Career Development Effects of Career Magnets Versus Comprehensive Schools

Publication June 1999

This study investigated the institutional and social and psychological effects of attending an urban career magnet high school. It was designed specifically to examine the differential impact of the curriculum and instruction in the school, students’ extracurricular experience, work experience while in school after graduation, peer relationships while in school, and family attitudes toward schooling on the postsecondary education potential and career development of the graduates of both career magnet and comprehensive high schools. To determine these effects, the study used a random assignment database, which was created by a lottery mechanism used to assign seats in oversubscribed career magnet high schools.

Study Design

The subjects of the study were 110 graduates of four career magnet high schools and four comprehensive high schools in New York City. A total of 51 students who attended and graduated from a career magnet school–the “lottery winners”–and 59 who attended and graduated from a comprehensive high school–the “lottery losers”–were included in the study. Because the subjects were drawn from a database for the study constructed in an experimental design format, the graduates were selected in pairs in which one graduate was randomly admitted to a New York City career magnet high school while the other was randomly rejected from the same school, and subsequently attended and graduated from a comprehensive high school. In our study, then, the random selection process assured group equality and eliminated the initial differences between the groups known as selection bias. Since the pairs of graduates were constructed by random assignment and matching, any consistent difference between career magnet and comprehensive high school graduates could be attributed to the schools they attended. All 110 graduates were surveyed using closed-ended (Likert scale and yes/no) and open-ended structured interviews.

The Comparative Effects of the Career Magnet Experience

The graduates of the career magnet and the comprehensive high schools reported a number of statistically significant differences in their high school educational and work experiences, career choices and development, post-high school work and educational experiences, and peer and family relationships that can explain the impact of the schools on their career development. In most of their responses to the interview questions, the graduates of the career magnet high schools were more articulate than the graduates of the comprehensive high schools: they gave more answers to questions when given a chance to make a second or third choice on a scale, and their responses were more specific and comprehensive to open-ended questions.

The career magnet graduates retained stronger positive feelings toward their high school than the graduates of the comprehensive high schools. Given the opportunity, the career magnet graduates said that they would choose to attend the same high school again because of its career focus. The comprehensive high school graduates did not indicate that they would want to return to their high school because of the value of the education it offered; they would return because of the appeal of the location, its safety, or the fun they had.

The comprehensive graduates also cut classes more frequently (once a week) than their career magnet peers (a few times a semester). The career magnet graduates felt a greater peer pressure not to cut class and were concerned that they would upset their parents if they did. They also rarely cut their occupational classes.

The career magnet graduates were significantly less likely to engage in behaviors associated with poor school performance. They were less likely to have been in a fight, to smoke, to drink alcohol, to use drugs, to be pregnant or make someone pregnant, or to be arrested by police on serious charges. The reduced incidence of academic risk behaviors was the biggest difference in the two groups while in high school.

Curriculum and Instruction. For the most part, the graduates did not differ in their overall perception of the impact of their coursework on their career development; however, the career magnet graduates did feel that they learned more in their occupationally related classes than in their academic classes, and were more likely to attribute any positive educational (academic and career) outcomes of their high school experience to their occupational classes.

The Role of Teachers and Counselors. Neither the career magnet nor the comprehensive graduates reported a significant number of contacts with their teachers while in high school. The career magnet graduates identified only the teachers in their occupationally related classes as influential in their career choice or development. Neither the career magnet nor the comprehensive graduates were likely to talk to a counselor or necessarily attribute any specific influence to the encounter.

The Role of Extracurricular Activities, Community Service, and Older Adults. Neither the career magnet nor the comprehensive graduates attributed a great deal of specific importance in their career choice or development to their extracurricular or volunteer experiences or to any single person they encountered in the community, although more of the career magnet graduates than their comprehensive peers thought that participating in extracurricular activities affected their thinking.

School-Related Work Experience. Many of the career magnet and comprehensive graduates worked while in high school in jobs related to their schoolwork; although the comprehensive high school graduates were more likely to hold a job while in high school. In general, more career magnet graduates than comprehensive graduates reported that they did class assignments or changed a class project because of their job experiences. The comprehensive graduates felt that their work experience only helped them develop specific technical occupational skills, not necessarily knowledge of future careers or work norms.

Peer and Parent Influences. The graduates of the career magnet high schools reported that most of their friends were fellow students in their classes who did not live in their neighborhoods. More of their social life, then, was centered in the school, and with school friends rather than with friends in their neighborhood. By contrast, the graduates of the comprehensive high schools had friends in their schools and in their neighborhoods both, and they identified their social life with their neighborhood.

The career magnet graduates, more than the comprehensive graduates, believed that their parents thought their going to college was the most important part of their plans for the future, and felt that their parents believed that it was important for the family to make sacrifices to send them to college. The comprehensive graduates reported that while their parents thought going to college was a good idea, their family had few financial resources to send them to college, and they should not expect to be supported if they chose to attend.

Post-High School Experience. More of the graduates of the career magnet high school planned to go to college than the comprehensive graduates did, who postponed such thoughts. Of those graduates who attended college after graduating from high school, the career magnet graduates took more college credits. They also said that they had already declared a major, unlike the comprehensive graduates.

Most of the graduates quit their high school jobs right after graduating, but the comprehensive graduates did so at a greater rate. Of those working in their third job after graduation, however, the career magnet graduates were more likely to be working full-time than the comprehensive graduates. After graduation, career magnet graduates indicated a starting wage that was one dollar higher per hour than the comprehensive graduates, and it remained higher at the time of the study.

Models of the Influence of Institutional Effects and Parent Support on Career Magnet Graduates

In a related study of the effects of attending a career magnet high school, using the data set created for this study, Zellman and Quigley (1999) developed two models of variables pointing to differences in the experiences of the career magnet and the comprehensive graduates. The analyses revealed that the influence of the career magnet graduate is transmitted through peer relationships and parent support. The career magnet graduates were more likely to have a best friend who has a career interest, and thus very likely to have been exposed to an environment where career thinking and career planning were the norms.

Consequently, friendships in the new environment, away from the neighborhood, were more likely to form around mature interests than might be otherwise possible; in turn, graduates might have come to believe that they were developing and using marketable skills in their career-oriented classes and at work. In addition, the career magnet high school, with its emphasis on the rewards of current efforts in the future, likely influenced the youth and his or her peer group to avoid at-risk behaviors. The analyses also revealed that a student who graduated from a career magnet high school is 30% more likely than a comprehensive graduate to perceive that his or her parents would be willing to make sacrifices to send him or her to college. These same students were 19% more likely to believe that they would be in their desired careers within the next six to ten years.

Importantly, these models suggest that of all the variables, attendance at the career magnet high school itself may have led to parents’ assumptions about their children’s seriousness of efforts because it required extra physical and academic effort to attend. This coupled with other variables in the models, such as career confidence, avoidance of at-risk behaviors, and career-related college plans, likely led to parental commitment to their children’s education.

Flaxman, E., Guerrero, A., & Gretchen, D. (1999, June). Career development effects of career magnets versus comprehensive schools. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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