Career Academies: Early Implementation Lessons

| James J. Kemple, JoAnn Rock

Critics of America’s education system contend that young people are leaving high schools without the preparation they need for good jobs: ones that pay well, provide benefits, and offer opportunity for advancement. Economic prospects for high school dropouts are especially grim; they can expect to earn about half as much as graduates with some post-high school education. Increasingly, today’s labor market places a premium on such abilities as hands-on problem-solving, technical knowledge, and effective teamwork, yet such skills are rarely taught in large comprehensive high schools. In fact, fewer than half the youth in the United States acquire the skills and knowledge required for meaningful and productive work in today’s labor market, according to the Department of Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS).

SCANS, and numerous reports from researchers and blue-ribbon panels, have heightened the call from policymakers, educators, and the business community for innovative responses to these problems. Often referred to as “school-to-work transition” reforms, these efforts aim to help high school students achieve academically, while providing them with marketable skills, work-based learning experiences, and clearer pathways to post-secondary education and productive employment. One of the best-established and most promising school-to-work approaches is the Career Academy.

Career Academies are one of several school-to-work approaches specifically authorized under the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994, a major milestone in the school-to-work movement. The Career Academies are “schools-within-schools” in which groups of students (usually 30 to 60 per grade in grades 9 through 12 or 10 through 12) take several classes together each year with the same group of teachers. The Academies focus on a career theme, such as health, business and finance, or electronics, which is usually determined by local employment opportunities and evidence of growing demand for such expertise in the marketplace. Career Academies’ curricula consist of traditional academic classes (such as math, English, science, and social studies) combined with occupation-related classes that focus on the career theme. Local employers from that field help plan and guide the program, and they serve as mentors and provide work experience for the students.

A growing number of states and school districts are beginning to invest in new Career Academies and are looking for evidence of their effectiveness and for information about how they can be implemented and sustained. To meet this need, MDRC is conducting a unique evaluation of the Academy approach. The evaluation will provide a rigorous and credible assessment of the extent to which the Academy approach improves students’ engagement and performance in high school, as well as their preparation for further education and employment beyond high school. The evaluation includes 10 high schools and the Career Academies that operate within them. The Academies are located in a diverse set of urban and small-city high schools that serve high proportions of low-income students, students of color, and students with limited English proficiency. The evaluation is being supported by a consortium of funders, including the U.S. Departments of Education and Labor and 14 private foundations: the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, Ford Foundation, Commonwealth Fund, William T. Grant Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Foundation, George Gund Foundation, Grable Foundation, Richard King Mellon Foundation, American Express Foundation, Alcoa Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, Westinghouse Foundation, and Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation.

This is the first report on the Career Academies Evaluation. It includes several preliminary findings that have important implications both for the evaluation and for policy and practice related to the Career Academies and other school-to-work approaches. Later reports will include additional analyses of how the Career Academies operate and will examine students’ and teachers’ experiences in the Academy and non-Academy high school environments. These reports will also include findings on the extent to which the Academies improve education and work-related outcomes for students.