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Equity for Whom?

A scathing evaluation of the School District’s new admissions process from Masterman parents raises difficult questions about fairness and merit. The situation is, also, utterly predictable

Equity for Whom?

A scathing evaluation of the School District’s new admissions process from Masterman parents raises difficult questions about fairness and merit. The situation is, also, utterly predictable

Since the start of the school year in August, according to parents at Julia R. Masterman School, the language used to describe the city and state’s most celebrated magnet school has continuously shifted, six times in six months, they say — and not in a good way.

Where once (and sometimes still) the school’s motto proclaimed “Dare to Be Excellent,” at some point, parents say, the motto on the school’s crest was replaced with the humdrum “Middle & High School.” More importantly, and pertinent, to a 51-page report Masterman’s Home and School Association released last month, is the seeming disappearance of language that proclaimed what is most cherished about the school: its “accelerated curriculum.”

These are just words — and just a very few of the words in the scathing, well-crafted report subtitled “Effects Of Recent School District of Philadelphia School Selection and Other Changes.” But as the unnamed writers note, “A mission statement is obviously vital to the operation of any institution.” And it’s that operation that is in question more than a year after the School District of Philadelphia instituted a new lottery system for admitting students into its magnets (and other schools of choice).

The concerns in the report vary from the quality of the school’s advanced curriculum, to the fracturing of the grades 5-12 community, to the scramble to accommodate less skilled students, to the poor communication between administrators and families. It includes several recommendations, including a return to the previous admission system, and states overtly what is clear from reading the report: It is more than a recommendation; “it reads like — and feels like — a plea.”

As the HSA so poignantly says near the end of its report: “A handful of magnet middle schools cannot alone serve as beacons for curricular aspiration.”

This was bound to happen. The grumbling about the lottery admission system began immediately after the district ham-handedly announced the change last fall, with parents of students at the city’s small magnet school particularly exorcized about what it would mean for their children, who had been all but assured of admittance to either Masterman or a high school of their choice.

The reaction to the lottery then and now raises the sorts of questions that districts across the country are facing about how to achieve educational equity, who benefits (and loses) from it, and even what equity means in a district where 65 percent of 3rd graders can’t even read at grade level.

Is this a group of privileged parents practicing equity for me and not for thee? Is it an example of bureaucratic progressivism gone amok? And is anyone willing to acknowledge that what benefits some may never benefit all?

How did we get here?

The School District of Philadelphia announced in October 2021 that it was changing the way public school 8th graders would be admitted to the city’s magnet high schools starting with the 2022-23 school year. Rather than being selected for the schools by principals and school advisory groups based on grades, attendance, behavior and other factors — as previously — all qualified 8th graders are now entered into a citywide lottery, weighted so students from six underrepresented zip codes are prioritized. (One zip code was swapped for another this year.)

The goal, as explained by the Board of Education last fall is laudable: In a district that is 47 percent Black and 23 percent Hispanic, the city’s top-rated academic high schools have become overwhelmingly White and Asian. At Masterman before the change, for example, 43 percent of students were White and 27 percent Asian; at Central, it was 30 percent White and 39 percent Asian. According to the district, 62 percent of those students were economically disadvantaged, but it is also apparently true that a disproportionate number hail from certain neighborhoods.

Is this a group of privileged parents practicing equity for me and not for thee? Is it an example of bureaucratic progressivism gone amok?

The change, part of the School Board’s Goals and Guardrails plan, is intended to even out those numbers, providing access to the city’s most academically rigorous schools to children of all neighborhoods. And, indeed, at least one analysis of magnet school research, by the nonprofit think tank Learning Policy Institute, declared that a lottery system is one of the best ways to ensure magnets are integrated.

The School Board responded to outcry over the sudden change last year with a shrug that spoke to the fact that no matter when, or how, the district changed the selection process a loud contingent of parents would object. “We recognize that there will be people who are uncomfortable, but we’re leaning into that discomfort, and we’re going to do what we need to do to do right by our schools,” Sabriya Jubilee, the district’s director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, told the Inquirer then.

Masterman HSA President Mitchell Orenstein says this particular contingent of parents started writing the report in November — just two months after the start of the first school year since the lottery admissions. That accounts for the fact that the data in the report reflects only early benchmarks, and that most of it is anecdotal. The writers are, clearly, smart and compassionate; they also, clearly, went into this with a preconceived idea of the point they intended to make.

A “diminished curriculum”

How good is Masterman? For years it has been rated the number one high school in the state of Pennsylvania and among the top 10 in the country (according to U.S. News and World Report). Whatever your thoughts about school rankings, that a Philadelphia public school can be considered among the best is pretty remarkable.

