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Magnet Schools Called Successful Tools For Desegregation and Good Education

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Washington--Magnet schools are pronounced a resoundingly successful educational innovation in a U.S. Education Department study that the researchers call the first national look at the effectiveness of the magnet concept.

So widely has the magnet idea caught on in urban districts, the researchers point out, that last year more districts launched such programs without direct federal aid than were operating magnets previously launched with federal funds for that purpose.

As a desegregation tool, the new study says, the magnets have been effective in easing community concerns and creating positive learning environments. At the same time, they have provided high-quality education in urban settings and should be given consideration in the current climate of educational reform, according to the researchers.

The study, which is scheduled to be released this week, found that magnet schools "can and do provide high-quality education in urban school districts." They do so, moreover, without resorting to selective student-admission practices, the researchers say.

"The magnet schools show strong potential for organizing and directing the attention of secondary education toward the academic curriculum," according to an executive summary of the study, which is entitled "Survey of Magnet Schools: Analyzing a Model for Quality Integrated Education."

"The magnet school," the sum-mary continues, "can also be a means of renewing the interests and motivation of teachers by organizing their efforts around a common academic goal and developing interdisciplinary curriculum planning, writing, and quality improvements."

The researchers concluded that the higher per-pupil cost of magnet schools than traditional public schools "pays off in better education.''

Achievement Scores

Of the 45 magnet schools studied, about 41 percent reported student-achievement scores in mathematics that exceeded districtwide averages and 44 percent had higher-than-average student test scores in reading, according to the report.

The two-year study represents the first attempt to examine the status and effectiveness of an educational concept that, according to the researchers, has grown rapidly in public schools located in the nation's urban areas. They attribute magnets' appeal among students, teachers, parents, and administrators to their innovative use of "theme-based curricula" in achieving voluntary racial integration.

The number of magnet schools has continued to grow, according to the report, despite the Reagan Administration's decision to eliminate direct federal support by combining the school-desegregation aid offered districts under the Emergency School Aid Act into the Chapter 2 block-grants program for states.

During the 1981-82 school year, the last year of direct aid for deseg-regation purposes, the researchers noted, about 64 schools received federal grants for magnet programs. During the 1982-83 school year, 74 school districts developed magnet programs without federal support.

In the study, the researchers identified more than 1,000 magnet schools in 138 of the nation's largest urban school districts. The study was conducted by two educational-research firms--James H. Lowry and Associates, and Abt Associates Inc.--under contract with the Education Department's office of planning, budget, and evaluation.

The researchers visited a representative sample of 15 school districts, basing their definition of a magnet school on four criteria: a distinctive school curriculum based on a special theme or method of instruction; "a unique district role and purpose for voluntary desegregation"; voluntary choice by students and parents; and an open-enrollment policy that extended beyond the school's regular attendance zones.

Key findings from their study of such schools include:

One-third of the magnet schools involved in the study offered high-quality education programs based on the caliber of teaching, the curriculum, the student-teacher interaction, the breadth of learning opportunities, and the schools' use of resources.

A magnet school will not succeed unless strong leadership at the district level is involved in implementing the program.

The average total cost per student in magnet schools was about $200 more than the average cost per student in a regular school during the 1980-81 school year, but that additional cost declined to an average of $59 the next school year. The higher costs were attributed to higher-than-average expenditures for teacher salaries and student transportation.

Schools with only one specific educational theme cost less than those with a combination of themes.

Community participation in the initial planning of a magnet program tends to decrease opposition and leads to more community involvement during the program's implementation.

As a result of voluntary-enroll-ment policies and because of the public attention they receive, magnet schools have the potential of helping school districts to improve their image within the community and to rebuild the reputation of their schools.

The researchers suggest several policy options for furthering the development of magnet-school programs by federal, state, and local officials. One such option, they write, would be to renew a federally funded aid program or to create state-funded programs that would provide "seed money" to school districts for local magnet programs.

To obtain a copy of the report, write to Ann Nawaz, Planning and Evaluation Services, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Room 4037, Washington, D.C. 20202.

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