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Guest Commentary: School Lotteries Are Not the Answer

Equity, a former Temple education professor notes, is not a zero-sum game that some lucky children win and others lose

Guest Commentary: School Lotteries Are Not the Answer

Equity, a former Temple education professor notes, is not a zero-sum game that some lucky children win and others lose

As another school year draws to a close, the future looms large for Philadelphia’s eighth grade students moving up to high school in the fall.

Some students simply attend their local high schools, but for roughly 65 percent of this year’s eighth graders, the process was much more stressful and complicated. Competition for spots in selective high schools was intense.

In the main lottery, only 52 percent of applicants were admitted to Northeast High School, and only 38 percent to Science Leadership Academy. Although some are chosen, many unlucky students are not admitted to schools that might well change the trajectories of their lives.

No qualified students should be denied access to opportunities they have earned. In our public schools, every child should be a winner.

In cities like Philadelphia with large numbers of under-resourced schools that many parents and guardians do not consider safe, learning-focused environments for their children, admission to a selective school can be a ticket to success.

If students don’t secure a place, not only are they deprived of more challenging academic work, which would prepare them for higher education, but they have reduced access to clubs, activities, advising, internships, and other chances to improve their circumstances that lead to better academic and economic outcomes.

As a result, parents whose children don’t gain admission to selective schools often turn to independent schools or move across the city line to enroll their students in more highly rated and resource rich suburban schools.

The new Philadelphia schools lottery

The hurried process the School District adopted this year added to the stress and inability to predict the future families were experiencing during the pandemic.

Criteria for admission changed from previous years, in part because last year, many students did not take standardized tests on which school officials used to rely. Although they had to take a special new writing test, eliminating test scores, a major barrier, opened admission to selective schools to a much larger pool of students.

Broke in Philly logo

Although Central and Masterman insisted that applicants have no C grades at all, other schools allowed several C grades, another change from the past, which also contributed to a larger number of qualified students.

The School District is proud of the results of their lottery, touting the larger number of under-represented students who participated, and claiming that almost 86 percent of those who applied were admitted to at least one school on their list. On the ground reports, however, were less enthusiastic.

Lotteries do nothing to change these circumstances. They actually leave redress to chance. They merely purport to level the playing field by giving all students who qualify the same chance at success.

Complaints about the abrupt changes, the lack of transparency, the unfairness of forcing students happily settled in one school to move to another — and the unnecessary stress and heartache inflicted on young students and their parents — abounded.

The process was also critiqued as failing in its mission. Because there was a separate lottery for each school, some students were admitted to all the schools to which they applied while others (roughly 600) were admitted to none.

Liberalized criteria provided opportunity to students who would not have qualified in the past, but then students who had worked hard to qualify based on previous criteria couldn’t rely on their achievements but had to trust their luck, which often didn’t hold. At bottom, School District officials, in their zeal to increase “equity,” made a bet that many believe will not pay off.

The gross inequities in educational access across the country have spurred cities like Philadelphia to introduce lotteries that appear to limit discrimination and give all children an equal shot at placement in a good public school. Through the lottery, children can compete for a small number of special admission schools and programs, 21 of them in Philadelphia.

The causes of inequity, however, are deeply rooted in our public education system, in its local and state funding formulas, and in social problems like poverty and housing discrimination that lead to segregation and a high concentration of students needing scarce special supports in neighborhood schools.

Lotteries do nothing to change these circumstances. They actually leave redress to chance. They merely purport to level the playing field by giving all students who qualify the same chance at success.

What have we learned this year?

Career educators like myself struggle every day with how to achieve equity in a city like Philadelphia, where all students, even those in the most competitive schools, lack opportunities and resources that suburban students take for granted.

Relying on a lottery, rather than providing ample placements in selective schools and programs for all qualifying students, exposes the injustice of the entire system and the School District’s inability to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for all.

What can we learn from this year’s experiment in equity?

  1. We need a plan, not a lottery, a plan that realistically will take a lot of money and a lot of work and years to implement, but will create a viable pathway to equity.
  2. We need to ensure that all middle school students, including those with disabilities, English language learners and those in special education have access to high quality instruction and the opportunity to qualify for selective schools.
  3. We need to break up failing neighborhood high schools and create magnet programs that draw students from across the city, cater to their interests and prepare them for further education, training and jobs that pay a living wage, whatever they choose.
  4. Most importantly, we can’t ask children to strive and work their hardest and then tell them their future will be left to chance.

There should be places for all hard-working students in settings that enable them to fulfill their potential. Hundreds of students on waiting lists this year taught us that we need to greatly expand the availability of special programs that will serve the needs of so many qualified and ambitious students, more Centrals, more Carvers, more special programs within high schools like Northeast that students want to attend.

No qualified students should be denied access to opportunities they have earned. In our public schools, every child should be a winner.

Peshe C Kuriloff, Ph.D. was a professor of practice at Temple University, and is now retired. She has five grandchildren currently attending Philadelphia public schools. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.


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Julia Masterman School | Photo via Wikimedia Commons by user Smallbones

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