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An enrollment policy built on shaky ground

By James H. Lytle on Feb 3, 2014 02:35 PM

​The School Reform Commission’s enrollment policies, and the premises on which they are based, are at the heart of its efforts to improve city schools and student achievement. For that reason, they merit careful analysis. 

For the last several years, the SRC has promoted an increase in "high-performing" or "high-quality" seats with the unstated premise that student performance is determined by the quality of classrooms and schools that students attend. And for the last decade, the SRC has supported the development of a portfolio of schools, including District and charter schools, to expand parent choice in school selection.

To facilitate the choice process, the SRC has recently been considering a "universal enrollment" system, which would allow parents to complete a single application for District, charter, and parochial schools (and possibly private schools) that they would like their child to attend. 

In the discussion that follows, I hope to provide some perspective on the SRC’s enrollment strategies, a discussion that may have increased importance because of recent statements by SRC chair nominee Bill Green.

Green is quoted in the Inquirer as saying, “I am a strong believer that quality educational ‘seats’ need to be provided to the schoolchildren of Philadelphia as quickly as possible ... And I am indifferent as to whether or not that is in a public school or public charter school, etc.”

I bring a variety of perspectives to this discussion as a former Philadelphia principal and central office administrator, school superintendent in New Jersey, and now university professor. I’ve been directly involved in student enrollment management, including recruiting, admissions and transfer, as well as policy development and implementation, and I’ve also had the opportunity to study the effects of various enrollment policies. 

The big question 

Embedded in the enrollment policy debate is a larger question of whether manipulating enrollment policy creates the appearance of doing something, of “fixing” schools, while avoiding the real issues of adequate funding and program quality.

Let me be clear from the outset. In my view, if the SRC were truly serious about improving student achievement and increasing the number of quality seats, it would be advocating for proven reforms, including preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, small classes in early grades, quality teachers, stable and competent school leadership, support for teacher learning, rich and engaging curricula, and trusting relationships among students, teachers, parents, and administrators.

Which is to say, as directly as possible, that as the enrollment policy debate continues, and District finances and charter school expansion dominate the news, it’s important to keep in mind that our leaders are not talking about what would make a real difference for the city’s public school students. 

That said, taking a closer look at District enrollment practices may help clarify what’s been happening and what it means for the city’s kids.

Enrollment policies and practices

Manipulating enrollment through school design and admission processes has been a District strategy for decades. Take, for example, the desegregation efforts of the '70s and '80s. Over time, the rationale for school enrollment policies has variously been intended to:

  • Attract students of different races, ethnicities, abilities, and social classes, so that students can learn how to relate to those “different” from them. Engineering and Science High, Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and Science Leadership Academy are examples.
  • Improve student achievement by eliminating “low-performing” schools and requiring their students to attend “better” schools, and concurrently, pressuring schools to improve their performance so they are attractive to prospective students. The federal Race to the Top initiative and the District’s Facilities Master Plan are both examples of this strategy.
  • Maintain strong neighborhood schools with active parent support, particularly when the intent is to attract middle-class families who might otherwise opt for private schools or the suburbs – Penn Alexander, Meredith, and the Center City District exemplify this strategy.

As the varied purposes suggest, the District has had an array of recruitment and school-design strategies that both complement and compete with each other. In addition, central administration has exercised greater or lesser control over enrollment decisions depending on the politics and preferences of the moment.

To further complicate the matter, there is a whole second tier of enrollment policies, which might loosely be characterized as “money follows the child,” or entitlement policies. Most important are the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA - Title I) and the Education of All Handicapped Children Act, which evolved into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. These established, in federal law, the notion that children with special needs (poverty, physical, or mental handicap, chronic behavior problems) require additional resources to provide them a “free and appropriate” education. 

As programs for these students have evolved, they have created a secondary market for children considered "difficult to educate." Schools willing or required to enroll these students have the incentive of additional money, staffing, and external supports. But because schools are expected to ensure that “needy” students pass state tests, there are also negative incentives for enrolling them. As a result, Philadelphia’s neighborhood schools enroll a disproportionally high share of students with special needs, and schools with selection criteria enroll a smaller share.

