Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
Phase II: Research on the Constrained Academic Curriculum
Although the Phase I reform efforts instituted somewhat tougher graduation requirements, they left the differentiated curriculum essentially intact. One result was that the strong links between student socio-demographic background and course-taking also remained. During the 1990s, more than 80 percent of high school students in the top third of the household income distribution completed geometry, compared with only 46 percent of students in the bottom third of the income distribution. Likewise, 30 percent of students in the top income category completed trigonometry, compared with only 10 percent of low-income students.36 Comprehensive high schools thus continued to be internally segregated and stratified.37
Beginning in the 1980s, academic researchers and education advocates mounted concerted and unified attacks on curricular differentiation.38 A host of studies criticized the free-market curricular structures that typified most public high schools.39 The studies, which generally used qualitative methods to examine small numbers of high schools, did not seek to quantify the relationship between course-taking and student outcomes. Rather, they focused on curriculum structures, how students were matched to courses within those structures, and the relationship between course-taking and student social and academic background. Unlike many Phase I studies, this Phase II research recognized that a great deal of variability in course-taking lies within schools and that student curricular choice generally increases variability in students' academic experiences. These studies maintained that stratification in course-taking was partly related to the fact that high-achieving and motivated students (often guided by their parents) more often sought demanding teachers and courses. Conversely, social and institutional pressures, combined with the well-established links between social background and academic performance, often guided minority and low-income students toward low-level academic courses.40
Clearly, minority and low-income students are less likely to enroll (or be enrolled) in upper-level courses. An important question, however, is whether these relationships are the result of bias on the part of school personnel or are simply the consequence of links between academic achievement, socio- demographic background, and course-taking. In other words, are these course-taking patterns among socially disadvantaged students caused by unjust school practices, or are they appropriate given the lower average achievement among low-income and minority students? Several quantitative studies conducted during the 1970s and early 1980s attempted to isolate these interconnected relationships. The authors generally agreed that measured achievement was the strongest predictor of curricular placement, but diverged on the extent to which race and social class effects on course-taking remained after adjustments for student achievement.41
Apart from the fairness or appropriateness of curricular placements, many of these Phase II studies argued against differentiated curricula, simply because they included courses with modest levels of academic rigor and low expectations for student performance. The authors maintained that such courses should not be available to students, regardless of their academic abilities. The free-market curriculum structures operating within the typical "shopping mall high school," they argued, allowed students to select the path of least academic resistance and to decide how deeply to engage the academic content of high school.42 As one study concluded, "Adolescents care about things they have to care about, and they do not have to care about academic engagement very much."43 Other researchers reported that teacher effort varied as well. In some classrooms, when low student and teacher expectations coincided, "treaties" resulted; teachers agreed to pass students if they were not disruptive, and students agreed to be cooperative if teachers demanded little effort from them.44 This system was described as the "conspiracy for the least," meaning "the least hassle for anyone."45
An emerging research consensus favored a narrower, more academic, and more universal secondary school curriculum. John Goodlad proposed "a common core of studies which students cannot escape."46 Other well-known writers, including Mortimer Adler in his Paideia Proposal, argued for the complete elimination of the differentiated curriculum.47 The century-old normative questions of "who should learn what" resurfaced. Politically disparate groups that had previously coalesced behind broad curricula now found fault with the resulting stratification of students' opportunities to learn. In a rare example of cooperation, business leaders—interested in maintaining international competitiveness—and progressive academics and activists—concerned about educational inequality—collectively challenged the curricular differentiation that had pervaded the U.S. comprehensive high school for almost a century. In the ensuing decade, these authors and advocates would find empirical support for their conjectures, bolstered by new data and analytic techniques that allowed researchers to better estimate the links between course-taking and student learning.
