By usual measures of student progress, America’s high school career academies have been a failure. One of the longest and most scientific education studies ever conducted concluded they did not improve test scores or graduation rates or college success for urban youth. People like me, obsessed with raising student achievement, saw those numbers and said: Well, too bad. Let’s try something else.
And yet, because the career academy research by the New York-based MDRC (formerly known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp.) was so detailed and professional, we have just learned that the academies accomplished something perhaps even better than higher passing rates on reading exams. They produced young men who got better-paying jobs, were more likely to live independently with children and a spouse or partner and were more likely to be married and have custody of their children.
This is a remarkable finding. It has the power not only to revitalize vocational education but to shift the emphasis of school assessment toward long-range effects on students’ lives, not just on how well they did in school and college.
Established more than 30 years ago, Career Academies have become a widely used high school reform initiative that aims to keep students engaged in school and prepare them for successful transitions to postsecondary education and employment. Typically serving between 150 and 200 students from grades 9 or 10 through grade 12, Career Academies are organized as small learning communities, combine academic and technical curricula around a career theme, and establish partnerships with local employers to provide work-based learning opportunities. There are estimated to be more than 2,500 Career Academies operating around the country.
Since 1993, MDRC has been conducting a uniquely rigorous evaluation of the Career Academy approach that uses a random assignment research design in a diverse group of nine high schools across the United States. Located in medium- and large-sized school districts, the schools confront many of the educational challenges found in low-income urban settings. The participating Career Academies were able to implement and sustain the core features of the approach, and they served a cross-section of the student populations in their host schools. This report describes how Career Academies influenced students’ labor market prospects and postsecondary educational attainment in the eight years following their expected graduation. The results are based on the experiences of more than 1,400 young people, approximately 85 percent of whom are Hispanic or African-American.