Using a lottery system to determine high school admissions is creating turmoil and strife in Philadelphia, PA and prompting protests from students, parents, and teachers. New York City parents, who have already experienced the roller coaster ride of lottery high school admissions, offer their advice to cities like Philadelphia, as well as Alexandria, VA, San Francisco, CA, and other districts wrestling with how to balance equity alongside academic standards. Working together, perhaps America’s families can come up with solutions politicians have overlooked.
NYC dad Darren Edwards predicts, “I don’t think the rest of the United States would stand for NYC’s school lottery system. It’s antithetical to the American ideology that “if you work hard, you will be rewarded.” This belief is the reason why so many come to America. But, NYC’s lottery is exploiting hard working students to fix a longstanding equity problem. Education is the great equalizer of society when anybody who works hard is rewarded. The backbone of an educational system should be grounded in that and not a process whose success is governed by random numbers. Instead of using random numbers to achieve evenhandedness, improve the reputation, retention, resources, and impactful relationships of all schools.”
Fellow NYC parent Gavrielle Braguy Villanueva agrees. “We need to work at making schools that work for every child, but sending kids from all over the city to schools that might not meet their needs, does not solve the problem.”
“Whatever system you decide on, come up with clear, simple rules, implement them once, with ample notice, and just stick to them,” Manhattan dad David Gorvitz advises. “Avoid significant year-to-year changes in program structures or criteria. Have well-known qualifications and time periods for various stages in the admission process. Announce key dates many months in advance. I have heard it said that having consistent rules and long notice periods gives more time to the “privileged” to “game the system.” I could not disagree more. The “privileged” have networks to learn of any changes almost instantly. Those who don’t — a group which includes many families for whose benefit you are ostensibly making these changes — will benefit from rules and time lines which have been around long enough for everyone to know them.”
In 2021, Philadelphia implemented a computer-based lottery system in order to give applicants from six, traditionally underserved zip-codes priority for admission to the city’s top-rated magnet schools, and “promote equity in the district’s criteria based schools.”
Under the former admissions policy, students who scored in the 88th percentile on a PA standardized test were considered for admission. The lottery system got rid of the test, retaining only grade and attendance requirements. Now, children from targeted underrepresented areas receive first preference. As a result, “the number of Black or Latino students who qualified for admissions to (one top school) increased from about 30% to nearly 63%.”
But it’s not all good news in Philadelphia.While the most popular magnet schools enrolled students who might never have gotten in under the previous criteria, many other schools, especially those that serve mostly Black and brown students, are critically under-enrolled due to losing those students and not attracting new ones. The lower number of incoming freshmen means the potential firing of numerous teachers and the cutting of programming. Two years into the new system, Superintendent Tony Watlington conceded that “there are still kinks to work out.”
Those kinks include the phasing out of some “accelerated-math and language classes, while benchmark assessments dropped” as teachers struggle to “accommodate students with a much wider range of preparation.”
Lowell High School in San Francisco suffered from a similar achievement drop, as teachers gave out many more D’s and F’s in the first year after the previously merit based school switched to lottery admissions. After two years of pushback, in June of 2022, the SF School Board voted to reinstate admissions based on “grades, tests, and essays.”
At Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology in Virginia, however, the Supreme Court upheld the appellate ruling to continue using grades instead of the school’s own test, as well as set aside seats for students in the top 1.5% of the eighth grade class in each middle school across the district .
“I like the idea of high achieving students in middle school being judged by how well they do in their individual schools,” approves NYC mom Jeannine Jones. “If you’re in the top GPA at your school you should go into the top tier for high school academic consideration. That levels the playing field for students who are in under-resourced schools. I also have liked the school models that reserve a percentage of seats for different types of groups.”
As a final thought, Victoria Chen proposes that, prior to changing admissions policy, four questions should be asked: What specifically are we trying to achieve by moving to lottery? What does success look like? Does removing the lottery achieve this success, or are we focusing on the wrong thing? What gets taken away with a shift to lottery and does the gain from above make up for the loss?
Having already gone through the growing pains of a high school lottery admissions system, NYC has advice to offer other districts. We could all continue reinventing the wheel on our own, or we could try and work those pesky kinks out together – for the benefit of all students across the US.