What We Know About the BPS School Assignment

Much to its credit, the Boston Public Schools released tons of raw data to the public as part of the BPS School Assignment process. For those with the capacity, time, and mission to examine the data, it’s a treasure trove of information. But if you’d like someone else to do some of the dirty work, two major pieces of research already out. (Full disclosure: my employer is working on one too.)

The first report came from researchers at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who created a “School Quality Index” based on MCAS results, DESE rating, and popularity to rate schools as high-, medium-, or low-quality. Harvard GSE’s approach found that the zone plans would result in very unequal access to high-quality schools under various zone proposals. Of course, the complete report contains much more nuance than that one finding.

Next, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council entered the fray. The MPAC piggybacked off the Harvard GSE report’s “School Quality Index” with a few important tweaks. First, they analyzed access to high- and medium-quality schools—not just high-quality. As justification, the report notes a number of popular schools from the West Zone that come up in the rankings as medium quality. They change the denominator for the GSE’s calculations to only include the schools in the zone that have an Index ranking because many newer schools don’t have one yet. GSE did the opposite, so their percentages are lower.

Both studies were forced to ignore some complexities of the system—like the impact of cross-zone movement due to walk zones and the persistence of sibling preference. This is unavoidable given the level of data that would be required to deal with these issues.

So, what did MAPC find? One of their initial findings was that African-American students travel more to get to school than other kids in the city—a total trip of two miles on average for students attending high-quality schools and more than 1 1/2 miles for students attending low-quality schools. This gives some credence to those who question the wisdom of busing children long distances to low-quality schools. It also suggests that, overall, BPS has been busing children to schools rather than building new ones in the neighborhoods where the students live.

MAPC’s big-picture finding is more mixed than the Harvard GSE finding. Using access to high- and medium-quality schools as the measure, Harvard GSE finds that many of the zone proposals (particularly the six-zone) result in higher aggregate levels of access for African-American and Latino students, as well as much lower levels for white and Asian students. However, inequalities persist as some zones have markedly higher access and others have less. In all, the reports are complex pieces of work—and are important reads for anyone with an interest in or a child who attends Boston Public Schools.

Steve Poftak
Steve Poftak Steve Poftak, Contributor at Boston Magazine spoftak@gmail.com