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?