Learning from youth about competitive school choice policy

Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education

It’s hard to miss academic competition these days. In 2019 alone, events abound. Authorities charged public personalities with felony crimes in response to the “Varsity Blues” college admissions cheating scandal. News and social media exploded with debates over the College Board’s experimental inclusion of an “adversity score” with students’ SAT scores. Of 895 ninth-graders who tested into Stuyvesant High School, a nationally ranked New York City public high school, only seven are Black. Even the film Booksmart took viewers through the hijinks-filled final days of high school for two driven teens who eagerly sacrificed their social lives to gain admission to elite colleges.

Many Americans are concerned—as evidence consistently suggests they should be—about academic competition’s tendency to favor those already living with social, racial and economic privilege. This is an urgent matter in a society where so many believe so fervently (and even irrationally) in the education’s power as the engine for social opportunity and mobility.

My book, A Contest Without Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice, explores the equity implications of academic competition by studying “competitive school choice” policy—where students must compete academically to enter high-performing public high schools. Policies that provide academically competitive public schools are in place in cities including Houston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York City, Kansas City and Chicago, the city where I did my research. When this project began in 2012, we knew little about competitive choice. Most research on this topic at the time was done (quite excellently) by journalists, drawn to the compelling, distressing stories of young people competing against one another to access essential public resources.

With A Contest Without Winners, I set out to shed light on competitive school choice policy and its equity implications, and to do so by learning from youth. We hear a lot about education policy from adults: educators, policymakers and parents. But young people most directly live out policies like competitive choice. In following a diverse group of Chicago eighth-graders through the processes of researching, applying to, gaining admissions to and ultimately attending high school, I learned about competitive choice from young people’s perspective.

The students who worked with me revealed things that neither big data sets nor interviews with adults ever could.

I saw just how competitive choice policy activates competition that unavoidably pits affluent students against less affluent students. Open academic competition—using the standardized test results, entrance exam scores and grades that competitive choice policies usually require—was maneuvered by my study’s participants via their use of tutors, fee-based test prep courses ($400 at the time), after school and summer enrichment activities, parent challenges of assignment and class grades, and the free time required of students and their parents to make these things happen. But even equity-oriented competitive choice policy—like Chicago’s even division of 2/3 of its most selective schools’ open seats among four socioeconomic “tiers” of neighborhoods—required competition within those tiers. Lower income youth in gentrifying neighborhoods that squeaked into the city’s most affluent tier, therefore, competed against the children of physicians and professors who lived in this same tier.

While getting your head around that, keep in mind that the competitors here were 13 and 14 years old. Most youth of that age are becoming more independent but haven’t yet mastered executive functioning (the ability to problem solve, plan ahead, and coordinate thoughts and behavior to those ends). Left to their own devices, most youth participants made understandable mistakes—missing required open houses, bungling application instructions—that led to their rejection from schools for which they were often qualified. Or they applied to schools where they had nearly no chance of admission. The students who made fewer missteps? Those whose parents managed the process for them. Armed with internet access, spreadsheets, calendars, district data, cars, flexible work schedules, and leisure time, more affluent parents buffered their children from the expectable but often unfavorable effects of competing while adolescent.

Youth participants’ lived experiences of competitive choice showed us how their best efforts to compete produced dramatically different results. Two academically ambitious residents of Chicago’s top tier of neighborhoods—Udai and Sasha—vied for a spot at “Perry,” one of the city’s most coveted high schools. Udai, a lower-income student whose immigrant family shared a crowded, small apartment in a gentrified neighborhood, was determined to attend Perry. He attended Perry’s open house alone since his parents were occupied with work and child care, did extensive internet research, and used his cell phone to photograph pages of his teacher’s out-of-date entrance exam test prep book that many students shared. Udai competed against Sasha, whose highly educated parents both held white-collar jobs and acted repeatedly to enhance her academic preparation. They drove her for nine years to a “better” school than the one near their house, and enrolled her in two test prep courses. Only Sasha was admitted to Perry. Her victory may not surprise us, but shouldn’t it surprise us that competitive choice frames Sasha and Udai as equal competitors for a vital public resource?

Young people are powerful policy actors. In one sense, they chose their schools. But the downside of the power that competitive choice gives youth is that they—not their school districts, educators or elected officials—hold the power and also the responsibility for the schooling they receive. Our collective eye drifts to individual results—Sasha’s acceptance, Udai’s rejection—rather than to patterns that show glaring racial and socioeconomic disparities in access to high-performing public schools, as is the case in Chicago and other competitive choice cities.

A Contest Without Winners is a story of both how competitive school choice policy works in 21st century urban America, told via the young people who enact it. It challenges those who want schools to provide opportunity and mobility to consider whether academic competition promises help or harm.


Kate Phillippo is Associate Professor of Cultural and Educational Policy Studies and Social Work at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education. She is also the author of Advisory in Urban High Schools: A Study of Expanded Teacher Roles. She continues to do research with young people and educators about stakeholders’ experiences of education policy, contextual influences on education policy implementation, and student wellness policy and practice.

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