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School Assigning Process Criticized

MIT professor presents a possible solution to the problem

By Rediet T. Abebe, Contributing Writer

Raymond Traietti, a parent of a student attending Cambridge Public School, wrote in an e-mail to a school official that he was “frustrated” with the school assignment process.

His family listed three schools as their top choices, with proximity as the deciding factor. But their son was assigned the public school that was “absolutely furthest away from where [they] live.”

They are one of many families that has faced mandatory assignment due to the controversial controlled choice process, a procedure debated at an informal roundtable discussion with the CPS committee last night.

Parag A. Pathak ’02, an assistant professor of economics at MIT, presented his recommendations for amending the “first choice maximization” algorithm that currently determines assignment. According to Pathak, changing the system will reduce the gambling involved in the process, increase transparency in school assignment, and up the level of parental satisfaction.

Currently, applicants with siblings and those within a certain proximity are given priority in school choice. In cases when all these factors are similar, a lottery system is used as a tie breaker.

Traietti’s family did not get any of their three choice schools because they were “overly-demanded” schools.

Stories like theirs have reportedly led some families to strategize by listing schools in lower demand as their top choices instead of their true preferences.

“What’s the point of having people list schools and calling the process ‘School Choice’ if there is no choice in the matter,” Traietti said. “How are we to know that we have to ‘play’ the process by what schools to list?”

Last night, Pathak presented his new model of the system in an effort to decrease the mistrust and “strategizing” in the process. His ideas stem from his own previous experience in New York and Boston Public Schools. This “strategy-proof algorithm,” where parents are not penalized for ranking overly-demanded schools, would endorse honest ranking, he said.

The percentage of students receiving their first choice, which is currently at a high 87 percent, might be overstated, he said, since they may only be getting their stated first choice.

Pathak suggested that the process should allow “seat swapping.” In this algorithm, students can either keep their assignment if it is truly their top choice school, or request a trade if it is not.

“We want a system that people think is fair and they can participate in,” Pathak said. “The primary goal of the new algorithm, school committee members agree, is to ‘level the playing field.’”

Socioeconomic and racial imbalances are not directly affected by the proposed chances and are not anticipated to change drastically, if at all.

School committee member Luc D. Schuster said that “it’s going to take some time for parents to think we’ve changed the system.” Mark C. McGovern, another committee member, agreed that “the groundwork needs to be laid out properly.”

The algorithm is unlikely to be implemented this school year, according to the committee.

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Cambridge Schools