ERIC Identifier: ED344342
Publication Date: 1992-06-00
Author: Weaver, Tyler
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Controlled Choice: An Alternative School Choice Plan. ERIC
Digest, Number 70.
School choice is one of the hottest topics in education. Not only does it
have the attention of educators, it has the endorsement of President Bush and a
large following of parents. Books are being written, arguments waged, and bills
drafted. There is a growing feeling that if parents can choose which schools
their children attend, education will improve.
However, there are groups urging caution. Some are concerned that issues of
equity will be passed over in the push for school choice, causing at-risk
students to fall further behind. Because of these concerns, choice plans that
focus on equity have begun to receive national attention. Foremost among these
is controlled choice, which attempts to create equitable education in a district
by providing choice while simultaneously preserving racial and ethnic balance.
WHAT IS CONTROLLED CHOICE?
Controlled choice differs from
other choice plans, such as open enrollment and voucher models, in that it does
not rely on market competition between schools to initiate school improvement
(Chubb and Moe 1990). As one of the original designers of controlled choice has
written, the market analogy "is inappropriate in an educational situation" because it ignores the social aspect of education by promoting strong schools
rather than nurturing weak ones (Willie 1990/91).
Controlled choice attempts to provide choice while maintaining ethnic and
racial integration. Controlled choice plans do away with neighborhood attendance
districts, create zones, and allow families to choose within their zone,
provided that admitting students to their school of choice does not upset the
racial and ethnic balance at that school (Alves and Willie 1990).
A few cities have used controlled choice since the 1970s, but most programs
are patterned after a plan that was first implemented in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, in 1981. Designed by Michael Alves and Charles Willie, the
Cambridge plan has evolved into a system where new families visit a central
registration area, choose four schools, and rank them in order of preference.
The district reviews the lists and tries to assign students to their choices,
but it also tries to ensure that no school exceeds its capacity and all schools
reflect the district's racial and ethnic composition (Tan 1990). Not all
students receive their first preference, but a balance is struck between
allowing parents and students some choice while ensuring that schools remain
integrated, with the overall intent of school improvement (Yanofsky and Young
WHAT OTHER CITIES HAVE CONTROLLED CHOICE PLANS?
choice in general and the Cambridge plan in particular have stirred up both
local and national interest. In Massachusetts, several cities have adopted it,
most notably Boston (Alves and Willie 1990). Alves and Willie also have created
or are creating plans for several other cities, including Milwaukee, Seattle,
San Jose, Little Rock, Hartford, and Rockville, Maryland (Alves, personal
communication; Willie 1990/91). A handful of cities, including White Plains, New
York (Yanofsky and Young), have independently adopted it.
Most of these districts adopted controlled choice in response to changing
demographics and previous desegregation plans that did not work. In Cambridge,
it was a response to a failed magnet school program (Tan); in Boston, it
followed fifteen years of divisive busing (Alves and Willie); in White Plains,
it replaced a plan that was over twenty years old (Yanofsky and Young).
WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS OF CONTROLLED CHOICE?
districts adopt a controlled-choice plan primarily as a means of achieving
desegregation, it does more than just desegregate. The following elements, found
in most plans, are what make controlled choice more than just a desegregation
Replication of Successful Programs. Controlled choice reorganizes residential
attendance areas into zones that may not be equal in quality of education when
they are created. To ensure that no student has fewer or less desirable choices
than others, any program that is successful in one zone must be replicated in
all the other zones (Alves and Willie). In smaller cities, this is not a problem
(Yanofsky and Young), but in large urban areas such as Boston and Seattle,
replication is difficult, yet vital to establishing educational equity (Glenn
Parent Information Centers. The success of any choice plan can hinge on
whether parents have the information they need to make educated choices. Many
districts follow the example of Cambridge, which has a center that issues all
publications in multiple languages, offers tours, makes phone calls to homes,
and compiles data on each school (Tan). These centers help parents research
their choices and have the additional benefit of encouraging parent involvement
(Yanofsky and Young).
School Improvement. In contrast to the competition between schools that a
voucher plan might generate, controlled-choice districts assist low-performing
and unpopular schools in their efforts to improve. In Boston, the district urges
unsuccessful schools to improve by offering them funds and granting them more
flexibility in their restructuring attempts (Glenn).
