Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

College Prep for All? What We’ve Learned in Chicago

By Christopher Mazzeo, Elaine Allensworth & Valerie Lee — April 27, 2010 6 min read

As state and national policymakers look for ways to improve the rigor of the high school curriculum and enhance students’ readiness for college, many have turned their attention to increasing course requirements in core academic subjects. The national policy group Achieve reports that about 20 states now require all students to take some version of a “default curriculum” to graduate—generally defined as four years of English and mathematics and three or more years of science and social studies. In a recent speech in Selma, Ala., U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan vowed to increase opportunities for all students to take college-preparatory classes, and called on the federal Department of Education’s office for civil rights to conduct compliance reviews in states and districts to accomplish that goal.

These coursework reforms have been equally popular among educators and the general public. In California, for example, parents, student advocates, and community organizations have aggressively campaigned for local districts and the state to adopt the University of California’s “A-G” coursework requirements as the prescribed curriculum for all students. Last May, in response to student and community concerns, the San Francisco board of education passed by a unanimous vote a resolution to adopt the A-G requirements as the default curriculum for all San Francisco public high schools.

The popularity of this approach to increasing curricular rigor and college readiness seems, at first glance, to make a lot of sense. Research has shown that students who take high-level course sequences learn more in high school and are more likely to attend and to perform better in college than students who do not take these classes. Yet despite the popularity of default-curriculum policies, we actually know surprisingly little about whether changing course requirements will necessarily lead to improved outcomes for students. This is because previous studies cited by many in the policy and reform communities do not fully correct for selection bias: that is, the fact that students who choose to take high-level classes are often the most motivated and high-achieving in their schools, and that the schools offering advanced courses are those with the capacity to teach them, and often are college-oriented in other ways.

Default-curriculum reforms are not likely to work effectively without other significant and complementary policy efforts."

To inform state and district curriculum policies, and to address some of the limitations of the previous research, the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the University of Michigan have spent the last three years examining an effort by the Chicago public schools to implement a version of the default college-preparatory curriculum. The 1997 policy change ended remedial classes and mandated college-prep coursework for all students in four subject areas: English, mathematics, science, and social studies. Our study compares outcomes for cohorts of students in Chicago before and after policy implementation in English, mathematics, and science. What we found is sobering, to say the least.

First, the good news: The 1997 policy did increase student enrollment in college-preparatory classes in all three subject areas, and significantly reduced previous inequities in coursetaking by prior achievement, race and ethnicity, and special education status. The policy had no effects, however, on any of the major outcomes that default-curriculum reforms generally seek to affect: Test scores did not rise, nor were students more likely to take advanced mathematics classes beyond Algebra 2, or to complete advanced science classes.

Moreover, the policy produced a number of adverse unintended consequences: Grades declined, failures increased, and absenteeism rose among average and higher-skilled students. There also were no improvements in college outcomes, and those students who attended college were no more likely to stay there than students were before the policy change. High-achieving students were actually slightly less likely to attend college after the 1997 curriculum reforms were implemented.

The Chicago experience should serve as a cautionary tale for those who advocate for similar default-curriculum policies in their communities. Let us be clear: Curriculum requirements have important equity benefits, and can play a role in efforts to improve students’ high school experiences and their preparation for college. But default-curriculum reforms are not likely to work effectively without other significant and complementary policy efforts. In particular, states and districts should attend to the following:

Building the capacity of high schools to improve instruction. Though there were major gains in college-preparatory course-taking in Chicago, they did not translate into tangible improvements in academic outcomes. Why? One likely culprit was the policy’s very emphasis on curriculum. Unlike in elementary education, high school reforms are more often concerned with which courses schools should offer and to whom, rather than with the way the courses should be taught. Yet despite the change in course content, Chicago students were no more engaged in learning than they were before the new policy—most completed the new curriculum with grades of C’s and D’s. At a minimum, this suggests that teaching courses with high-level content to students without a record of high-level performance will require substantial changes in instruction.

Specifically, states and districts implementing default curricula should focus attention on the quality of classroom instruction and the depth of the tasks students are working on in these classes. Default-curriculum policies are also likely to produce classes with more-mixed incoming skill levels, so policymakers must provide supports for those who have to teach college-prep classes to students with a wider range of prior achievement. Case studies of de-tracking reforms have found that teachers in these more heterogeneous classes often target instruction to the hypothetical “middle student.” This can lead to problems in engagement and behavior, especially among students with stronger academic backgrounds.

Curriculum policies need to be accompanied by greater attention to instruction and stronger efforts to improve the academic behaviors—particularly attendance and studying—associated with better school performance."

Ensuring that students are engaged in their coursework. Overall, the Chicago curriculum reform had few long-term effects, either positive or negative. Average achievers actually fared worse after the policy change, suggesting that low grades and higher failure rates are not entirely explained by students’ insufficient academic skills. Other CCSR research has shown that weak academic skills are not the primary source of poor course performance in Chicago schools. Students’ academic behaviors (attendance and completing homework) are eight times more predictive of course failure than their test scores.

This raises an important point: As long as students are minimally engaged in their courses and attend school irregularly, policymakers should not expect substantial improvements in learning. Getting the content and structure of courses right is just the first step. Real improvements in learning will require states and districts to develop strategies that get students excited about learning, attending class regularly, and working hard in their courses.

Although our findings may be disappointing to default-curriculum advocates, we are not suggesting that such policies are misguided. Prior to 1997, the differentiated curriculum was clearly not serving Chicago students well; even when they took remedial coursework, large numbers of students failed those courses and eventually dropped out.

We argue instead that curriculum policies need to be accompanied by greater attention to instruction and stronger efforts to improve the academic behaviors—particularly attendance and studying—associated with better school performance. Without improved instruction and engagement, the promise of these well-meaning reforms is likely to go unrealized.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 2010 edition of Education Week as College Prep for All? What We’ve Learned in Chicago

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