The Effects of Academic Career Magnet Education on High Schools and their Graduates

Publication February 1999

This study has identified a group of career magnet high school programs that have had some success in educating low and moderate income minority and immigrant students. The study has also identified ways in which these programs have not succeeded. The programs used an academic curriculum accompanied by coursework (and sometimes internships) to prepare students for specific careers. These career magnet programs–located either in regular comprehensive high schools or combined with other magnet programs to fill up an entire building–usually have the same budget as the regular comprehensive schools.

The programs we studied are in a large area that includes a low-income city and a ring of older suburbs. Six out of every seven students are African American or Hispanic; the remainder are white, Asian, or Native American. Many of our conclusions are based on a comparison of a large number of students who had been randomly assigned through a lottery admission process to career magnet programs and to comprehensive schools.

This study shows important positive and negative effects: While graduates of the career magnets are more likely to succeed in work and college, the career magnets also have a high dropout rate.

Two kinds of studies were done:

1. A student records analysis, using data files on 9,176 students who applied to 59 different programs. We compared test performance, absenteeism, and graduation and dropout rates of lottery winners to those of lottery losers. We also compared the 59 programs to each other to identify attributes of the more successful ones. Based on this analysis:

  • Many career magnet programs have lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates than do comprehensive schools. The low graduation rate seems to be caused by programs setting high standards for their students and, in many cases, pushing weaker students out of the most desirable classes and internships. One of the problems with career magnet programs is the ease with which they escape accountability. These programs used the lottery to admit only half of their students; they handpicked the other half of their enrollment. Consequently, overall school performance can look good even while students have a lower chance of graduating than they would have had if they had lost the lottery.
  • Compared to the comprehensive high schools, students in academic career magnet programs do not have higher or lower reading scores, do not take advanced graduation tests more or less often, and do not have higher or lower absenteeism. In fact, the career magnet students have slightly lower math scores.
  • Career magnets that give students more time on computers raise student math scores.

2. Surveys and interviews. A survey of graduates used two-hour interviews with 110 applicants to four different all-magnet high schools, comparing lottery winners who graduated from the career magnets to those who lost the lottery and graduated from a comprehensive high school. In addition, we conducted four-hour interviews with 30 of the respondents in the survey, covering their life from childhood to the present to understand the role of the high school in their development. We also conducted a substudy of the high school experiences of 14 of the career magnet graduates. Based on these analyses:

  • Graduates of the career magnets earn at least a third more college credits and are more likely to have chosen a college major in their first one or two years after graduation.
  • Career magnet graduates report that they engage in less high-risk behaviors: They report that they smoke less, have fewer fights, drink alcohol much less often, and become pregnant or cause pregnancy less often.
  • Career magnets have an indirect effect on their families: Graduates say their parents volunteered help for college twice as often as parents of comprehensive graduates.
  • The success of career magnet graduates seems to hinge on the schools’ ability to help students through the process of adolescent identity development. The career magnet students were more likely to have developed a career identity and to report that their high school education enabled them to become “really good at something.”

Crain, R. L., Allen, A., Thaler, R., Sullivan, D., Zellman, G. L., & Little, J. W., et al. (1999, February). The effects of academic career magnet education on high schools and their graduates. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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