On high-quality seats 

With that background, consider the SRC’s "high-quality seats" strategy. This strategy has at least three inherent problems in my view. The first is obvious: the assumption that the supply of "high-quality seats" is sufficient to accommodate students who are low performing or who attend low-performing schools. In his recent announcement that the District would not close any schools for 2014-15, Superintendent William Hite made it clear that this was not the case.

The second problem is that the strategy avoids the brutal truth that family income is far and away the best predictor of student performance in the United States. So unless students from low-income families are assigned to classrooms with children from middle and high-income families, access to "high-quality seats" will be limited. 

The third problem is the SRC’s claim that school quality can be improved without additional resources -- particularly small class size, good teachers, and good principals. But the SRC’s approach to PFT contract negotiations and school staffing and the high degree of leadership turnover in District schools indicate that the District is putting economy before quality.

What's a "high-quality seat" in Philadelphia?

The deep problem with the "high-quality seats" strategy is that good seats, whether in District or charter schools, are in very short supply. That is best illustrated by looking at the Notebook’s 2013 fall guide to high school options, designed to help parents and students navigate the myriad choices now available. 

There are 79 high schools listed in the guide: 17 special admission, eight citywide admission, 20 neighborhood, and 34 charter. The summary data table allows ready comparison of specific schools and of categories of schools. What is striking in examining the tables is how close the relationship is between “percentage of low-income students” and scores on SATs, which are used for college admissions. 

Even more striking is that only two of the 79 schools have combined SAT verbal and math scores that exceed the national average -- Masterman and Central. The highest-performing charter school is MaST, which not coincidentally has among the lowest percentage of low-income students and smallest percentage of African American and Latino students. In other words, the notion of "high-quality seats" is very much a relative term, because the only truly high-performing seats in the city are at Central and Masterman.

The shifting Philadelphia school market

There is a long-standing alternative for parents seeking high-quality options for their children's schooling. Philadelphia has a tradition of private and parochial schools that historically have educated about a third of the city’s children. In other words, there has always been school choice for those who could afford it. But enrollment patterns in Philadelphia have been shifting since the mid-'70s, when the District’s desegregation efforts appear to have provoked white flight to the suburbs, and public and parochial school enrollments began to decline.

Charter schools didn’t enter the picture until the late '90s, and their growth has accelerated in the last several years as federal, state, and local policies have promoted school choice and competition. Charters were created on the premise that student achievement would improve as parents sought demonstrably effective schools. But in Philadelphia, that has not been the case. Charter schools as a whole have done neither better nor worse than their traditional counterparts in improving student achievement. Parents here have opted for charter schools because they perceive them as convenient, safe, and orderly. 

An unintended consequence of charter schools' development, in Philadelphia and in other large cities, is the devastating effect on parochial schools that historically educated a high proportion of non-Catholic students as part of their mission to serve the poor. Given the choice of free charter schools or parochial schools with low tuitions, city parents have chosen charter schools, accelerating the closure of parochial schools and explaining, in part, why the charter school enrollments have increased more than District school enrollments have declined.

What about vouchers?

In 2012, the Pennsylvania legislature authorized the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program that permits parents of students attending low-achieving schools to get scholarships (tuition vouchers) that can be used at participating "better" schools. (The list of these schools on the Pennsylvania Department of Education website indicates that to date almost all have religious affiliations.) Although the approach of school choice and "high-quality seats" that the SRC has pursued has not, to this point, included vouchers as a component, that possibility remains a very real one. 

It is likely that high-quality seats and school choice will continue to be at the center of the SRC’s efforts at improving student achievement. And the state and local political landscape suggests that both elected and appointed officials will support that strategy, in large part because it doesn’t cost much. Will this approach improve student achievement, reduce the dropout rate, increase college access, and career readiness? Not likely. If the SRC were truly serious about improving student achievement and increasing the number of high-quality seats, it would be advancing proven reforms.


