Are Expectations Alone Enough? Estimating the Effect of a Mandatory College-Pre Curriculum in Michigan

January 2016
Brian Jacob, Susan Dynarski, Kenneth Frank, Barbara Schneider

We examine the effects of a rigorous high school curriculum designed to improve educational outcomes and prepare high school graduates for college-level courses.

One common refrain in the education reform movement is that expectations play an important role for student outcomes. The idea is that students rise to the expectations they are held to, high or low. George W. Bush made the idea famous when lamenting “soft bigotry of low expectations,”1 but a belief in the importance of high expectations isn’t the domain of any one party. In 2014, the progressive Center for American Progress pointed to the positive correlation between teacher expectations and students’ likelihood of completing college as evidence of the value of states raising expectations for their students by putting into place rigorous curricula such as the Common Core State Standards

Key findings

  1. This brief demonstrates the difficulty in estimating the effect of a program that is launched simultaneously across a state and underscores the benefit of pilot testing new policies whenever possible.
  2. Our analyses suggest that the higher expectations embodied in the Michigan Merit Curriculum has had little impact on student academic outcomes. The only clear evidence of a change in academic achievement comes from the students’ scores on the ACT science exam, with students who entered high school with the weakest academic preparation improving at a faster rate than their peers.
  3. The policy may have led to a small reduction in high school graduation, concentrated among students who entered high school with the weakest academic preparation. However, the evidence on this point is sufficiently inconclusive that we suggest readers take this result with caution.