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Students Learn More in Magnets Than Other Schools, Study Finds

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A new national study suggests that students learn more in public magnet schools than they do in either public comprehensive high schools, private schools, or Roman Catholic schools.

The study, to be published this spring in the journal Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, is based on data collected on 4,000 urban high school students.

Adam Gamoran, a professor of sociology and educational-policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who conducted the study, said his findings offer some statistical support to those who advocate school-choice options within the public system rather than private school vouchers.

"The results showed no advantage of secular private schools, and a Catholic school advantage only in math at best," he writes in the study.

In an interview last week, Mr. Gamoran said: "Magnet schools don't segregate the way that private and religious schools do. Among those who choose specialized schools, minorities and [poorer] students tend to go to public magnet schools."

Started in the late 1960s, magnet schools, in fact, have been used primarily as a way to desegregate urban districts because they offer specialized programs that attract white students from suburban schools.

But few large, cross-district studies over the years have examined whether students learn more in magnet schools once they get there.

8th to 10th Grade

For his study, Mr. Gamoran used 1988 and 1990 data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a federally supported testing program that is following 24,000 students from 8th grade on, to look at the gains students make in achievement-test scores as they move from 8th grade to 10th grade.

Slightly more half of the students Mr. Gamoran focused on were attending comprehensive high schools at the time the data were collected.

The rest were divided among private, nonreligious schools; Catholic schools; and public magnet schools. "School within a school" magnet programs were not included in the analysis.

Looking only at students' raw scores in mathematics, science, reading, and social studies, the researcher found private and Catholic-school students had a distinct advantage over their public school counterparts.

But, when Mr. Gamoran statistically controlled for differences in schools' socioeconomic mix and in students' prior academic achievement, magnet schools were the clear winner.

The magnet school students made greater gains over two years in reading, social studies, and science than did students in any of the other types of schools. Catholic-school students appeared to gain more knowledge in math.

Moreover, Mr. Gamoran says, the differences in scores, although seemingly small, were significant. In reading, for example, the difference between the scores of magnet school students and those of regular public high school students was about the same as the gap between public comprehensive high school students who dropped out and those who stayed in school.

Looking for Reasons

Mr. Gamoran said he was hard pressed to explain why the magnet school students learned more.

When he began the study, he said, he expected to find that magnet schools had an advantage because students took more-rigorous academic courses, because the academic climate was more intensive, or because students formed a closer bond with their schools.

While this was true when Mr. Gamoran compared magnet schools with comprehensive public high schools, it did not hold true in comparisons with nonpublic schools.

Except in science, students at Catholic schools and secular private schools took slightly more challenging courses.

Principals at both types of private schools also reported somewhat more positive academic climates at their institutions than did those of magnet schools. And the private school students were a little more likely to report feeling attached to their schools.

"It could be that magnet schools get more resources, and they use them more effectively," Mr. Gamoran said in the interview. "If I had better measures of social relationships then that might also account for differences."

Rolf Blank, the director of education indicators for the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, said the explanation may be even simpler.

"I don't think the gains are so enormous that you can attribute it to some particular major thing being done differently," said Mr. Blank, who reviewed the study. "I think the major thing is students are there for a purpose and that's something that gives them cohesiveness."

To some extent, Mr. Gamoran also tried to account for "selectivity bias"--the tendency, for example, of particular types of students to choose private or religious schools.

But magnet schools, for the most part, retained their edge.

Studies in the early 1980s and earlier by University of Chicago researcher Anthony S. Bryk and others suggested a different outcome.

They maintained that Catholic-school students had a distinct achievement advantage over their public school counterparts.

But Mr. Gamoran said his findings may not necessarily conflict. Mr. Bryk's study focused on students moving from 10th grade to 12th grade, rather than those in 8th and 10th grades as Mr. Gamoran did.

"I think we need to follow students to 12th grade if we're going to confirm my results," he said.

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