Open-source School Assignment Algorithms

Seattle’s school assignment system runs on a 1979-era VAX that will cost $2MM+ to replace (“Dinosaur’ computer stalls Seattle schools plans”).

Every Seattleite has heard a horror story about 45 minute busing caused by the School Assignment Process, and parents sued the district to eliminate race as a tie-breaker (eventually winning in a US Supreme Court decision).

The system’s so broken that there’s nothing to lose. Here’s how open-sourcing the software could help, as sent to Seattle School District. Minor modifications for readability:


Date: Tue, 26 Feb 2008 09:42:36 -0800

To: schoolboard@seattleschools.org

Hi, I read today’s article in the Times about SSD’s aging VAX, and it brought up a novel idea. There’s been considerable work in the voting world to create “Open Source” [1] software. That field wants to:

  • increase transparency improve the underlying process

  • reduce fears of (and controversy from) tainted results

  • share knowledge with interested parties

  • engage outside (and otherwise-adversarial) entities

  • try new systems, technologies, ideas (without paying for it)

  • decrease or share burden of maintenance costs

  • not appear insular

Why not open source the school selection software? What could that do?

  • position SSD as a thoughtful, extremely well-intentioned leader

  • reduce fears and questions by pointing to the “real McCoy”

  • collaborate with other districts on selection strategy and implementation

  • let outsiders take a stab at improving it, or simply playing with different results

  • shine more smart eyes on the problem

  • let other districts see what a large district does, and maybe roll their own criteria into it

There’s nothing proprietary about school selection; on the contrary, just like voting, the goal is the best, most transparent, most practical result above all else.

It would put SSD at the forefront of school selection, not to mention technology and execution savvy. Others have done this for similar reasons, with similar results:

  • Netscape/AOL, in open-sourcing Firefox (now in use by 15-20% of Internet users.

  • Netflix, in opening their movie selection algorithms (and creating a prize for improving them).

This is also happening all over the education field:

  • FlexBooks, open source textbooks; dozens of industry luminaries create best-of-breed textbooks.

  • Moodle, open source curriculum/course management in use at over 35,000 sites to teach 14,000,000 students.

  • MIT OpenCourseWare, exactly what it sounds like: MIT’s courses, online, free.

The list goes on. Most of the same reasons and benefits apply to an open-source school selection application and algorithms.

[1]: what is open source? Software programs whose “source code” is available for review, analysis, use, or modification as other interested parties see fit.