The Unintended Consequence of an Algebra-for-All Policy on High-Skill Students: The Effects on Instructional Organization and Students’ Academic Outcomes

The “college for all” klaxon has reached near deafening levels, with much attention paid to ensuring that every youngster has access to the courses necessary to prepare him or her for post-secondary work. But as more kids are flung into mandatory college-prep courses, what happens to the high achievers who already occupied desks in those classes? So asks a new study by Takako Nomi from the Consortium on Chicago School Research. Following six cohorts of Chicago high school students (more than 18,000 in toto, spread across close to sixty schools), Nomi examines the consequences of a 1998 Chicago policy mandating that every ninth grader take Algebra I. First, Nomi finds that this algebra-for-all policy resulted in schools’ opening mixed-ability classrooms—and all but abandoning practices of tracking. The resulting mixed-level classes “had negative effects on math achievement of high-skill students.” To wit: Rates of improvement on math tests slowed for those top-notch pupils placed in heterogeneous classrooms (findings consistent with our own prior work on the topic). All students deserve to be challenged to achieve their full potential. This includes our highest flyers, whose needs are too often subjugated to the grand plans of social engineers.

SOURCE: Takako Nomi, “The Unintended Consequence of an Algebra-for-All Policy on High-Skill Students: The Effects on Instructional Organization and Students’ Academic Outcomes” (Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, published online July 31, 2012).

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