College prep for all: Chicago’s hard lessons

Next fall, Oakland’s ninth-graders will automatically enroll in a course sequence that closely matches state university entrance requirements. The Oakland school board passed this policy, known as “A to G For All,” in 2009, a change that student leaders and local advocacy groups such as Ed Trust-West pushed for — and one embraced by other California school districts.

As the district ramps up for the shift, it might draw a lesson or two from Chicago Public Schools, which which in 1997 eliminated remedial courses and required its students to take college-prep coursework. New findings by the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago and reported by Catalyst Chicago found that the policy did reduce “tracking,” or the segregation of students by skill level, since all students were taking similar course sequences.

Here’s the catch: Researchers found “no evidence” that the policy change otherwise helped the students achieve academically. Their test scores didn’t go up. Grades of weaker students went down, as did graduation rates. College enrollment and retention didn’t improve. And higher-skilled students started skipping school more often.

Even though they were taking Algebra I earlier than before, theoretically freeing them up to take more advanced math classes, struggling students post-1997 were no more likely to earn those high-level credits than they were before the policy change, researchers found.

While the Chicago Public Schools 1997 reform did reduce inequities in coursework by entering skill level, race and ethnicity, and special education status, the policy had no effects on the major outcomes these kinds of curricular reforms are designed to impact.

Local proponents of college prep for all have argued that students will “rise to the occasion.” That they’ll be more likely to care about school and work hard if they’re challenged (and that they’re painfully aware when they’ve been placed on the remedial track).

But in Chicago, students seemed to be no more into their classes than they had been before. Why? One possible reason, the researchers concluded, was a too-heavy emphasis on curriculum — and not enough on teaching. After the change, classrooms included students with the highest and lowest skill levels, and the best and the worst attendance and study habits.

Mandatory and default curriculum policies are likely to produce classrooms of students with more mixed incoming skill levels. Therefore, policymakers need to provide supports for the teachers who will now have to teach college-preparatory courses to students with a wider range of prior achievement—students who often have a history of poor
attendance and weak study habits.

Despite these shortcomings, the study doesn’t suggest the district should revert to its old ways:

Although these findings are likely disappointing to mandatory curriculum advocates, this does not suggest that these 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. Instead, this research suggests that mandatory and default curriculum policies need to be accompanied by a focused 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.

What do you think? How are Oakland teachers and students being prepared for this shift?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Donna

    Struggling students will not improve without serious intervention plus motivation. But this still sounds as though the outcome for the vast group of students in the middle did not change, and higher performing kids skipped class because they found it was a waste of their time.

    I fear that OUSD teachers are no more prepared for “A to G for All” than Chicago’s. Did Chicago eliminate Honors and Advanced Placement classes — which amount to de facto tracking? If OUSD were to eliminate Honors and AP classes, it would face a huge uproar, as these classes have high demand and are overcrowded as it is. Sadly, non-Honors/AP classes have a reputation for being *ghetto*, unchallenging, and not really preparing kids for college. If that is the case, a huge fraud is being perpetrated upon our students by making them think they are college ready. I remember the posting on this site a year or two ago by an OUSD student immediately after he sat for the SAT: He had taken his school’s college prep classes, received decent grades, yet was in shock and unable to answer the questions. More could have been asked from that student in his classes; he may have risen to the occasion.

    I hear/read all this stuff about *college-going culture* and even a school called Think College Now. But nowhere do I remember hearing indoctrination on the sacrifices that students and even their families must make in order to make college happen. Where is the message that one has to spend as much time and effort on studying and homework as others may spend on improving their basketball/XBox game, Facebook, hanging out with friends, etc.? And that stretching the mind is not ALWAYS fun, and that school does not exist to entertain its students? My impression is that kids with immigrant parents get this message, whether implicitly or explicitly from their parents who came here so their kids could have a better life. But kids who don’t receive this message at home still need to have their inner fires stoked to build that delayed gratification muscle. Some can do it on their own, others point to the encouragement of an inspiring teacher or two, but beyond that? How can a district hope to turn around American popular culture that is based on instant gratification?

    And yes, I believe many (most?) of OUSD’s students are intellectually capable of achieving more than they do now. However, I do not think that ALL students can succeed at math through trigonometry or pre-calculus and grasp chemistry and physics sufficiently for college entrance. California’s Master Plan envisioned the UC system for the top 12% of students, and the Cal State system was to reach a bit deeper, something like the top third or so. This, IMHO is realistic.

