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.



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

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

Equity in School Choice and Assignment. BARI recently completed an evaluation of equity under BPS’ current school choice and assignment system known as the Home-Based Assignment Plan (HBAP). In 2013 BPS adopted Home-Based as a new and innovative approach for providing more students access to quality schools close to home. The report revealed that geographic and racial inequities in terms of access to quality schools persisted under HBAP, and found that there ways that the algorithms underlying HBAP could be improved in these regards. The overarching lesson of the evaluation, however, was that there are limits to what any school choice and assignment plan can do when there are few high-quality schools in a city and that those schools are not evenly distributed across neighborhoods. Following the report BARI is continuing to work with BPS to navigate ways to make access and assignment to schools more equitable across populations.


Map on the left shows distribution of available seats in BPS schools by census tract, Map on the right shows number of BPS students per census tract


Read the full report on BARI’s evaulation of equity of the Home-Based Assignment Plan  here.


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.

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).




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