Does "College Prep for All" Really Work? | Teachers College Columbia University

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Does "College Prep for All" Really Work?

Doug Ready, Assistant Professor of Education at Teachers College, and University of Michigan colleague Valerie Lee examine the influences of the high school curriculum on student learning and the equitable distribution of that learning by race and socioeconomic status in this article in the journal The Future of Children. They trace the historical development of the U.S. comprehensive high school and then examine the curricular reforms of the past three decades.

Lee and Ready note that during the 1990s researchers who examined the associations between course-taking and student learning found that students completing more advanced coursework learned more, regardless of their social or academic backgrounds. Based largely on this emerging research consensus favoring college-prep curriculum, public high schools in Chicago in 1997 began offering college-prep courses to all its students. To address the needs of the city’s many low-performing ninth graders, schools added extra coursework in subjects in which their performance was deficient. A recent study of this reform, however, found that these approaches made little difference in student achievement.

The authors hypothesize that “selection bias” may explain the divergent conclusions reached by the Chicago study and previous research. Earlier studies rarely considered the unmeasured characteristics of students who completed college-prep courses—characteristics such as motivation, access to academic supports, and better teachers—that are also positively related to student learning. Although the Chicago evaluation is only one study of one city, its findings raise the worrisome possibility that the recent push for “college-prep for all” may not generate the improvements for which researchers and policy makers had hoped.

To read the full article in the journal, which is produced by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Brookings Institution, go to


Published Friday, Sep. 11, 2009