During the late 1980s, researchers began to examine associations between course-taking and achievement using new analytic techniques and data. One strand of this research was conceptualized within a school-effects framework, focusing on curriculum structure as one element of school academic organization. The work began with comparisons of the effectiveness of Catholic and public high schools. A host of studies reported that not only were average achievement gains greater in Catholic schools, but relationships between students' social background and their achievement gains were weaker: Catholic schools were associated with increases both in excellence and in equity.48 One explanation for these findings was straightforward: the "constrained academic curriculum" required in most Catholic high schools. Students in Catholic high schools generally complete challenging courses of study regardless of their academic and socioeconomic backgrounds or their plans for the future. Unlike comprehensive public high schools, Catholic high schools generally organize their curriculum in line with the custodial Committee of Ten recommendations— a rigorous, narrow academic program that is followed by all students.49 These schools decide what all their students should learn, based on the philosophy that virtually all students should gain the same high-level knowledge. The ability to offer such a curriculum reflects a general consensus among adults about what is best for students—the unwritten idea being that high school students are not always competent judges of their long-term interests.
Beyond Sector Comparisons
The research linking student course-taking to the social distribution of student outcomes was extended from comparisons of Catholic and public high schools toward a broader and more general focus on curriculum structures. Findings from these studies were relatively consistent: students attending high schools offering a constrained academic curriculum—one with few remedial courses and with most (or all) students following a college-preparatory course sequence—learned more, and the learning was more equally distributed by race and ethnicity and by social class.50 Several Phase II studies conceptualized curricular pathways as "pipelines," measuring how far students progressed through the mathematics and science curriculum in their school (for example, Algebra II versus trigonometry; biology versus physics). Even after one adjusts for student social and academic background, students who completed the more advanced courses exhibited higher achievement gains.51
Although neither the sector comparisons nor the curriculum-effects studies were experimental (the "gold standard" research design), many studies used large and nationally representative samples of high schools and students and analyzed the data with multilevel statistical methods (that is, students were "nested" within schools).52 Moreover, these studies adjusted for many pre-existing differences in student characteristics, including prior achievement, student race and ethnicity, and social class. Thus, the Phase II research was methodologically stronger than research evaluating the Phase I reforms. Although the conclusions about the high school curriculum in both Phase I and II studies favored more rigor in students' courses of study, the form that "more rigor" should take differed considerably. Whereas Phase I research focused on adding more required courses in core subjects, Phase II studies focused on which courses students should (and should not) take. Moreover, Phase I studies drew few conclusions about what should be available within the high school curriculum from which students could choose, whereas Phase II studies suggested that student choice should be constrained—fewer non-rigorous courses should be available, and remediation should take a different form. Clearly, a course sequence consisting of consumer math, pre-algebra, and Algebra I is quite different from a diet of Algebra I, geometry, and Algebra II. If many undemanding and remedial courses are available in a school's curriculum, some students will choose such courses and others will be counseled into them.
An additional consideration is that all Algebra I courses are unlikely to contain identical academic content. The Phase II studies cited above generally used nationally representative samples of high schools and drew their information about what courses students took either from students' high school transcripts or from self reports. The content of the courses—beyond their course titles—was unavailable in the data used for these studies. Clearly, it is possible that course titles could change to sound more rigorous, but course content could remain undemanding. Different forms of research, including field studies that examine the content of courses with similar titles (for example, Algebra I), would be required to explore this possibility.
Where Do Phase I and Phase II Curriculum Studies Lead?
The conclusions drawn from the Phase II studies seemed to lend support to universalizing the constrained academic curriculum in the nation's public high schools. Explicitly or implicitly, the research concluded that requiring college-preparatory coursework for all students would lead to many desirable outcomes: student achievement would improve, stratification of achievement by students' social background would decrease, and all students would be better prepared to go to college. Despite their methodological sophistication compared with the Phase I research, the Phase II curriculum-effects studies cited here were typically conducted using data from public comprehensive high schools, which offered a diffuse curriculum and considerable student choice. As such, these Phase II studies were not experimental in design: students were not randomly selected but instead were self-selected into particular courses from within a broad and differentiated curriculum. Moreover, the schools also selected which courses to offer, typically based on several criteria: state and district mandates, as well as the interests, future plans, capabilities, and demonstrated achievement of the students and families they served (that is, supply responds to demand). The ways in which students are selected into courses turn out to have important implications for the Phase II research. We address the validity of drawing inferences for universalizing the high school curriculum from the Phase II studies in the following section.