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Published in Print: September 10, 2008, as The Career Academy Story

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The Career Academy Story

A Case Study of How Research Can Move Policy and Practice

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During the 1960s, Philadelphia, like several other major U.S. cities, experienced social turmoil, even riots, fueled by poverty and racism. Teachers there were trying to invent new ways to make high school real for their students. Among the innovations they came up with in 1969 were “academies” that would link core academic subjects to an occupational theme.

Almost 40 years later, the results of the latest follow-up in a rigorous evaluation of what have come to be known as “career academies” were announced at the end of June by the nonprofit research organization MDRC (formerly known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.). ("Career Academies Seen to Pay Off in Higher Earnings," July 16, 2008.) They showed significant positive effects for former students in terms of their employment and earnings eight years after high school.

What happened between 1969 and 2008 says a lot about the usefulness of research to educational innovation. In the career-academy story, researchers have played an important role in advancing practice and policy. That story’s multidecade history illustrates how this can happen, as well as the kind of long-term commitment it takes.

The main features of a career academy are fairly simple to describe, though not so simple to implement. Such an academy is a school-within-a-school, or small learning community. About 30 to 60 students at each grade level take a set of classes together taught by a small team of teachers. The academy usually spans grades 10-12, but sometimes can include grade 9 as well, or simply be grades 11 and 12. The same teachers cover all academy grade levels in their academic subjects, so they work with students for more than one year.

The curriculum combines core academic subjects with a career-technical class related to the academy’s theme. Some common themes include health and bioscience, business and finance, arts and communications, architecture and construction, education and child development, engineering, and information technology.

Students also are engaged outside of school in experiences related to the academy theme, through field trips, job shadowing, and paid or unpaid internships. Local employers participate on a steering committee that provides these experiences for students, as well as other support.

Philadelphia created a number of academies in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. In 1981, two high schools in California started academies modeled on Philadelphia’s, but the curriculum was also designed to ensure that students would fulfill course requirements for college. The state began funding academies in 1984, and currently supports 340 California Partnership Academies.

In 1982, the academy model was transplanted to New York City, where American Express and other financial companies started an Academy of Finance. This was the beginning of a New York-based philanthropy called the National Academy Foundation, or NAF, which now supports more than 500 academies in 41 states and the District of Columbia. NAF academies specialize in the career areas of finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, and engineering.

Many career academies also have sprung up around the country without state funding or support from any national organization. The number of academies that embody the main features described above is about 2,000.


The most important role played by research and evaluation in the spread of career academies has been the provision of empirical justification for public and private investment.

The first two academies in California, for example, were studied by outside researchers who collected data over time on both academy students and comparable nonacademy students in the same high school. Results showing that the academy students were doing better in school prompted the state to fund replications. Again, outside researchers conducted a longitudinal study using matched comparison groups and found that academy students had better attendance, earned more course credits, received higher grades, and were less likely to leave high school. These results encouraged the expansion of state funding.

Several similar studies by different researchers found positive results not only for academies in California, but also for those in other locations. Enough evidence had accumulated by 1994 that career academies were listed as a “promising activity” in the federal School-to-Work Opportunities Act.

In 1993, MDRC began an experimental study of nine career academies in various parts of the country. Random assignment of students to the experimental and control groups was a key feature of the study.

During the high school years, academy students reported receiving more academic and social support from teachers and peers. MDRC also found that academy students were much more likely to have engaged in career exploration, and in work experiences connected to what they were studying in school. Among students with “high risk” characteristics at the start of high school, those assigned to the academy had better attendance, earned more course credits, and were more likely to remain in high school until the spring of their senior year.

Four years after high school, the former academy students were working and earning substantially more than their nonacademy counterparts, MDRC found. The difference in earnings was more significant for males, and was equivalent to the average additional earnings associated with two years of college. Postsecondary educational attainment did not differ significantly between the academy and nonacademy groups. Both had relatively high rates of college attendance compared with the national population of students in similar high schools—a fact that suggests students who applied to career academies at the start of the study had relatively high levels of academic motivation.

Early reports from MDRC also called attention to the challenges of implementing the career-academy model. This prompted several national organizations to collaborate in creating standards of practice, including more emphasis on academic rigor.

"It makes sense for high schools to offer a curriculum that gives all students the option of attending college, while also providing some work-related preparation in case they decide not to enter or complete postsecondary education."

More recently, the 2006 MDRC report “Meeting Five Critical Challenges of High School Reform” called on career academies to build connections between learning in the classroom and at work, and to strengthen instruction in the core courses.

The National Academy Foundation, whose president is one of this essay’s authors, responded to these findings by taking several steps to improve curriculum: A new staff member was hired to help academies integrate academic content with work-based learning; a group of academy teachers was identified to work on curriculum development; and a partnership was forged with the Pearson Foundation to address the use of technology in NAF curricula. Finally, the foundation identified demonstration sites to work on personalization through internships, integrated curricula, and strong business and community advisory boards. These sites agreed to host an NAF academy “Design Studio” to increase high-performing academies in the future.

The main findings from MDRC’s latest follow-up released in June are very similar to those from earlier reports. The former academy students are working and earning more than the nonacademy group, and the difference is more significant among male students. Again, there are no significant differences in the level of educational attainment.

Career-academy graduates can and do attend college. In addition, they obtain higher earnings. The positive impact on earnings may be attributable to the career exploration and school-related work experiences that these schools provide. Former academy students are significantly more likely to say that they are working in a job related to what they studied in high school.

Career academies are an example of high school programs designed to equip each student for both college and a career. Given that 80 percent to 90 percent of high school students say they intend to complete bachelor’s degrees, but only about one-third of 25- to 34-year-olds currently have done so, it makes sense for high schools to offer a curriculum that gives all students the option of attending college, while also providing some work-related preparation in case they decide not to enter or complete postsecondary education.

The research on career academies shows that combining preparation for college and preparation for careers can produce life-enhancing results for students. It also provides an example of how close study and evaluation over time can inform and advance educational policy and practice.

Vol. 28, Issue 03, Pages 24-26

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