With the new thrust in school reform accountability, policymakers and philanthropic foundation officers are increasingly interested in rigorous evaluation of the programs they support and/or fund. Organizations such as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) evaluate the quality of youth initiatives, providing invaluable data for practitioners revising their programs and policymakers allocating funds. One of MDRC’s current projects is a longitudinal study to determine the effect of Career Academies on a broad range of educational and youth development outcomes. Dr. James Kemple and Dr. Jason Snipes discuss MDRC’s preliminary findings on this long-running school program to prepare students for both college and careers.
Career Academies, which incorporate many elements of school-to-career programs and the New American High Schools, were first implemented thirty years ago. They are now found in over 1500 schools and typically have three core features. First, Career Academies are organized as a school-within-a-school, starting in ninth grade. This is an effort to create a more personalized and supportive learning environment for students. Second, the Academies coordinate student coursework around a career theme such as healthcare, tourism, or electronics. The themes and curricula are tied to skills demanded by local industries. Third, Career Academies form partnerships with local employers to provide students with career awareness and work-based learning opportunities such as summer internships. Originally, Career Academies focused on dropout prevention and work preparation for at-risk youth, but by shifting their focus to college preparation as well as career development, the Academies now serve a wide range of students. The program costs approximately $700-$800 per student per year.
The MDRC study of Career Academies is one of the most comprehensive analyses ever conducted of high school reform initiatives. The evaluation focuses on nine academies from across the country (including sites from the Partnership Academy network in California and the National Academy Foundation network). MDRC is following a cohort of academy students and a randomly assigned control group through high school and at least four years following high school. The control group of students qualified for Career Academies, but they were not picked in the random lottery to participate in the Academies and so they have continued their studies in a traditional high school curriculum.
Dr. James Kemple, a Senior Research Associate at MDRC and the Project Director for the Career Academies evaluation, gives an overview of the research questions that have guided MDRC’s study. According to Kemple, the central research question that has driven MDRC’s evaluation is: “To what extent do Career Academies affect students’ engagement, performance, and achievement during high school, and prepare them for the transition to college and work?” Kemple reports three preliminary findings or answers to this question.
At the midpoint of the study, with the cohort of students who began Career Academies four years ago now in their senior year of high school, MDRC finds that Career Academies have the strongest impact on students most at-risk. “Among students at ‘high-risk’ of school failure,” Kemple reports, “Career Academies reduced dropout rate, and increased attendance, course taking and application to college.” Dr. Jason Snipes, a Research Associate with MDRC and the lead impact analyst for the Career Academies study, supplies the data to support this assessment. Snipes observes that although 32 percent of “high-risk” students from the control group dropped out of school before their senior year, only 21 percent of “high-risk” Academy students dropped out. Similarly, 51 percent of “high-risk” Academy students reported that they had applied to college as opposed to 35 percent of “high-risk” students in the control group.
The second preliminary finding from the MDRC study, according to Kemple, is that among “low-risk” students, Career Academies have “modest, but positive effects on some student outcomes.” Unsurprisingly, few of the “low-risk” students in both the Academy and control groups dropped out. But the MDRC study suggests that the Academy experience did increase the percentage of “low-risk” students who earned enough credits to graduate and also “increased career-related course taking and work-based learning activities for these students without reducing academic course-taking.”
The final major finding at the midpoint of the MDRC study relates to the impact of Career Academies on achievement test scores. MDRC conducted an achievement test for both Career Academy students and students in the control group, finding that the Academy experience had neither a positive or negative impact on test scores.
At the conclusion of their report, Kemple and Snipes draw some preliminary implications and lessons for youth policy. They argue that the strengths of Career Academies are the small learning communities that they create, the promotion of school-to-work objectives and the connections made between teachers, employers, and students, as well as the remarkable impact on dropout prevention for at-risk youth. This last lesson of Career Academies might lead one to argue for targeting the Academies at only “high risk” youth, but Kemple and Snipes caution that one of the hidden strengths of current Career Academies is the heterogeneity of the student population. In other words, the presence of “low-risk,” high-achieving youth in the small learning communities is integral to the success of “high-risk” students in the Academies. Though Career Academies do not have a negative impact on “low-risk” students’ academic achievement, the Academies do have limitations. Kemple and Snipes reiterate that the study does not show improved test scores at Academies and that students require consistent academic and social supports integral to the Academy experience for positive outcomes to accrue.
These preliminary findings at the midpoint of the MDRC study of Career Academies are promising, but policymakers and practitioners will want to “stay tuned” to see what MDRC finds in its final assessment of the Academies. Four years from now, the students that MDRC is tracking will have settled into careers or higher education. At that point, Kemple and Snipes feel we will truly be able to assess the impact of Career Academies not only on academic achievement in high school, but also on college and career access, success, and retention.
This information is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on January 21, 2000 on Capitol Hill, reported by Steve Estes.
Senior Research Associate
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19th Floor, 16 East 34 Street
New York, NY 10016-4326