure or already undergoing the closure process, as well as persistently low-achieving high schools, should not be assigned any over-the-counter students.
- The DOE should assign over-the-counter students to all other high schools at an annual rate of between 12 and 20 percent of their respective student populations. (These recommendations appear in the report’s Executive Summary.)
Implementing these recommendations, particularly by reserving an annual percentage of high school seats for over-the-counter students, would adapt the current merit-based high school choice and selection process by introducing an element of controlled choice. If all high schools were assigned a guaranteed percentage (and specific number) of over-the-counter students every year, both the students and their assigned schools would benefit significantly. Schools could develop a variety of methods to assess their over-the-counter students’ academic capacity, and then reconfigure class assignments, scheduling, and instruction to best meet those students’ needs.
Such a controlled choice model could be extended. Students with disabilities and English Language Learners are too often disproportionately assigned to struggling high schools, a policy that fails to benefit both those students and their assigned schools. Because there is considerable overlap across the categories of over-the-counter students, students with disabilities and English Language Learners, their total may well exceed 30 percent of the system’s high school population. A controlled choice process could reserve 30 percent of the seats in all high schools for these students, who would be assigned outside the school choice process. This policy would allow each high school to re-configure its curriculum, programing and instruction to more effectively meet the needs of a predictable annual percentage of challenged, and challenging, students, and would undoubtedly achieve dramatic gains in equitable treatment for almost a third of the system’s high school students.