James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on February 3, 2014 3:56 pm
Fact: Everybody wants these things... "pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds, small classes in early grades, quality teachers, stable and competent school leadership, support for teacher learning, rich and engaging curricula, and trusting relationships among students, teachers, parents, and administrators." Fact: Those things will take years to achieve Fact: In the near term, more affluent families manipulate the system (or just buy higher priced houses) in order to access better schools than low-income families Ergo: Keeping the current system benefits the middle class and hurts those from low-income communities. Which is a big part of why you see so many middle class parent groups organized against an enrollment system that would level the playing field a bit more..
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 3, 2014 4:18 pm
The current or proposed system of enrollment do not address the elephant in the room - there are students who will not qualify for parochial, public magnet and charter schools. For example, in a Philadelphia Magazine article by a suburbanite Freire Charter is listed as a "good" school. Yet, until this winter, it had "barriers to entry" with its application process. Now, some of the hoops have been removed BUT they clearly advertise they are only for students who want to go to college and they have a zero tolerance discipline policy. ("Safety is our first priority. If a student acts violently – whether in words or in actions- to anyone at school or on the subway OR ANYWHERE – he or she will be expelled. There are no second chances. Our second priority is helping students learn to resolve conflicts peacefully and without violence.") A neighborhood high school is for anyone and must accept everyone. Will the test scores be lower? Sure. Will the climate be more dicy? Sure. Schools like Freire, which are typical charters, can weed out students who still must be afforded an education. (Magnets, city wide admit, and parochial / private schools obviously have their own sets of hoops to jump through.) What is needed to provide a fair and equitable education for ALL students is what is proposed by Dr. Lytle - not shuffling a few students who qualify to "better seats." Does the current system of enrollment - including charter, magnet, parochial / private - benefit families who know how to navigate the system? Sure. Will using an algorithm change it? No. Those in the know will have the credentials (grades, scores, attendance, essay, interview, "by any means necessary," etc.) to get into the schools with barriers to entry OR, like Friere, barriers to continued attendance / acceptance.
Submitted by Go-Eagles (not verified) on February 3, 2014 9:51 pm
I agree with the thrust of your post, but the true elephant in the room is the special admission schools that can pick and choose their students. There are haves and have nots in this district. It is a defacto form of segregation. Once you deny admission, you have discriminated against that student. If you want equality, then eliminate the special admission schools and treat everybody the same.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2014 12:47 am
Do any of you people realize that the universal enrollment system will make it impossible for charter schools or any other school to cream students? it actually levels the playing field. it solves an issue many of you have been hammering away at for years (charters = selective). All these rants about how it means less choice are also comical. Is it fair for 1 student to horde 5 enrollment slots at 5 different schools while other kids who apply get zero slots? This is the example cited over and over of the student at the SRC meeting who put out the bangles and took them away. No. It is much fairer for students to rank their choices and then each one of them gets 1 enrollment slot. From what I can tell, the most vocal opponents are folks with the resources to skillfully navigate the current system and get their kids into Masterman and the like. They get school choice, but the rest of the city has to stay in their neighborhood school, like it or not.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2014 4:18 am
Why not make neighborhood schools more attractive by adding internal magnet programs (e.g. Northeast HS has had one for 60 years)? Why make some schools "last resort" and concentrate students with the most needs in a few schools? Will an algorithm make Masterman, Central, Carver, SLA, and the charters open their doors to students with mental health issues, multiple learning disabilities, "limited English proficiency," etc? No. There will still be many barriers to entry and concentration of students with the most needs in a few schools. Then, the schools that have to accept all students will continue to have lower test scores and more behavioral problems. It doesn't take an algorithm to figure that out.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 4, 2014 8:20 am
Obviously you either work for PSP, the owner of the computer software, or one of the Charter operators who would benefit from the UE plan which the Gates Privatization Committee rolled out at the policy meeting. It was obvious to everyone at my table, and everyone who I talked to at that meeting who did not have a self-interest in the plan, that the plan was utterly absurd and did not solve any of the problems you say. Even a charter school CEO said to me that the plan was ridiculous. The Masterman 8th grader figured out quite quickly, what the plan really was. She explained very vividly, that "their plan" did not give her any choice but "assigned her to a school." And we had the owner of the program explain how it worked to us at our table. That plan really did not give students any choice at all -- it gives students only a Hobson's choice. As Lisa Haver said at the end of the meeting, "It is time