College prep for all? The Chicago story

In 1997, Chicago ended remedial classes and required all students to take college-prep English, math, science and social studies classes. College prep for all didn’t work the way it was supposed to, write Christopher Mazzeo and Elaine Allensworth of the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research and Valerie Lee, a University of Michigan education professor, in Education Week.

More students took college-prep classes, significantly reducing “previous inequities in coursetaking by prior achievement, race and ethnicity, and special education status.” However, test scores didn’t rise, and there was no increase in the likelihood of students going on to  advanced math or science classes.

Some things got worse.

Grades declined, failures increased, and absenteeism rose among average and higher-skilled students. There also were no improvements in college outcomes, and those students who attended college were no more likely to stay there than students were before the policy change. High-achieving students were actually slightly less likely to attend college after the 1997 curriculum reforms were implemented.

The researchers call for more focus on improving instruction and helping teachers engage students with a wide range of performance levels.  They also point to students’ academic behavior — attendance and homework completion — as more critical than low skills.

Improving instruction is always a good idea, but what if the K-8 schools continue to send unprepared and unmotivated students to high school? Before the policy change in 1997, most remedial students failed and dropped out. They still do. Only now they make it much harder for teachers to teach at the college-prep level and apparently demotivate the average and above-average students. If this isn’t a failed policy, I don’t know what is.

I think Chicago needs better instruction, more focus on academic behavior and a new policy: Try hard to get students caught up before high school and offer a vocational path to those who lack the skills and behaviors needed for college prep.

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  1. momof4 says:

    Idiotic. End remedial courses, throw everyone into “college prep”, the uninterested and unable continue to vegetate and/or fail, the interested and able are bored out of their minds and fall into bad habits. Also, since when are attendence and homework more critical than low skills? Low skills, moreover, that remain low because kids are inappropriately placed in classes where they are unable to do the work.

  2. Actually, this is a sign of a larger problem. The math instruction most students get is horrible, and without a student having SOLID mastery (with pencil and paper) of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages/decimals, and fractions (which should be common knowledge by the time a student leaves 5th grade), they’ll NEVER succeed in middle or high school at higher math (algebra I/II, geometry, trig, stats).

    The electronic calculator and the poor math preparation of elementary and middle school teachers in the area of the above skills have doomed students over the last 25 years in terms of ‘math phobia’ (I attended high school in the late 1970’s when scientific calculators which were affordable were just coming onto the market, so I learned math the old fashioned way, aka endless drilling of facts).

    Perhaps we should return to that method to insure that future generations don’t have an aversion to math.

  3. The other problem with a vocational track is that the knowledge required to work in these fields is beyond basic math (including automotive technician, HVAC, electrician, radiological/sonographic technician, dental hygenist, etc).

    Most of these fields require a solid knowledge of at least algebra in order to pass the math requirement (A student who is considering such careers had better understand algebra I in high school to even have a outside shot of success).

  4. How do these results jibe with Hirsch and Ravitch’s “core curriculum for all”? Answer: it doesn’t. You can’t educate kids with one curriculum.

  5. Cal: France, Finland, Germany and Japan have one curriculum for all (at least up to age 10). The problem with Chicago is that it LACKS a robust core curriculum at the elementary level, so huge achievement gaps arise. In the US with its scattered curriculum, the achievement gap widens as kids progress through k-12; in France, with its set curriculum, it narrows. Please, please read Hirsch’s Knowledge Gap before you continue to make judgments about his ideas.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    A college prep for all requires tracking so that the real college bound students are not held back. College prep for all combined with no tracking along with poor elementary school prep makes a poor outcome a certainty.

    Of course, what else would some suspect from a city where all of the decision makers either send their children to prep schools or use political clout to get their children into the magnet schools.

  7. I have never understood why educators make major systemic reforms without testing them on pilot projects.

  8. France, Finland, Germany and Japan have one curriculum for all (at least up to age 10).

    Um, yeah. What do France, Finland, Germany, and Japan’s populations all have in common? Heterogeneous populations and thus a manageable range of cognitive ability.

    To say nothing of the fact that “up to age 10”, we mostly have “one curriculum for all” too. Ain’t working too well, is it?

  9. I don’t see how anyone can feel the US has one curriculum for all students until age 10. We have any number of textbook series being used, with each individual school, district, or state deciding which parts to include, which to skip, and which to supplement.

    The US has probably 5-10 popular textbook series being used for elementary math, and 5-10 thousand different curriculum that use them as a resource.

    Beyond that fact, we also need to realize that what we do use is often not rigorous, integrated across grade levels from k-12, or based on actual scientific understanding of how students learn.

  10. palisadesk says:

    I think Cal means “homogeneous* populations (in France, Finlandm etc.) We’re the ones with the heterogeneity. ALthough in recent years France, Germany and FInlandm to a lesser extent, have had to grapple with the challenges posed by immigration and cultural-religious differences. Japan, not so much.

  11. Heterogeneity is a red herring, Cal. Even within one ethnic group (e.g. Japanese) there are huge variations in ability/IQ/class background/home preparation. Japan deals with this by targeting its curriculum at the high-middle. Super-smart kids are bored; low functioning kids struggle mightily. They’ve decided to do one thing really, really well, rather than many things shabbily. They won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The result is that most Japanese kids emerge from school with a very solid education. Read Stevenson and Stigler “The Learning Gap” for more illumination.

    And to say our k-5 curriculum is uniform strikes me as crazy. It’s not even uniform within one school much less across the nation. Mrs. Jones is doing a unit on holidays around the world, while Mrs. Smith down the hall has kids explore their family trees. We’re all over the map.

  12. Heterogeneous populations and thus a manageable range of cognitive ability.

    Ooops! Thanks for catching that, Palisadesk. Lord knows I’ve typed that sentence enough times over the years. You’d think I wouldn’t make that particular mistake.

    Even within one ethnic group (e.g. Japanese) there are huge variations in ability/IQ/class background/home preparation.

    And I’m sure they have the same results. I am sure that the students with low cognitive ability have a major gap in skills.

    You yourself say as much. So what’s your point? Please don’t say your point is that we should let our smart kids be bored to tears and not even bother to teach thne low-skilled kids that can’t keep up. If that’s what you say success is, then it’s not worth discussing.

  13. I’m saying that if you want to get 90% of our population very well educated, imitate Japan.

  14. First, I am certain that the best Japanese students aren’t getting educated badly. And what you describe is a bad education for bright students. Thus, you are almost certainly wrong.

    However, if the Japanese public schools really are doing this, and the rich bright kids get out of Dodge, then you’ve still got the problem of distribution. The Japanese population has a normal cognitive ability distribution. The American population does not. Therefore, what supposedly works for Japan would not work for the US.

  15. Ponderosa says:


    Don’t take my word for it –read Stevenson and Stigler.


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