Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009
The formation of specialty academies, including career academies and academies with a curricular focus such as science, technology, engineering, and math, is often part of a structural change into SLCs. The units that result from downsizing a large, comprehensive high school often are formed around particular themes, although in many cases students and teachers are able to cross SLC boundaries. For the purpose of distinguishing this approach to high school reform from SLCs more broadly, we define specialty academies here as schools that are largely self-contained and committed to the career or curricular theme, so that most of the experiences of the students are related to that theme. However, it is worth noting that most schools implementing SLCs are using career academies as their model.57 Specialty academies are most focused on making changes to the instruction and structure of schools.
Specialty academies are designed to achieve nearly all of the five desired outcomes of high school improvement. In particular, they seek to create personalized learning environments, often with small enrollments and stable student-teacher groupings across grades. They also seek to address instructional content and pedagogy, focusing on particular curricular areas with increased rigor in some cases (for example, STEM academies, which feature science, technology, engineering, and math), and increased relevance in others (for example, career academies). This approach perhaps most specifically seeks to address directly the challenge and desired outcomes of preparing students for the world beyond high school, both for postsecondary education and for the world of work. Some types of specialty academies do include components of support for students who enter high school with poor academic skills; however, it is important to note that, depending on their eligibility and selection policies, selective academies may not address this desired outcome.
Career academies as a program have been in existence since 1969 and are now operating in more than 2,500 schools in the United States.58 Career academies operate as a school-within-a-school structure, where students have the same teachers across grades, teachers have common planning time to share in decision making, and students take at least one occupational course each year related to their academy's career theme. Partnerships with local businesses are a key feature of career academies. Local employers provide internship opportunities for students and help schools in developing curricula for occupational courses.
A relatively strong body of evidence is available for the effect of career academies on student outcomes. Studies (mainly quasi-experimental) conducted between 1985 and 2000 suggest that students in career academies outperform non-academy students on measures of academic success in high school, although differences in postsecondary education and employment are less consistently positive and statistically significant.59 However, it is important to note that these studies, although they use analytic techniques to control for observed differences between academy and non-academy students (for example, prior achievement), are not based on random assignment of students to career academies. For example, studies by David Stern and several colleagues found that students attending ten career academies in California posted higher attendance and grades, earned more credits, and were more likely to stay in school than matched comparison students.60 Using propensity score matching, Marc Elliott, Lawrence Hanser, and Curtis Gilroy reported similar findings in a comparison of students in different types of academies located in large cities.61 Although the outcomes after high school examined in this research are mixed, some positive findings reported in some studies include higher participation in postsecondary education for academy students, lower rates of college remediation, and higher rates of bachelor's degree completion, compared with statistically similar non-academy students.62
Because of its rigorous research design using random assignment, we have high confidence in the findings reported in a fifteen-year-long evaluation of career academies conducted by James Kemple at MDRC.63 In the early years of the study, the researchers found that the career academies model provided students with more support, career guidance, opportunities to take technical classes, and work experience than the schools attended by students not in career academies. Retention rates among high-risk students were higher among career academy students compared with their counterparts while still in high school. Although no effect was found on achievement scores while students were in high school or on postsecondary education attainment after high school, the analysis of long-term labor market outcomes reveals significant effects. The ten- and fifteen-year follow-up reports indicate that career academies produced positive and sustained effects on labor market outcomes, particularly for young men. Young men—even those at the highest risk of dropping out of high school—who attended career academies posted earnings 18 percent higher than non-academy students four years after they left high school. Eight years after leaving high school, career academy students (women and men) earned 11 percent more than non-career academy students; for men, real earnings for academy students were 17 percent higher (earnings were $3,731 higher per year on average over the eight-year period) than those for non-academy students.64
Based in part on the findings reported in MDRC's experimental, longitudinal study of career academies, the What Works Clearinghouse review of the effectiveness of career academies as a dropout-prevention intervention in 2006 concluded that the career academies model has "potentially positive" effects on staying in school and progressing in school but "no discernible effects" on completing school.65
Thus, promising evidence shows that the career academies approach can improve outcomes for students, particularly in the longer term. Not much evidence yet exists, however, on the potential effect of other types of specialty academies in attaining the goals of improving instruction in high schools and preparing students for the world beyond high school.