Peng Shi Solves Boston's School Assignment Puzzle

It has taken an MIT PhD student born in China to devise a scheme that may let Boston’s public school system attain a degree of rationality and fairness that has eluded the city since the school-busing turmoil of the 1970s.

Peng Shi spent many days listening to the city’s public debates on how to assign students to schools to optimize access to quality while minimizing the disruptions caused by long daily bus rides. At the heart of the problem is a scarcity of quality schools. A symptom and a contributing cause of the problem is the fact that whites make up 47% of school-age kids but only 13% of the 40,000 students attending public schools.

Shi’s proposal does away with the current scheme which divides the city’s 96 schools into three geographical zones for students attending kindergarten through the eighth grade. In its final version Shi’s scheme would gives families the option to choose from a list of at least six schools. Two would be the nearest high-quality schools. Two would be the next two nearest of at least medium quality, and so on. Essentially the scheme would give families the choice between proximity and quality.

After 70 community meetings to consider the 10 best options, last month a 27-member advisory committee recommended that the Boston School Board adopt Shi’s scheme. The Board is scheduled to vote on adoption of the proposal on Wednesday night. If Shi’s plan is adopted, Boston would have shaken off the last vestiges of the busing plan that nearly destroyed the city.

“It’s groundbreaking in that it doesn’t look at just geography but at quality,” said schools superintendant Carol R. Johnson.

“[Peng] started saying things like, ‘What I’m hearing is, parents want close to home but they really care about quality,’” said Megan Wolf, one of the parents who have been involved in the process. “He said, ‘I’m working on something to try to meet those two goals.’ He didn’t have a political agenda.”

“[I like] to use mathematics and quantitative thinking, to try to use the gifts God has given me,” Peng, 24, told the New York Times.

He became interested in the school assignment problem last year after his proposal for a national kidney-exchange program wasn’t adopted.

“I prayed about finding another project,” said Shi, a devout Christian active in fellowship groups.

Peng Shi was born in Kumming, China where his father was a statistics professor and his mother an abdominal surgeon. Shi was 11 when his family moved to Canada out of a desire to give him access to the best possible educational opportunities. After high school in Toronto he chose to attend Duke over MIT and Princeton because it offered a full scholarship.

Shi became involved in the Boston school assignment project when the city asked MIT’s School Effectiveness and Inequality Initiative to forecast what schools parents might choose under various new proposals. Shi built computer simulations using the parents’ past choices, then generated hundreds of thousands of files and graphs.

Shi’s scheme doesn’t enjoy universal support, but even his critics give him credit for helping the city approach the problem from new angles.

“We can only contribute one piece of this, and we don’t claim we have solved anything,” said Shi who learned as much from the process as the school district itself. “If you reduce this to a math problem, you think you can solve it. But real life is much more complicated.”