A Closer Look at Math and Science Academies

By Sean Cavanagh — November 26, 2008 2 min read
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All schools would like to think they’re capable of producing the scientists of the future—students with the academic skill, curiosity, and creativity to conduct research in cutting-edge fields. But supporters of math and science academies, or specialty high schools, see themselves as especially well-suited to that mission.

Now, a new study will attempt to examine whether specialized math and science public high schools actually turn out more scientists in the life, physical, and behavior sciences. Those schools’ performance in that area will be compared against traditional high schools.

The three-year study will be conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia and the American Psychological Association. It is being funded with a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The study will include a survey of 5,000 graduates of specialized math and science schools, who will be compared against 1,000 “similarly talented” graduates of traditional high schools, the APA says.

Math and science academies have become a fixture in many states, and they come in a variety of forms—residential schools, where students live year round; magnet and charter schools; schools within schools; and schools where students spend part of the school day. Many policymakers argue that they serve a valuable function in their states, meeting the needs of elite students who need to be challenged with superior math and science coursework and resources. Academies typically offer a demanding curriculum, place a heavy emphasis on independent research projects, and boast faculty with strong credentials.

There are about 95 of those schools around the country, which serve about 37,000 students, I reported a few years ago. Many of them receive state funding.

Specifically, the study will look at the following questions:

* Are graduates of these specialized schools more likely to remain in the science, math, and technical fields than students with similar achievement and interests from traditional public high schools?

* Which instructional practices used by specialized math and science high schools are most effective in producing students who study those fields in college and make it into science-, math- or technology-related professions?

* Do these specialty-school graduates have perspectives on professional success and ethical scientific behavior that differ from their non-academy graduates?

The study seems like it could draw strong interest from policymakers at all levels, who may be intrigued by the potential of academies to serve supremely gifted students, but want to probe those schools’ records a bit more deeply.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.