school bus


Speaking of crowdsourcing civic policy ideas, as Chicago has done of late, Boston put the wisdom of the crowds to the test in an issue that will hit close to home here: school quality, access, and desegregation. Boston has a long and troubled history of attempts at desegregation, so mayor Thomas Menino's desire to go back to neighborhood schools over the busing that's so long been a point of tension there was well received. But that would run into the same problems Chicago faces (Boston has a similar racial balance to CPS): segregated neighborhoods result in segregated neighborhood schools.

The new proposals and quick timetable have sent parents scrambling to try to comprehend them. They come with a large set of variables, forcing parents to consider multiple trade-offs that make the evaluation process as complex as three-dimensional chess.

For example, under a proposal that would eliminate all zones, the average distance traveled to school would shrink to a quarter of a mile from one and a half miles. But because housing is still so segregated in parts of the city, the poorest children would remain in some of the worst schools.

There are more, from zero up to 23 zones, and they're complex. But the city also took suggestions—for whole plans, not just ideas—and published them alongside the city's own. And the excellent journalist Dana Goldstein finds much to favor in them:

But there are other models that have been left out of many of the political and media conversations about Boston's reorganization—options that have the potential to more meaningfully integrate actual classrooms, while offering both poor and affluent families more choices. City councilor John Connolly, a former charter school teacher and frequent Menino critic, has released the Quality Choice Plan, which would guarantee all children a seat at one of their four nearest schools, but would also create 16 new city-wide magnet schools organized around themes such as Montessori methods, the arts, oceanography, bilingualism, or math and science. Magnet schools are a proven school desegregation tool, since their more focused curricula draw a range of families happy to travel longer distances by bus for a specialized education.


On the web, the city has published several rezoning proposals more integrationist than its own. One, by researchers at MIT, would use a complex computer algorithm to guarantee that every Boston child has the same probability of being assigned to a high-quality school, regardless of race, class, or geographical location. Another is by Josh Weiss, the South End dad who chose to enroll his own daughters in a high-poverty—yet ultimately high-performing—public school. His plan would "pair" two neighborhood zones with one another, meaning that even if kids are bused to school, they will travel alongside their neighbors, helping to achieve some of the community cohesion Menino champions.

The MIT proposal is genuinely interesting, although it may oversell itself with the title "Family-Centric School Choice Model with Meaningful Choices and Guaranteed Equal Access to Quality" (PDF). Here's the rub: "After sibling assignment, we can equitably divide the remaining seats so that every remaining child is guaranteed equal access to quality." A lot turns on what you mean by access, especially if you mean something like this: "The level of quality guarantee, q*, is simply the list of averages of the remaining seats' school quality scores. 

Here school A has MCAS score of 60, which is lower than the district average of 70. And school C has higher than average MCAS of 80. But if a student receives each of A, B, C with probability 1/3, his/her expected value of school MCAS score is exactly the district average of 70. Hence, this basket delivers the guaranteed expected quality level q*1 = 70.

It's sort of like the judgement of Solomon, only if you gave Solomon a protractor and a jigsaw; it's almost touchingly mathematical. The "pair" plan (PDF) is sort of like exchange students, but for neighborhoods. None of the solutions will please everyone, and perhaps not anyone, but the city's approach to laying out the options is impressive: an organized approach to crowdsourcing, something to consider as Chicago's school consolidation plan trickles out.


Photograph: Zemlinki! (CC by 2.0)