Educational Mandates Alone Don't Improve Student Achievement | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

You can find this same thing at Lake Weir H.S. in Ocala, FL. The principal (5 yrs at the school) did away with low level courses and students work in honors and above. Teachers and students alike are given tons of support. The school is a textbook free campus with electronic books and teachers embracing the use of SMART boards for active engagement of students. The school suffered from low performance (school gades of D) and after just a few years has seen B's. This school has a free or reduced lunch rate of about 80%.

Kendrick Alston's picture

It is also important that adminstration and teachers develop a culture of collaboration and community. It must become imbedded in the day to day operations of all stakeholders at the school.

Becky Whitney's picture

I agree that it is very important to develop a culture of collaboration as the part of a school day. I think that too many times, we try whatever we think will be an "easy fix" i.e. dumping students into higher-level classes such as AP courses with the hopes that they will "catch" whatever attributes we want them to have. Real teacher collaboration and training on how to motivate students to actually become engaged in the classroom will prove to be the ultimate means to accelerating student learning in our schools.

Brenda Troutman's picture

Collaboration is so important if we are to increase student achievement. What better way of gaining insights into what works and what does not than by talking with other teachers? When we are able to collaborate with those who teach the same subject area and grade level, we are much more likely to ensure the success of all students. If districts are going to make mandates, they should be mandating that a portion of every school day must be set aside for teachers to meet and discuss strategies, struggles, and ideas for every student to master the concepts that are deemed as important for their specific subject are and grade level.

Michael Vickroy's picture

I teach honors students and have done so for several years. There was a time when we had an advanced level, an average level and an intervention level. The change happened like this. Standards to qualify for honors was lowered and the advanced was dropped as well as the intervention. Without consulting teachers this was done which infuriated me. Through collaboration of teachers and the administration maybe their could have been a better solution. We are all expected to offer a high quality curriculum to all our students after all. I am all for having time to collaborate with my colleagues, it is on my very long wish list.

Dr. Mike Todd's picture
Dr. Mike Todd
Chief Learning Officer

It is great to see educators do have specific ideals when it comes to collaboration with others. Did you know that many teachers want and like to work in isolation?

Ms. Bass's picture

If a district mandates that all students take a college prep curriculum it is setting itself up for failure. That is not an effective strategy to improve student achievement. It can and will decrease student achievement because we know that college is not for everyone. Most of the successful people in the world do not have a college degree. I think that districts should establish or keep the vocational and technical curriculums for those students who may not have that desire to go to college.
Ms. Bass

Jennifer Kaske's picture

It is still interesting to me that anyone thinks you can start in high school and turn failing students into college bound students without proper support and resources like some sort of magic trick. The problem starts long before high school and is a much larger problem by the time the students have reached high school. I surely don't mean to insinuate that we shouldn't try to turn these students around. What I would like to see, however, is more support for early childhood education and parent education. Let's start sooner and build these learners from the ground up. Also, I love Brenda's comment about mandating cooperative teacher planning time. Every teacher I know would like more planning time and time to collaborate with colleagues. I don't know any teachers who "like" working in isolation. I know several who do because they've become discouraged and frustrated with conditions in their building and lack of support. That is quite different than enjoying working alone.

Jennifer Kaske's picture

Yes! I agree one hundred percent that whether or not a student goes to college is not a measure of success.

Cindi Kent's picture

I agree that not every student is meant to go to college. Our system has just mandated that all high school students take college prep classes and many teachers are having to lower their expectations in order for the students to succeed in the class. Is this because many of our students were not prepared for high school classes? Collaboration between teachers and administrators at every grade level is important to the success of our students. Will our student's graduation test scores improve? Most students can be identified by 8th grade as college or tech prep students and many students have decided by then what their career path and interests are. We need constant collaboration between grade level teachers and the students' parents to ensure that all students are ready for the real world after high school graduation. Helping our students to become lifelong learners starts with developing a partnership with all stakeholders involved in the lives of those students; partnerships require constant collaboration.

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