Fair Assignment Criteria. Although controlled-choice districts cannot assign
all students to their first-choice schools, districts try to avoid subjective
and unfair assignments by establishing clear assignment criteria. This process
is often as simple as prioritizing factors such as whether a family has other
children in the chosen school, what a student's racial/ethnic background is,
where a family lives, and when the application was turned in (Yanofsky and
HOW MUCH CHOICE DOES CONTROLLED CHOICE OFFER?
controversy regarding controlled choice concerns whether it is still choice if
it is controlled. Since no controlled-choice district can send every student to
his or her first choice, the number of students getting their schools of choice
versus the number bused to an undesirable school is a point of contention.
Most controlled-choice districts assign about 85 percent of students to one
of their first two choices (75 percent first, 10 percent second) (Alves,
personal communication) and 90 percent to one of their choices (Glenn), leaving
about 10 percent attending schools they did not choose.
Some argue that a certain amount of forced busing is a tradeoff, since
controlled choice dramatically reduced the amount of forced busing in several
districts. In the first year of controlled choice in Boston, for example, the
number of students bused forcibly dropped by 60 percent (Alves, personal
However, most critics of controlled choice agree with Thernstrom (1991), who
argues that "there is too little choice in controlled choice" and that any and
all "involuntary assignments are indefensible."
DOES THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION IMPROVE WITH CONTROLLED
The other major issue is whether controlled-choice plans actually
improve schools. In the words of Chubb and Moe, the Cambridge plan "does not go
far enough," in that all choices and changes "remain firmly under the control of
all the usual democratic institutions." A step has been taken in the right
direction, they argue, but the full benefits of choice will not be realized
until districts remove all controls and force schools to compete against one
Thernstrom asserts that parent centers provide districts with a means to
manipulate choices by making unpopular, low-quality schools appear attractive.
These types of controls, she contends, negate improvement efforts because they
provide schools with students and money without forcing them to improve.
Largely because most controlled-choice plans are so new, the jury is still
out on how much improvement controlled choice has stimulated in schools. Many
districts are still working on effective improvement plans, and, in the case of
Boston, which adopted controlled choice in 1989, "it is clear that there is
nothing simple or automatic about harnessing choice to school improvement"
Cambridge provides the most comprehensive data regarding the relationship
between controlled choice and school improvement. In the first years of
controlled choice there, when the student mixtures in Cambridge schools were
altered, dramatic changes occurred in test scores. For example, after four years
at the elementary school that used to have the highest achievement, the number
of students who passed the district tests had dropped by 6 percent from
first-year levels. However, the previously worst School had improved by 28
percent, and the district as a whole had passed 14 percent more students. Since
then, Cambridge students have performed below the state average but better than
students in similar districts, and their scores have continued to rise (Tan).
This seems to indicate that, at least in Cambridge, controlled choice has been
improving educational quality.
On the national level, however, controlled choice has yet to prove itself. As
Chubb and Moe imply, perhaps it is a stepping stone to a better system.
Nonetheless, for the time being at least, controlled choice is a reasonable
alternative for districts concerned with establishing educational equity within
the context of school choice.
Alves, Michael J., and Charles V. Willie. "Choice, Decentralization, and Desegregation: The Boston 'Controlled Choice
Plan'." In CHOICE AND CONTROL IN AMERICAN EDUCATION, VOLUME 2: THE PRACTICE OF
CHOICE, DECENTRALIZATION, AND SCHOOL RESTRUCTURING, edited by William Clune and
John White. 17-75. New York: The Falmer Press, 1990.
Chubb, John E., and Terry M. Moe. POLITICS, MARKETS, AND AMERICA'S SCHOOLS.
Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990. 318 pages. ED 336 851.
Glenn, Charles L. "Will Boston Be the Proof of the Choice Pudding?"
EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 48, 4 (December 1990/January 1991): 41-43. EJ 418 188.
Moore, Donald R., and Suzanne Davenport. "Cheated Again: School Choice and
Students at Risk." THE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATOR 7, 46 (August 1989): 12-15. EJ 393
Tan, Norma. THE CAMBRIDGE CONTROLLED CHOICE PROGRAM: IMPROVING EDUCATIONAL
EQUITY AND INTEGRATION. Education Policy Paper No. 4. New York: Manhattan
Institute for Policy Research, Center for Educational Innovation, 1990. 32
pages. ED 327 925.
Thernstrom, Abigail. SCHOOL CHOICE IN MASSACHUSETTS. Boston, Massachusetts:
Pioneer Institute for Policy Research, 1991. 142 pages.
Willie, Charles V. "Controlled Choice Avoids Pitfalls of Choice Plans:
Response to John Chubb and Terry Moe." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 48, 4 (December
1990/January 1991): 62-64. EJ 418 194.
Yanofsky, Saul M., and Laurette Young. "A Successful Parents' Choice
Program." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 73, 6 (Feb. 1992): 476-79.