to put that plan to rest." As you may know Lisa is one of the most respected advocates for propriety in our community. As Dr. Lytle so eloquently explains, there are issues with enrollment policies to be sure. But enrollment policies for "public school students" in Philadelphia must be resolved through "public processes" required for public school policymaking. That can not be done by any private group in the shadows of back rooms. Enrollment policies for public school students should not, and can not, be properly developed and implemented by anyone else other than the School District of Philadelphia and the SRC. That UE plan does not level the playing field at all. It was, and is, a plan for PSP and Mr. Gleason to seize control of the enrollment process for public school students and divert students into schools of "his choice." That is obvious to anyone with their eyes open and a shred of honesty. The only one ranting is you, and of course, you do so behind the cloak of anonymity. I was the one who related the story of Masterman girl who explained to the facilitator using her 5 circular bracelets that the plan really afforded her no choice, but was in reality a plan to assign her to a school. What she explained was the fallacy of "the plan." Dr. Hite was standing right there and understood exactly what she meant, and exactly what the reality of "that plan" is.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2014 10:06 am
first, totally agree that if a system is developed it needs to be run by SDP and audited every year by an independent party (penn, drexel ... or maybe you think they are in on the scam, too?), it is foolish to entrust PSP or any other entity with the system second, totally agree that SDP should seek to make every school a great school and that means standing together in capitol, instead of marching on the 40 N Broad, but until that happens you have more kids than great schools (as dr l point out above), which, for any impartial observer is an argument FOR a more equitable enrollment system! third, can you step back from the fervor and think about the bracelet example. it makes no sense. just answer me this: is it equitable for a student to horde 5 enrollment slots (bracelets) and then get to pick their school while 4 other students go without their options? just a simple yes or no answer. is it more equitable for a student to rank their desired schools and then get into 1 of them, so that the other 4 students without the horded bracelets can also have a choice? just a simple yes of no answer.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 4, 2014 11:57 am
The bracelet example makes perfect sense. You obviously do not understand the special admissions process. When a student such as that Masterman 8th grade, applies to 5 schools, she can be admitted to five schools. She then informs the school district which one she decides to attend. Those other four schools can still admit any other students. Those "other four students" you speak of do not go without their options at all. The way Neil Dorosin, the owner of the software, explained it, it was clear, that the student sends in her requests and they assign her to the school the program assigns her to. She would have no choice. No, is your answer to your question. It is not more equitable at all. It resolves no equity issues. The PSP proposal was riddled with flaws and that was easy for us to see. The plan as stated creates a Pandora's box of ethical and legal issues and solves none of the issues with barriers to entry. No charter school has to follow that procedure at all. An "enrollment system" created and designed by the School District of Philadelphia which is subject to the mandatory public processes of public rule making, decision-making, transparency and dispute resolution procedures would, in the end, be far more equitable. I am all for a refinement of the "enrollment procedure" and think that there are many potential benefits -- as long as it is owned and implemented by the School District of Philadelphia -- not any private entity. I also assure you that I step back from the fervor and think very deeply about all of the related issues, and have been doing so for years.
Submitted by Annonymous (not verified) on February 4, 2014 11:40 am
Let students rank their choices from 1 - 5. Then, they get into the first on their list they are qualified to attend. This still gives magnet schools huge leverage in who they admit. They will limit the number of students with an IEP - certainly with low test scores and behavioral issues - and most ELLs who aren't near English proficiency.
Submitted by Alison McDowell (not verified) on February 4, 2014 8:00 pm
Actually, as proposed charters will be given the opportunity to participate, but they are not obligated to join UE. Those who stand to benefit from creaming and counseling out will choose not to participate and continue to build up barriers to admission while the District Charter office looks the other way. Last spring PCCY and the PA Ed Law center audited charters for such barriers. Only one had no barriers, 2-3 schools had a few, and the rest had serious barriers to access. Many of these are elementary schools that are not covered by the current UE proposal. If this plan were really about social justice, they would have started out with elementary schools and they would not have made participation optional for charters.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 5, 2014 3:04 pm
Rich and Alison, I agree with you. PSP should not manage this process (to design it or to run it). Charter schools should be compelled to participate, it should be a condition of their contract. My main point is that the idea of UE is good idea for equity and families, if designed openly, managed by SDP, and audited by a public entity to inform public of how it is working or being used.
Submitted by Anonymous on February 3, 2014 4:45 pm
Submitted by Helen Gym on February 3, 2014 8:48 pm

