Surviving at the Street Level: How Counselors’ Implementation of School Choice Policy Shapes Students’ High School Destinations

Carolyn Sattin-Bajaj, Jennifer L. Jennings, Sean P. Corcoran, Elizabeth Christine Baker-Smith, Chantal Hailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Given the dominance of residentially based school assignment, prior researchers have conceptualized K–12 enrollment decisions as beyond the purview of school actors. This paper questions the continued relevance of this assumption by studying the behavior of guidance counselors charged with implementing New York City’s universal high school choice policy. Drawing on structured interviews with 88 middle school counselors and administrative data on choice outcomes at these middle schools, we find that counselors generally believe lower-income students are on their own in making high school choices and need additional adult support. However, they largely refrain from giving action-guiding advice to students about which schools to attend. We elaborate street-level bureaucracy theory by showing how the majority of counselors reduce cognitive dissonance between their understanding of students’ needs and their inability to meet these needs adequately given existing resources. They do so by drawing selectively on competing policy logics of school choice, narrowly delineating their conception of their role, and relegating decisions to parents. Importantly, we also find departures from the predictions of this theory as approximately one in four counselors sought to meet the needs of individual students by enlarging their role despite the resource constraints they faced. Finally, we quantify the impact of variation in counselors’ approaches, finding that the absence of action-guiding advice is associated with students being admitted to lower-quality schools, on average.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)46-71
Number of pages26
JournalSociology of Education
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • school choice
  • school counseling
  • school/parent relationships
  • schools as bureaucracies

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Sociology and Political Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Surviving at the Street Level: How Counselors’ Implementation of School Choice Policy Shapes Students’ High School Destinations'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this