School Conditions to Support Successfully Teaching Challenging Coursework

Elaine Allensworth
Meeting Materials

Pressure is on public schools to prepare all students for college and to encourage more students to enter careers in science and math. These challenges require a dramatic change in educational practice, as less than half of students in typical schools graduate with sufficient skills to be likely to succeed in college, and few students enter careers in STEM. Schools are being asked to raise the skills of the lowest-achieving students to levels that were previously achieved by the highest-achieving students. The hope is that improving the teacher workforce and making curricula more rigorous will provide the needed change.

Research from Chicago, however, suggests that a narrow focus on improving the curriculum or evaluating individual teachers is unlikely to improve student achievement, and may even bring a decline in learning and educational attainment. There are substantial challenges to implementing rigorous curricula and ensuring that teachers know how to teach it and how to effectively support students. These challenges can be especially problematic in STEM courses, where students may withdraw when they perceive the work to be challenging and lack adequate teacher support. Instead, there is evidence that sustained improvement in student achievement comes from paying attention to the organizational capacity of schools and the context into which curricular and human capital policies are implemented.

As noted in the National Research Council publication Successful STEM Education: A Workshop Summary (2011), the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found:

The teachers’ qualifications were less important than the way in which teachers worked together to take collective responsibility for the school. Similarly, the parents needed not just to participate in school activities, but also to be brought in as partners in their children’s education, and community organizations needed to be involved in a way that was aligned with the school’s instructional programming.

    The Consortium’s research showed that there are five essential supports for school improvement (see diagram--pg 17).

    Of great importance was the research done to explore whether these elements are equally important in all types of schools. Chicago schools were divided into groups based on their racial compensation and economic backgrounds. The research found:

    • that schools serving disadvantaged communities are less likely to show improvements over time, and
    • that schools serving the most disadvantaged schools are least likely to have the five critical areas of support, BUT
    • if these schools had strong internal supports in all five areas, they were just as likely to improve as advantaged schools that had these supports.

    Allensworth, Elaine M., Stephen Ponisciak and Christopher Mazzeo. 2009. The Schools Teachers Leave: Teacher Mobility in Chicago Public Schools. Consortium on Chicago School Research, Chicago, Illinois. Accessed at

    Allensworth, Elaine M., Takako Nomi, Nicholas Montgomery, Valerie E. Lee. 2009. College Preparatory Curriculum for All: Academic Consequences of Requiring Algebra and English I for Ninth Graders in Chicago. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis , 31 (4). Accessed at

    Bryk, Anthony S., Penny Bender Sebring, Elaine Allensworth, Stuart Luppescu, John Q. Easton. 2010. Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago . Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Accessed at

    DeAngelis, Karen J. and Presley, Jennifer B. (2011) Teacher Qualifications and School Climate: Examining Their Interrelationship for School Improvement, Leadership and Policy in Schools , 10: 1, 84–120. Accessed at

    Montgomery, Nicholas and Elaine M. Allensworth. 2010. Passing Through Science: The Effects of Raising Graduation Requirements in Science on Course-Taking and Academic Achievement in Chicago . Consortium on Chicago School Research. Accessed at

    National Research Council. (2011). Successful K-12 STEM education: Identifying effective approaches in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics . Committee on Highly Successful Schools or Programs for K-12 STEM Education. Board on Science Education and Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Nomi, Takako and Elaine Allensworth. 2009. “Double-Dose” Algebra as an Alternative Strategy to Remediation: Effects on Students’ Academic Outcomes. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness , 2: 111–148. Accessed at

    Nomi, Takako and Elaine Allensworth. 2011. “Double-dose algebra as a strategy for improving mathematics achievement of struggling students: Evidence from Chicago Public Schools.” Chapter in Russell Gersten and Rebecca Newman-Gonchar (eds.) Understanding RTI in Mathematics: Proven Methods and Applications, Brookes Publishing .