  • On the Fence


    I agree with your main point regarding our culture of instant gratification and how one must learn some degree of delayed gratification for college and post-graduate studies. Furthermore, I agree that stretching the mind is not always “fun” and “entertaining”. It also entails a lot of requirements, drudgery, and often brain exhausting effort.

    I’m less sure that kids of immigrant parents get this message more than others. I think that it would probably vary among particular immigrant populations, wtih some groups enjoying high college graduation entrance and exit rates and others doing quite poorly. Just curious to know to which group were you referring?

    Also, I am curious to learn more about this idea that the AP and Honors classes are “ghetto” and “unchallenging”. My kids are not yet in HS, but it seems that some kids can come through OUSD with a good, solid, college-prep education and go on to perform well at college, while a whole lot of kids don’t make it through with even the basics. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard and read on this blog, this difference often breaks down along racial and socio-economic lines. Therefore, kids going into the same classes, but some are coming out and passing their AP exams and some aren’t. I don’t have any first hand experience with this, so I’m asking the question. Are the AP classes unchallenging and underpreparing for all students or is this another symptom of the achievement gap or something else?

  • Kathi

    This plan will fail miserably and the results are likely to mimic Chicago’s. Isn’t it obvious to the Oakland School Board that if significant numbers of students are very behind grade level and require remediation, ninth grade is WAY TOO LATE to make these changes. Serious intervention needs to begin by 2nd grade. These H.S. students will not “rise to the occasion”.
    What does that even mean?
    That students with inadequate reading and math skills will somehow, through sheer desire and a challenging curriculum, advance through material that is beyond their grasp? Will their reading comprehension skills magically jump several grade levels? Will they read a lot of books during the summer, work with tutors, turn off the TV, learn hundreds of vocabulary words and catch up?
    If a student enters 9th grade at a 3rd or 4th grade math level (this is far more common than any of us can bear to think about) and doesn’t even know their multiplication tables, do you think they will be ready for algebra? Do you think they are expert with fractions, decimals and percents? Of course not. And no amount of 9-12 A-G modification will change that.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Most ‘remedial’ kids are unmotivated because they don’t believe they can actually do the work. And sometimes they are right.

    If you raise the bar, you better have some SERIOUS supports for those students. AVID classes, longer day, guided homework hour, whatever.

    Holding teaching AND/OR curriculum as the cure-alls is a problem.

    Why do we suddenly believe there are shortcuts? It takes time, motivation and hard work to learn most things worth learning.

    The fact is, we have two wrongs and no right: Tracking is a problem and mixed-level classes are a problem.

    Tracking leads to segregation, de-motivation and overly-lowered expectations.

    And as both a student and a teacher, I’ve experienced the problems of the mixed class: The class is always too slow for some and too fast for others, de facto.

    There is no magic pill and nothing new under the sun.

  • Public School Teacher

    Raising the bar needs to start well before high school. If students are not reading at grade level, or close to it, they need to receive remediation during the summer. OUSD should invest in summer reading and math programs to get their students as close to grade level as possible when they are in elementary school. Reading is the vehicle for learning once they leave elementary school, and passing students along when they are far behind is doing them a huge disservice. Will OUSD make this sacrifice? Not sure. If you look at the KIPP model, they require longer hours, Saturday attendance and other interventions while kids are in elementary school, so that they are prepared for middle and high school. I am not an advocate of KIPP, but they do realize the work that needs to be done and when to do it.

  • Nextset

    What nonsense. College is only for those few that have aptitude for it. Within a family of four kids not all of them are “college” material (unless that family has a high “average”) although the dullest child may still be bright enough for something that passes as a college education. All people are not created equal. Many students, especially the public school students, will not have sufficient brainpower to finish high school.

    And there is NOTHING the school district can do about it. Other than hand out diplomas for having a reflection in the mirror. We don’t want that, do we?

    Yes, tracking is good. Establishing which students have which capabilities is important to providing the correct services so that lives aren’t wasted. I have seen too many dull people getting good vocational counseling and training and go on to make a good living while supporting a family. Thing is, lately they are all white.

    The dull black kids are not getting the vocational counseling and training and they sure are not getting the discipline required to make it in this Brave New World. At least not any more. It seems the White Liberals and the blacks progressives running things in the urban districts don’t want to make the effort anymore. It’s easier to set them up for failure and just say, “everybody’ failed.

    If the school(s) turn out welfare mothers and prison inmates, the school is a failure. It’s no defense to me to hear the failure factory say “but we didn’t want to track them”.

