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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