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Jeff Henig: Making School Choice Work for All Students

NYC’s recent innovations in the area of school choice continue a long tradition. Special test-in high schools focusing on science--Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx H.S. of Science-go back to the 1930s. During the 1970s, District 4 became a national leader in public school choice by aggressively forming theme based alternative schools; in 1982 it took the further step of eliminating residential assignments to middle schools within the District, making all schools “choice” schools and turning all families into choosers.

Significantly, the impetus for the city’s expansion of choice pre-dated the contemporary market-centered vision of school choice. The market vision sees choice as a way to get schools competing with one another for students, in the belief that competition will encourage innovation, responsiveness, and efficiencies. The deeper-rooted NYC vision was largely based, instead, on the belief that students vary in interests, abilities, and learning styles, and that expanding choice should be part of a strategy to help families get their children into an educational setting that will work best for them. And policymakers in NYC have understood, for the most part, that choice is not magic fairy dust that once sprinkled on will ensure good results. Good school choice requires good laws, smart regulation and authoritative targeted governmental oversight and intervention. Without those, unconstrained choice can undermine other important goals.

One downside risk is that dissolving the close ties between schools and their immediate neighborhoods will jettison many positive roles that schools historically have played as a focus of community loyalty, identity, communication and development. Another is that expanding choice will lead to greater segregation and stratification, with families self-selecting into communities more like them and with financial and informational advantages tied to family socioeconomic status enabling the already-advantaged greater opportunities to play the system while struggling families are left behind. The weight of the national research tells us that choice can have positive or negative consequences and much depends on the institutional framework within which choice takes place.

The study by Ready, Hatch, Warner and Chu does not attempt to isolate the consequences of school choice policies. But its finding that inequalities set early in children’s lives persist and expand, even as those children move through a school system that is charged with narrowing such gaps, is a reminder that layering on more and more choice—via charter schools, universal high school choice; and the proliferation of small themed schools—will not do the trick.

If school choice is to be pursued in congruence with concerns about equity and achievement gaps, the next administration will need to consider a range of deliberate interventions.

  • First, target inequalities in information. Low-income and non-English-speaking families in particular need extra support to learn about and sort their way through the various options that might benefit their children. It’s not enough to publish such information; that needs to be bolstered by aggressive outreach and counseling, including to families whose children are not yet of school age.  Schools and the district can be part of the process, by compiling information that is detailed and digestible, but recruitment of community-based organizations and other non-profits that know and are known in high-need neighborhoods is also important.
  • Second, expand inducements to schools to recruit and succeed with high need kids. One way to do this is to provide more discretionary funds to schools that serve high proportions of high need students. The city is already doing this through its Fair Student Funding formula, but an analysis by the Independent Budget Office found that this was moving things in the right direction, more money would need to be allocated in this way for it to have a substantial impact. Another kind of inducement can come from increased but careful reliance on gain scores rather than levels of proficiency in rewarding schools and teachers. The technology of producing reliable gain scores is still immature and there are hazards to blind allegiance to gain score results. But for some high-need populations, for example students who are still in the process of learning English, gain scores better identify where learning is taking place, and teachers and schools that serve such students are more likely to get the recognition they deserve. Here, again, NYC has been a leader nationally, by virtue of its school grading system that heavily weights student growth, but there is more that can be done. In particular, the concept of rewarding value-added needs to trade reliance on standardized test scores alone for much more attention on identifying schools that have good track records in getting students to stay in school, graduate, and succeed after graduation in college, the workforce, and life.
  • Third, because even well-designed choice systems leave some students behind--because of inattentive or overwhelmed parents; unstable residential lives; reticence to have young children travel outside immediate neighborhoods due to fear of crime, fear of social isolation, or transportation and other logistical challenges; or loyalty, earned or otherwise, to community institutions that have deep roots—don’t abandon the home school. Make sure that those who don’t exercise choice are not left in the least desirable places, by targeting efforts to get good and experienced teachers in those tougher environments and to bolster social service, public health, pre-school and after school programs, and other support initiatives precisely in those places that choice leaves behind.
  • Finally, initiate a targeted and purposeful effort to increase social and economic diversity in the city’s selective high schools. The current administration has increased reliance on a single test as screening device for admission into the elite high schools. While such a test in principle is “color blind,” in practice this has contributed to a sharp decline in racial and economic diversity.  Students from less advantaged families and those coming up through less rigorous school programs simply do not do as well, in part because they have not had the extra test-preparation their more advantaged peers have had. And many don’t even try, in part because the idea of attending such schools seems out of reach and intimidating. But that doesn’t mean that they could not benefit and meet those school’s high standards if given a full chance.

It is possible to make enrollment in these schools more reflective of the range of students in the overall system and to do so without watering down the programs themselves. This requires various kinds of affirmative effort though: improving counseling about high school options for all families and students; identifying potential lower-income and minority applicants to specialized high schools early and providing them with mentoring, coaching and support; expanding the range of information considered in the admissions process to include grades, portfolios of completed work, and teacher recommendations; offering summer classes designed to those selected to ensure they start off fully prepared; establishing buddy systems to provide students from low-income and minority neighborhoods a peer support system. Colleges and universities increasingly are deemphasizing the SAT and broadening the range of factors they consider in their admissions process: it’s time for NYC’s highly selective elite high schools to do the same.


Jeff Henig is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College and a professor of political science at Columbia University. He is the author or coauthor of ten books, including, Spin Cycle: How Research is Used in Policy Debates: The Case of Charter Schools (Russell Sage, 2008) focuses on the controversy surrounding the charter school study by the American Federation of Teachers and its implications for understanding politics, politicization, and the use of research to inform public discourse.