One of the biggest changes last year in DPS was the implementation of the SchoolChoice program, which matches candidates with schools by using an efficient algorithm so that there are no two students who would trade places. That this was not larger news is credit to DPS and several nonprofit organizations, who pulled off the program nearly seamlessly.
The crux of the matching theory which underlies SchoolChoice is something called the Stable Marriage Problem: how to marry 100 men and 100 women so that there are no two people who would rather be married to each other than to their current partner. This is a problem that fascinated economists and mathematicians for years (and well before match.com), eventually finding its practical use in school admissions and kidney swaps.
I’m fascinated by the intersection of economic theory and social practice, and was gratified to learn that the Nobel Prize in Economics was just given to Alvin Roth and Lloyd Shapley, instrumental for their work on matching theory and developing the algorithm which eventually gave rise to SchoolChoice (used first in Boston and New York City). Here is a useful primer on matching theory that is a welcome read.
Now despite the Nobel, SchoolChoice is not perfect (not the fault of the underlying theory). My fear is that by asking DPS parents to fill out their top five choices, we are giving them — and us — the illusion that they have the equal opportunity to attend all five. In truth, despite some considerable progress in introducing more choice into the admissions process, as long as neighborhood preferences exist, wealthy parents will always be able to buy their way into a top public school. Almost all of the best schools with neighborhood preferences in Denver are filled, and no one who lives outside their affluent boundaries can gain admissions, no matter how high one ranks the choice. SchoolChoice somewhat perpetuates an unequal system by presenting the illusion of equity in a system that discriminates against poor families.
Still, DPS is courageously wading into new territory with its admissions policies — my personal belief is that the open enrollment zone for schools in Far Northeast is the most innovative education policy to emerge in Denver over the past several years (even though it has largely slipped under the radar screen). While they won’t win the Nobel Prize, this is a novel approach. The district is moving forwards towards the goal of matching every child with the school that is the best fit for them, but we still have a long way to go to ensure equity in admissions, particularly for low-income families. In the Stable Marriage Problem, there is no neighborhood preference.