New York City’s Lab for Equity and Engagement in School Enrollment (the E3 Lab)


Professionals and researchers in education acknowledge there are great disparities in the types of opportunities and quality of teaching that different schools offer to students—and that differences in how students experience transitions into kindergarten, middle school, and high school can magnify inequality over time. School application and enrollment are critical pieces of the transition process. A fundamental challenge for improving equity in educational opportunities is designing school application and enrollment systems for the transition grades that address long-standing inequities in access to high-quality schools and that support the full engagement of historically marginalized groups. But what are the best ways to do so?

To address this complex question, MDRC and the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Student Enrollment have established the Lab for Equity and Engagement in School Enrollment (the E3 Lab). The E3 Lab is a research-practice partnership focused on using insights from behavioral science and human-centered design. It aims to address issues of educational equity by improving New York City families’ experience with the school selection process, while building rigorous evidence for the field about ways to make the process more engaging for families. Please reach out to [email protected] to discuss opportunities for collaboration.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The E3 Lab provides the New York City’s Office of Student Enrollment with technical assistance in using insights from behavioral science and human-centered design to address issues of educational equity in New York City’s school selection process, while also pursuing research activities to build evidence for the larger field. As described here, the E3 Lab is committed to the principles of highly effective research-practice partnerships in education as articulated by Henrick and colleagues.

Projects of the E3 Lab include:

  • Improving engagement in elementary school selection: With support from the Walton Family Foundation, the E3 Lab’s inaugural project identified application and enrollment barriers faced by families with children eligible for kindergarten. The team then worked with the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) to develop an intervention to address those barriers using insights from behavioral science. MDRC evaluated this intervention in a randomized trial when it was delivered at full scale for fall 2019 admissions.
  • Communication with families during the COVID-19 pandemic: MDRC is offering technical assistance to the Office of Student Enrollment on applying insights from behavioral science to the office’s outreach and communication to families about application and enrollment procedures during the 2020-2021 school year—with a special focus on communities hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. The technical assistance has primarily focused on the middle school process. This effort is supported by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.
  • Support NYC DOE’s diversity in admissions initiative. NYC DOE has committed to diversifying New York City public schools through various initiatives that involve enrollment policies and procedures. The E3 Lab will work with NYC DOE to apply behavioral science strategies to support this initiative and build evidence along the way about the strategies that work best.
  • Design and test improvements to MySchools digital search and application: NYC DOE launched the MySchools online school search and application platform for the fall 2019 admissions cycle for all grade levels. Families can use MySchools to get information about the school selection process, to research school options, and to submit applications. NYC DOE recognizes that there are many powerful insights from behavioral science that can be used to improve families’ experience with MySchools. The E3 Lab plans to partner with NYC DOE to gather parents’ reactions to MySchools and to design and test interventions to improve families’ experience with the platform.

Beyond the specific projects that the E3 Lab pursues, the Lab aims to create dedicated space for continual innovation and evaluation at NYC DOE’s Office of Student Enrollment, which will in turn support improvements that extend beyond the Lab’s specific projects. The E3 Lab welcomes collaboration with other researchers working on these issues with NYC DOE and those working on these issues in other localities. Please reach out to [email protected] to discuss opportunities for collaboration.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

Projects of the E3 Lab use the MDRC Center for Applied Behavioral Science (CABS) six-step approach to problem-solving. The CABS Approach is a systematic problem-solving framework that MDRC has used in collaboration with 100 government agencies, educational institutions, and nonprofit organizations in 26 states to uncover barriers, design creative solutions, and evaluate those solutions using rigorous research methods. At its core, the CABS Approach uses principles of human-centered design and evidence from behavioral science to solve problems following six steps: Define – Clarify – Diagnose – Design – Develop – Test.

MDRC’s primary partner in the E3 Lab is the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Student Enrollment. However, other offices within NYC DOE are brought into the work depending on project scope, and the Lab also aims to engage other city agencies and nonprofit stakeholders.