Pursuing Equity in Boston Public Schools

BARI and Boston Public Schools (BPS) have adopted a data-driven approach to identifying inequities in academic opportunities—whether driven by race, socioeconomic status, English language learner status, or otherwise—and to developing policies that can close the achievement gap. This has taken the form of two projects: the construction and implementation of an Opportunity Index that quantifies both individual- and neighborhood-level impacts on achievement; and an evaluation of equity in the school choice and assignment process.

The Opportunity Index. BPS, like many other school districts, distributes funding in part based on programs for particular needs, like English Language Learner status and Special Education. The Opportunity Index goes further, also quantifying how factors like poverty and the conditions and experiences of one’s neighborhood, like violent crime and well-educated neighbors, can impact academic achievement. The Opportunity Index has been used to inform the distribution of ~$8M in funding with which a school can create partnerships with outside organizations that seek to narrow the opportunity and achievement gap. It is the first effort nationally to take a data-driven approach to accounting for inequities that arise not only from differences between individuals and families, but also from variation in neighborhood context.

Figure. Example of how a single elementary school ranks on the different dimensions of neighborhood context that can impact student achievement.


Slides describing the Opportunity Index: https://www.bostonpublicschools.org/cms/lib/MA01906464/Centricity/Domain/162/Opportunity%20Index%20for%20School%20Committee%20Final.pdf

Watch the presentation of the Opportunity Index to the School Committee:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1w8xK4CYUbA (mins. 33 – 1:03).


Figure. Map of a single family’s “choice basket” from the new Home-Based lottery and assignment system.

Figure. Map of a single family’s “choice basket” from the new Home-Based lottery and assignment system.

Equity in School Choice and Assignment. In 2013 BPS implemented a new school choice and assignment system called Home-Based, which sought to provide more students access to quality schools close to home. They are now working with BARI to assess how well they achieved that goal, and whether the benefits of the change were distributed evenly across Bostonians. This effort is combining administrative data with in-person surveys to examine the different stages at which inequities can arise during the school assignment process—from the creation of “choice baskets” that provide families with their options, to the selections families submit, to the competition for desired seats. More than just identify when these inequities arise, our goal is also to uncover why they do so.




Nancy Hill* (Harvard University), Dan O’Brien (Northeastern University), Mariah Contreras (Boston Area Research Initiative) *-Contact: nancy_hill@gse.harvard.edu