Show me who is advocating for a universal enrollment system the district refuses to define, and I'll show you a puppet. The district refuses to define universal enrollment. Period. Therefore, how can anyone advocate for something completely undefined, undeveloped and unaccountable. PSP and supposed UE acolytes refuse to provide any data or research, and instead resort to fear-mongering, class division, and implied racial division - all, incredibly, without any indication of where you have any actual basis for anything you're stating. The real problems have a huge amount to do with charters and barriers to entry. So why not solve that problem with a common application system? What purpose does privatization have, or inclusion of private religious schools? Why, six months after PSP made a public presentation before City Council, have none of the questions from that debacle been addressed or clarified? PSP's botched foray into UE is a clear example of the failed measures of ed reformers using the worst tactics - keeping the public in the dark, and class and implied race divisions - to promote something you can't even articulate and which no one has signed onto. 

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on February 3, 2014 4:55 pm
Torch, the "psychobabble of the seats" is all about and only about the privatization of American schoolhouse by corporate reformers so that they can turn schools into markets for profit. So is the Universal Enrollment plan put forth by PSP, a private organization with an Agenda to divert more students into privatized versions of schools. The "high performing seats" mantra, and the concomitant test-punish-privatize scenario, has been the modus operandi of the profiteers all across America. Diane Ravitch, in her book, "Reign of Error, the Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" explains that phenomenon, with citation to credible authority, in her chapter, "The Language of Corporate Reform." There is no such thing as a high performing seat. There are only high, average, and low achieving students. Standardized tests, as you well know, only measure a small aspect of any student's cognitive abilities, as everyone has "multiple intelligences." (Gardiner et al) Achievement and cognitive growth are a result of a child's life long learning experiences, opportunity, and a host of other emotional and cognitive factors, which are not, and cannot, be measured by any standardized tests. What we call high performing schools are those which have benefited from the "academic stratification processes" of the school district. Most of those "selective admissions schools," like our true charter schools, were created to meet student needs and provide them with "educational opportunity" and "challenge commensurate with their ability." They were never intended to destroy neighborhood schools, or to dismantle public schools and turn them into private businesses, where schoolchildren and their parents are no longer "citizens" but are forced to become only "customers" with few rights in schools. What the majority of people I speak to want is, "Every school to be a good school," which is fully funded and fully staffed with enough qualified and dedicated teachers to provide, small class size, specialist teachers who actually do teach, school counselors, school nurses, creative arts, teachers and, behavioral management support, etc. Thanks for the history lesson, but quite frankly, what our students, their parents and their teachers need most, is for all of us to stop playing our money, power and ego games, and start providing our students with high quality education in every public school. We know what good schools look like, and what good schools are -- we have known for years and years and years.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on February 3, 2014 7:03 pm
Rich---Your first paragraph covers
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on February 4, 2014 9:56 am
Charters were designed in the back rooms of the John Birch Society and their ilk. Klein, Weingarten, Jordan and others were naive to believe anything else. I stated this publicly in 1900 and 1991 and the proof is in the pudding...why can't they have any pudding?...Linton Valley in Cambridge...look it up:-)

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