Sarah Cohodes

Assistant Professor of Education and Public Policy, Columbia University

Leveling the Playing Field for New York City High School Choice: Initial Results from a Randomized Trial of Informational Interventions
Thursday, February 16, 2017 - 3:30pm to 5:00pm


CERAS Learning Hall

Free and Open to the public

Like many cities across the nation, New York City has expanded school choice as a means to educational improvement. In NYC, all rising freshmen are required to rank up to 12 high school programs, and are centrally assigned. The admissions process is complex, with programs varying in screening method (selective to non-selective), curricular themes, and admissions preferences. In theory, school choice policies like the one in NYC have the potential to dramatically alter the playing field of educational opportunity for low-income students. On the one hand, these policies decouple school assignment from neighborhoods, enabling families with historically poor access to higher performing public schools to seek better schools outside of their own neighborhood. They may also help students find the best educational “match” for them, given their interests and abilities. On the other hand, these policies rely heavily on the capacity of families to navigate the process and select the best school for their children. For school choice to work as a lever for improving student outcomes and reducing inequality, low-income students and their families must have the resources, information, and supports to select schools that will help them graduate and prepare for life beyond high school.

This paper presents the results from a school-level randomized control trial, which provided low-income NYC middle school students with informational tools and lessons on how to use them in over 170 schools in the 2014-2015 school year. Schools were randomly assigned to one of three informational interventions or a control group. These interventions were delivered in 40 minute lessons given by trained research assistants.

  1. General information about graduation rates and travel times: this group received a concise, one-page listing of 30 geographically proximate high schools (e.g., within a 35-minute commuting distance) along with travel time information and the four-year graduation rate. Schools listed had a four-year graduation rate of 70% or above. The sheet was intended to serve as a “starting point” for high school choosers. We also included a one-page insert identifying schools specifically designed to serve English Language Learners and recent immigrants.
  2. Information session push: This intervention aimed to increase student participation in information sessions for “limited unscreened” high schools. This intervention was an enhanced version of the first intervention that included an additional list highlighting “limited unscreened” schools as well as a calendar on which there was space to write the dates and times of scheduled information sessions for schools of the student’s choosing. Parents and students were given the opportunity to opt-in to weekly text message reminders that informed them about upcoming information sessions and fairs. Both the sheet and text messages included language emphasizing the importance of attending an open house and signing in to receive priority admission to limited unscreened schools.
  3. Focus on themes and academic interests: This intervention attempted to help students identify schools that match their academic interests. This intervention contained all of the standard information included in the first intervention and also included listings of schools that focus on specific themes (for example, arts, health professions, or STEM) and have graduation rates above 70%.

Initial school-level analysis of the interventions indicate that students in schools who received an intervention were more likely to be matched to their first choice school than students in control group schools and to apply to schools supplied in the intervention lists. These effects were concentrated among schools that received the simplest version of the school list. The interventions did not increase match to schools with higher graduation rates or reduced travel time.