  • Hot R

    Interesting article Katy, and inciteful comments Donna…

    A couple of things – Let’s not focus just on the students. I do not think the Chicago TEACHERS were ready for the change, nor wil the Oakland TEACHERS be ready for a change. Do you really think the remedial teacher can all of sudden teach at college prep level and go from grading no homework, a minimal lesson plan and assigning no essays to a quadruple workload? And “college prep” is a relative term (see Donna’s example of the unprepared “B” Honors student who was shocked by the SAT). The educators could get prepared, but that would take a much greater investment than just passing a resolution. There are no quick fixes in education.

    Public School Teacher points to the actual solution – early intervention, longer hours, and Saturday attendance. This could only happen for the students in elementary school. But without a better work ethic and more money to pay for this it will not be possible.

    And Nextset I know you wouldn’t be on this site if you didn’t care about education. Don’t write off 75% of the kids! I have to tell you there is a good percentage of kids from this 75% that if they get the right teacher can go from the parole board to the college board – and that is a beautiful thing.

  • Donna

    On The Fence @ 2: Please reread my post. I said that NON-Honors/AP so-called *college prep* courses have a reputation (among middle class kids) as being *ghetto*, i.e. not being terribly challenging and not populated with motivated kids. OUSD classes designated as Honors classes are probably closer to what is demanded of kids in suburban schools. And yes, while most definitely nothing even close to 100%, there is a racial and SES divide as to who is in the most demanding of classes.

    As to tracking: Yes, it has its benefits, and I have been a beneficiary. BUT, I have seen the situation where there are two equally (non)performing white and African American students, and one is given the benefit of the doubt and the other isn’t. I don’t think I need to say who gets placed into the lower track. It is the racism, even if unconscious, that needs to be removed from the equation, not necessarily tracking itself.

    While I would quibble with Nextset’s characterization of *dull* black kids, I certainly agree that non-college bound kids, especially African American kids, do not seem to get much vocational counseling. A person needs to be fairly sharp and on the ball to work in the jobs that make $60K and up; he or she just doesn’t need to engage in the type of abstract analysis required in college.

  • Nextset

    Hot R: “The right teacher” cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

    Granted the students coming into an 8th grade class have little concept of how far they can go. With the right teacher and the right program you can get higher academic and vocational results from given students than they or their family think. But doing that means “pushing” the kid to the point of stress. Some people do not want to be stressed. They want to do what they want, when they want, they way they want, IF they want.

    So it’s not going to happen – especially in a school district that puts a premium on the students and the family being “happy” (ie no flunking, no reprimands, no involuntary transfers, no stress, no toughlove).

    I’m not writing off the black kids, the urban schools are. Black kids are run off before age 18 by schools that don’t deal with them realistically and imposing college prep courses is better ghetto repellant than classical music.

    Only a fraction of the urban students are college material. The district is responsible for the economic viability of the far greater number of non-college material blacks. It’s folly to place all the bets on any college prep program for urban students except the (relatively) small campus the college prep students would merit.

  • Public School Teacher

    Nextset, you need to be very careful about your statements. I do understand some of the points you make about challenging students and preparing them for a future in college or career, however your prognosis on urban blacks borders on racism. You place most blacks on a remedial or vocational track, which you deem promising. Not all kids fit this mold. Some, if given the right opportunities can do well for themselves academically. They just need someone to show them the way. You prescribe African American achievement to nature, I say it’s nurture. You sound like the authors of the Bell Curve, Murry and Hernstein who also supported this nonsense. Shame.

  • Nextset

    Public School teacher – Racism my behind. I do support the points of the Bell Curve. Mainly because the lessons of history and experience bear it out. Some blacks (like whites, etc) are bright, some are dull. The percentages are what they are. There are more dull blacks (IQ below say, 70) by percentage than, say, German Jews. Deal with it. I say the evidence is it’s not nurture.

    It’s a form of genocide for the urban schools to impose programs suitable for the average white in Iowa, run the black students of Los Angeles and Oakland through them, then throw their hands up because so many of the blacks wind up in prison or on welfare.

    The black students have needs that are based as much in biodiversity as anything else.

    You presume much to tell me I need to be “very careful” in my statements.

    You are a public school teacher. You are not a paragon. Your products are found wanting. They shouldn’t be. With all the money and technology the public schools have no right to be producing students more illiterate and undisciplined than previous generations. We all know what works, the urban public schools are very carefully doing what is known to fail. And they are doing it to black and brown students not white ones.

    To get the best levels of literacy and earning power from the urban school students we need to teach phonics, stress literacy and discipline, and track students to maximize the reach of the brights and maximize discipline and controls on the dulls. We shouldn’t treat the student population as so much hash.

    Just because they’re black.

    Brave New World.