Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
For well over a century, practitioners and policy makers have grappled over the fundamental purposes of secondary education. At the center of these discussions lies the fact that as adolescents move through the educational system, the focus of schooling typically shifts from developing individual children toward preparing students to be future workers and citizens. This acknowledgment of students' imminent adult roles raises serious questions about the appropriate content of secondary education. All children should learn to read, but do all employees need trigonometry? Since the emergence of the comprehensive high school in the late 1800s, two rival philosophical camps have offered quite disparate answers to this question. These opposing views dispute the extent to which students' future social and economic roles should determine their academic experiences in high school. Should all students be exposed to the same academic material, or should curricula reflect students' interests, abilities, and potential adult occupations? Who should make such decisions—parents, schools, or the students themselves?
In this article we present an interpretive review of recent research on the high school curriculum and its effects on student outcomes. After briefly describing the historical development of high school academic structures, we focus on the contemporary high school curriculum. The narrative of curriculum reform over the past three decades has, in one sense, been quite consistent. It can be characterized as a general movement to narrow curricular offerings and to infuse more rigor into the academic experiences of all high school students. We organize this review around three phases of research and reform. We conceptualize Phase I as part of the broader standards-based reform movement predominant during the 1980s, which required students to complete more courses in core subjects to earn a high school diploma. Although the reforms of the 1980s produced lasting curricular change in the nation's public high schools, research during this period focused more on policy implementation and on the politics behind the adoption of legislation than on the consequences of the reforms for student outcomes. Studies that did examine the link between state graduation standards and student learning typically were methodologically weak. For example, such studies seldom considered that a great deal of variability in both student course-taking and student learning lies within rather than between schools.1
Phase II shifted the focus from how many courses students should take to which courses students should complete. In many ways, Phase II can be seen as a more sophisticated research effort that examined naturally occurring variation in the concentration and rigor of academic course-taking both within and across schools and school districts. Methodologically stronger than the research in Phase I, the Phase II research began with comparisons of course-taking and student learning in public and Catholic high schools. The finding from these studies—that student achievement growth was higher in Catholic schools, where students generally follow a college-prep curriculum—was then extended beyond cross-sector comparisons as researchers explored how course-taking differences within public high schools affected student achievement, as well as the equitable distribution of that achievement by student social background. This body of research is now beginning to have a direct impact on educational policy.
The thrust of Phase III, now in its infancy, has been to implement reforms based on the findings of Phase II research by requiring high schools to provide only college-prep courses. An ancillary aspect of this reform model is that initially low-performing students may be required (or urged) to take a "double-dose" of coursework in subjects in which their incoming performance is deficient. Although this reform phase is growing fast at the state level, research on its effects remains scarce. Thus, our discussion of Phase III centers on the implementation of the new policy in a single location: the public high schools of Chicago. Research evaluating this curricular reform in Chicago is emerging, and one of the authors (Lee) is part of the evaluation team. Although other states and districts are moving in this direction, Chicago is in the vanguard of Phase III reform, and recently available data make such research possible.