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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.

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