That, the school HSA contends, is now at risk. Among their concerns based on “extensive” interviews with students, parents and faculty:

    • Since Masterman’s high school population is no longer made up almost entirely of its former middle schoolers, the student body has a much wider array of skills. That discrepancy has resulted in much lower benchmark assessment scores in reading and math halfway through the school year.
    • To accommodate higher need students, “elements of curriculum appears to have been diminished” — including the elimination of some language instruction, accelerated math classes, arts and music electives.
    • The 5th-12th grade community has become fractured, as there is no longer a sense of an 8 year continuum. (Before last year’s lottery, the high school was made up of half of Masterman middle schoolers.) Related, the middle school curriculum is also less advanced than in previous years.
    • All levels of students are suffering: “gifted and talented students who need accelerated learning are receiving less, students in the middle are not being elevated, and students who need remedial assistance are struggling while awaiting additional supports.”

Orenstein said the group met with Superintendent Tony B. Watlington and others after sending the district their report in February. Watlington repeated what he announced publicly when this year’s lottery opened: He will be hiring a consultant to audit the process and will evaluate it with a committee of teachers, students, staff and parents (including from Masterman).

Beyond that? It’s unclear what the district’s response is to the report. After several attempts to reach someone, no one at the district returned my calls. Despite Watlington’s promise to improve communication under his watch, this too is sadly predictable for a bureaucracy that seems intent on dodging the hard questions.

Is there another way?

Watlington was not part of the decision to change the schools selection process, and it will be interesting to see what his audit turns up — and what he can convince the school board to do about it.

An argument can be made that given time, this will all settle out in some way that benefits those who may have been left behind (while leaving out some who would have otherwise reaped the benefits, of course). But as with every conversation about education, the clock is ticking for the Philly kids who are students now.

The HSA ends its report with six main recommendations, mostly calling for a return to the old admissions process and curriculum. To that end, the report makes a curious claim: In the first year of the lottery, the overall goal — more students of color — was a flop. “5th grade and 9th grades combined saw a net increase of 2 students of color,” the report says.

In contrast, according to the HSA, “the highest increase in percentage of Black and Latinx students of any cohort” occurred during the 5th grade admissions to the 2021-22 school year, when Masterman administrators conducted interviews with qualified students (and presumably crafted a class that was more diverse).

The best solution is the one we can never seem to attain: Excellent elementary schools preparing students for excellent public high schools in every neighborhood.

Allowing a human element in admissions, of course, depends a good deal on trust. District spokeswoman Monica Lewis told me last year that one intention of the lottery was to remove the perception that the School Selection Process is biased towards certain affluent neighborhoods, or influenced by parents who may know someone who works for the district — even though, she added, that is not the case.

The HSA calls for another Masterman to open up in the city, to fill the demand for its rigorous curriculum. That sounds … nice. But it’s hard to imagine how that is in any way a realistic possibility. Could Masterman become, instead, just a 9-12 school, like Central High School (number 5 in the state)?

One solution the report didn’t suggest: using the lottery to admit students in 5th grade, but maintaining the tradition of pulling the high schoolers from the existing population. (This could apply to other special admit pathway schools like Carver Engineering and Science.) That would allow for the eight-year journey which seems crucial to Masterman’s success. It would, however, mean the effects of the lottery wouldn’t reach high school students for several years.

A 2019 study on special select school admissions in eight American cities by Brookings offered several suggestions for making magnets within reach of more students without lowering any standards. Those include having school staff in every neighborhood help qualified students submit applications, which would (theoretically) broaden the pool; and offering advanced classes in every elementary school, which would better prepare gifted students for a rigorous high school curriculum.

Brookings highlighted Chicago as a district that managed a racial and economic distribution closest to the district at large, also by using a lottery system, but one that creates competition among students with similar backgrounds. Using census tract data, the district developed “indicators of disadvantage (which overlap strongly with race and ethnicity in the city)” — income, adult educational attainment, language spoken, school performance. Each census tract was then divided into four evenly populated tiers, with Tier 1 at the bottom and Tier 4 at the highest. The report explains what happens next:

In allocating their seats, each designates 30 percent to top-scoring applicants, regardless of their tier. The remaining seats are divided equally among the four tiers by allocating 17.5 percent of seats to the highest scorers within each tier. This means a student in the poorest tier can get into a [special admit high school] with a lower score than one from the richest. Effectively, the competition is between students within each socioeconomic tier, rather than between them.

Is any of these the right answer for Philadelphia’s most ambitious public school students? Maybe not. The best solution is the one we can never seem to attain: Excellent elementary schools preparing students for excellent public high schools in every neighborhood.

As the HSA so poignantly says near the end of its report: “A handful of magnet middle schools cannot alone serve as beacons for curricular aspiration.”


Julia R. Masterman School. Photo by Michael Stokes via Flickr

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