School-Matching Failures, and Advice From the Man Who Designed the System

Photo: Dave A

The Times reports on New York City kids who fail to get into any of the high schools they apply to. Al Roth, who helped design the school-choice program but has no hand in running it, reports on why this failure occurs. (One big problem, from the Times article: a school like Baruch College Campus H.S. received 7,606 applications for 120 seats, many of them coming from outside of Manhattan; but the school “has not accepted out-of-district students in many years, a fact not mentioned in the Education Department’s school profile.”

Roth’s advice:

For students: use all 12 choices. The system is designed so listing 12 choices won’t hurt your chance of getting one of your top ones. But if you don’t get one of your top choices, having some other schools on your list that you wouldn’t mind going to will save you some heartache.

For schools and guidance counselors: give these kids more useful advice! They should be told if the lists they are submitting include only schools for which they have little or no chance of being accepted.

Mike B

If the schools were required to take all applicants then market forces would create an equilibrium as good schools would be swamped with students lowering the educational quality and bad schools would have fewer students, raising the educational quality. Eventually all schools would achieve an equivalent level of competence.

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It doesn't work that way.

First of all, no school is capable of accommodating seven thousand new students overnight (working out to 28,000 students in a high school) -- and some of them are getting more than 7,000 applicants each year.

Second, educational quality is not a function of the number of students in the school. The number of teachers and other resources is not fixed on a per-school basis. If you have more students, you hire more (possibly worse) teachers. If you have fewer, you transfer the teachers to other schools and lock up classrooms. Halving the number of students does not have the effect of doubling the teacher-student ratio or the amount of individual attention a teacher gives to each student.

Miley Cyrax

So students aren't getting into the schools they want because they're getting beaten out by better students. This is a feature, not a bug. Not everyone can be a winner.

I was initially somewhat surprised that the article went on without promoting affirmative action (even if tacitly), but then I got to: "Sean P. Corcoran of New York University and Dr. Levin conducted a study, “School Choice and Competition in the New York City Schools,” that showed black and Hispanic students in the city in 2008 tended to rank better-performing schools outside their neighborhood as their first choice, but more often ended up being accepted at local schools more like their middle schools."

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More information would be useful; if a student flat-out doesn't qualify for a school (say, because they live in the wrong place), then the system ought to be flagging that. It would be nice to have it produce an odds-of-a-match estimate as well. If a 50th-percentile student has applied only to 90th-percentile schools, especially if they've only named one or two schools (apparently a very common reason for a failure to match), it would be good to warn them in advance.

Alternatively, you could actually require students to produce a list that includes at least "X" schools, where "X" is the number required to produce a match for nearly all students.


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