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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Editor's note: Anne O'Brien is our guest blogger today. She is a project director at the Learning First Alliance, a Teach for America alumna, and a former public school teacher in the greater New Orleans area.

Let's say a district mandates that all students take a college-preparatory curriculum in hopes of improving academic achievement and increasing college going and retention rates. The result? Not great. Why not?

A new study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research found that requiring students to take a college-preparatory curriculum in high school, including three years of science coursework (up from one year prior to the change), resulted in more students taking three years of science. But most students earned low grades, similar to performance before the policy change.

There were minimal test score gains for students earning C's, and none for students earning D's. There were no improvements in either college enrollment or two-year retention rates. And students were less likely to take both chemistry and physics -- a combination common in students aspiring to college.

To quote the interpretive summary:

This new study offers further evidence that no instructional reform, in isolation, can adequately address the "potholes" on the road to college faced by students; any effort to improve college enrollment must be accompanied by support structures that make students' hard work pay off.

Well, yeah. That applies not only to college enrollment but academic outcomes in general. And educators could have told you that years ago.

Policies Need Support

Don't get me wrong. This is an important study and contributes to a growing body of research that hopefully can be used to create policies that do actually improve outcomes for students. And the introduction to the study does get into the rationale behind the supports -- or lack thereof -- schools received, despite warnings from a taskforce making recommendations on the policy.

But that makes it even more frustrating. People knew that certain supports were necessary for the policy to succeed, but those supports were, for a variety of reasons, not provided. As a result, a sound idea flopped. In other places, similar policies with additional supports have had great success.

Case in point: Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington. At one time, it was its district's lowest performing school, but Sharon Collins, who was the principal at the time, presided over a turnaround driven by high expectations for students. All basic math courses were eliminated, with all math becoming honors-level at minimum. And all students were encouraged to take high-level classes in all subjects.

A Formula that Works

But staff didn't just raise expectations for students. There are specific components, as Collins explains: "You have a really standardized curriculum that [sets high expectations for students]; you have training where the teachers are getting professional development," she states, concluding, "...And then you have a very strong support system for students."

So Interlake implemented a program called Starting Strong. It targets struggling middle school students for a summer program that includes the first week of the ninth grade curriculum. And some students take a second math class that supports them in honors-level courses by pre-teaching material and reviewing basic skills needed for upcoming units. (Pennsylvania's Mechanicsburg Middle School and Michigan's Walled Lake Unified School District use a similar review and preview support structure.)

Thanks to these and other supports, Interlake saw gains. In 2004, less than half of the school's students were proficient in math, and in 2009, 68 percent were. In 2006, students took 544 Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams, earning college credit on 62 percent of them. In 2009, they took 1113, earning credit on 70 percent.

Interlake is different from many Chicago public high schools, serving a population with a different set of challenges. Collins makes it clear that a school can't just place all of its students in advanced classes and expect success. However, she says, "It shouldn't be only a few kids taking the challenging, high-level curriculum."

Educators already know this. And more policymakers should listen to them.

Comments (20)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ms. Stolfi's picture

I completely agree with Ms. Bass, college is not for everyone. I teach in an alternative high school where many of my students are very motivated and creative in their thinking when the books are taken away. The math some of them can do in their heads when focused on a project is astonishing considering that these same kids are often unable/unwilling to complete an assignment from a mandated text book in our district. Our schools are so focused on testing and improving test scores that they are forgetting how to make learning fun.

Lindsey Stock's picture

Every year that I teach I amazed at the plethora of new initiatives my district rolls out. Each new school year begins with an inservice day where the district administration explains the focus for the year. Two years ago it was Reading Apprenticeship. This year it was Differentiated Instruction while we have been told that next year's focus will be Common Formative Assessments. What all teachers understand but administrators seems to miss is that changing initiatives when one does not work miracles in a single school year is not the answer. Policies needs support and time to be effective.

Elaine J.'s picture

Collaboration should begin on levels. It should start with the earlier grades. If a district is going to have college preparatory courses, the elementary and middle school teachers should be preparing their students. They could have mentor programs with students and staff. Many schools offer their middle school students an opportunity to attend college prep courses in the summer at a university and high school students earn college credit while in school.

Elaine J.'s picture

Collaboration should begin on levels. It should start with the earlier grades. If a district is going to have college preparatory courses, the elementary and middle school teachers should be preparing their students. They could have mentor programs with students and staff. Many schools offer their middle school students an opportunity to attend college prep courses in the summer at a university and high school students earn college credit while in school.

Anne OBrien's picture
Anne OBrien
Deputy Director of the Learning First Alliance
Blogger 2014

[quote]You can find this same thing at Lake Weir H.S. in Ocala.[/quote]

We are always looking for more examples of inspiring schools and districts that are doing great things for students--I will definitely look into Lake Weir High!

Ms. Jones's picture

I think that if districts are going to adopt mandates, then collaboration should start early on. As many has mentioned, college is not for all students. Many students will go to technical or trade schools. Mandating college prep classes in high school may come with resentment. If collaboration starts in elementary, then teachers will be able to use strategies to improve learning of students prior to high school. This will enable the students to be more successful.

Mike Walters's picture

Isn't it odd that we all agree that mandating students take college bound courses is a waste and only lowers expectations for everybody else? It amazes me that school boards still think it's a good idea to do this. Perhaps before they decide on this they should actually go out to the teachers and get thier opinions.

Tracey Meadows's picture

This is strongly reminding me of the debate going on here in Florida over Senate Bill 6, that would hinge teacher pay and rehiring on student performance on standardized testing. If we receive no support to make these mandates happen, and students remain at the same educational level despite a teacher's best efforts with limited resources, how can that be taken as the student's level of success? They need to be given every opportunity to succeed, and it shouldn't matter which school they attend for the quality of education.

Until education is completely and unilaterally funded and a curriculum is rigidly defined with clear end goals to measure success (and measures for teachers to show mastery in a number of ways), students will continue to not meet measures of "success" mandated in new reforms.

Rylan Shebesta's picture

I am a math teacher in Ohio and my school district, and possibly all of the districts in Ohio, is considering using the ACT as the state test rather than our old test (OGT). There are some good points to switching to the ACT, such as students that are college bound would be preparing for a meaningful test before the end of graduation. As many people have already stated in their comments, not every student is "college material" or wants to attend college for that matter. I am still wondering what score a student would need to get on their ACT to graduate from high school if they used the ACT as an exit exam. The ACT may not be a bad idea, but the state needs to think about what is best for all students and consider developing a curriculum earlier than high school that will help students achieve success on what ever the high school graduation test will be in the future.

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