Public Policy Forum Blog

Analyzing the value of specialized curricula at MPS

The increasingly competitive global economy has created a new imperative for educators across the nation not only to graduate students from high school, but also to ensure their success after graduation.  In Wisconsin, meanwhile, the Department of Public Instruction’s Agenda 2017 aims to close state achievement gaps by 50% while doubling the rate of students considered college- and career-ready over the next five years.

Today, the Public Policy Forum releases a report that investigates a critical piece of the post-graduation puzzle for the Milwaukee Public Schools by examining the relationship of specialized curricula to college matriculation.

Specialized programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate have long been considered gateways to college by offering a taste of college-level work, future credit, and a means to stand out on college applications. Other programs, such as Project Lead the Way and Career and Technical Education, have sought to prepare students more directly for post-graduation success through exposure to careers and skills training.

Our new report examines whether these special curricular options are truly “special” in the context of college- and career-ready objectives.  In other words, do they offer a “turnkey” solution for MPS to promote college matriculation and address the goals of Agenda 2017, or are they an expensive and time-consuming investment with few returns for taxpayers?

The report is based on an analysis of the course enrollment of recent MPS graduates, which is then matched  to a national college database that provides insight on college-going behavior. While the data cannot determine if specialized curricula are causing higher college enrollment, it can demonstrate if the two are associated.

One of the report’s key findings, for example, centers on the association between Advanced Placement courses and college enrollment.  The data show that AP graduates enroll in college at a significantly higher rate than non-AP graduates.  Furthermore, the frequency of college enrollment increases with the number of AP courses taken.

Yet, these encouraging results are not necessarily a green light for full-scale implementation of Advanced Placement. AP courses impact various segments of MPS students differently, with discrepancies between gender, ethnicity, and economic status. In fact, the data demonstrate that while there is an increase in college enrollment for all races, African American, Asian, and white AP graduates enroll at significantly higher rates than Hispanic students. The data also show little difference in college enrollment between students identified as economically disadvantaged and those who are not. 

In short, while the report’s findings support an increased emphasis on specialized curricula at MPS under the banner of college and career readiness, they do not support expansion without careful consideration of the student body, budget, and administrative resources. Indeed, the drive towards college and career readiness should be advanced with strategic and relevant information. It is hoped that the report will spur more in-depth analysis of the financial and administrative costs of specialized curricular implementation, as well as provide local and state education leaders with information on the value of these programs.

The full report can be downloaded here.

Andrew Pendola