The Illusion of Choice

03/04/2015 09:12 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
Evan Sharboneau via Getty Images

At the moment 68,000 or so NYC 8th graders are anxiously waiting to find out where they'll be offered seats for high school. Word just hit the street that match letters will be released this Thursday, the culmination of what for many families was months of tours, open houses, testing, auditions, interviews, test prep (for some kids this went on for years), portfolio building and seemingly endless stress. This one letter will determine the next four years of these kids' lives.

Not to sound histrionic, but it's a big deal.

Schools here work differently than much of the country, where kids go from the local middle school to the local high school. NYC's high schools are choice based. According to some it's a remarkable system. The Brown Center on Educational Policy recently named New York City as number two on its list of best choice systems in the country. But, as a parent of an 8th grader I know that the dictionary definition of choice and the reality of going to school here aren't the same thing.

Students and families do have choices. There are over 400 high schools offering over 700 programs in the main round. That's an astounding amount of choice. But, just because a student chooses a school or a program, that doesn't mean they get chosen back. Kids have the opportunity to rank up to 12 schools and then information from all 8th graders is fed into a computer system, which hopefully matches them with programs based on any number of screens and criteria. Click here to read how that system works. Unfortunately, the individual screening systems many schools use have been found faulty as the office of NYC's comptroller discovered when examining results. Plus, the number of students interested in top schools far outweigh the number of seats available.

There are NYC's specialized high schools, another option open to students, extraordinary institutions some with worldwide reputations. The original three: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech boast 14 Nobel laureates, more than some countries. Unfortunately, the integrity of these remarkable, rigorous institutions is now being threatened by the current mayor and city council, who want to dismantle the admissions system that's been in place for decades. Admission is based on one test -- a purely merit based system that rewards hard work and diligence, with no opportunities for bias, favoritism, or subjectivity. This process has been protected by state law since 1971, but is now being challenged. No one has actually determined what would take its place and how a new system more like the screened system (problematic as noted above) would benefit either students or the schools themselves.

And then there are very real issues like failing elementary and middle schools across the city that don't prepare their students for success at challenging high schools. Fourth grade standardized tests, which in large part determine middle school placement, are far more important than many realize. Attending a rigorous middle school makes a considerable impact on high school choices. There are concrete discrepancies by borough and neighborhood regarding viable options -- not all are created anything close to equal. Parents who don't speak English are even more challenged by the complicated and unwieldy admissions process. Those without computer access, or the ability to take time off from work for touring and open houses. And the onus is on families to figure it out, often with not enough input from schools or the Department of Education.

So yes, there are choices. Some of them are outstanding, even life-changing. But far too many kids in NYC don't get those chances. For this to be a truly democratic choice system that works for the majority of NYC kids there has to be better support in elementary/middle schools, (weakened by the removal of required tutoring time by the newly passed teacher's contract), better education for families about potential opportunities for their kids, and an easier to navigate system, which would hopefully level the playing field, allowing far more students to excel than do now.