Finding What Works


Career Academies: Increasing Earnings Through Education

“I never go to Capitol Hill to talk about high school reform without taking the MDRC evaluation of high school reform models. MDRC’s objective and thorough analysis is informing much of the legislative policy discussions occurring at this critical time for education.”
— Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education, and former governor of West Virginia

First developed some 35 years ago, Career Academies aim to restructure large high schools into small learning communities around career themes, follow rigorous curricula that include academic and career-oriented courses, and offer opportunities to participate in work-based learning activities — all to create better pathways between high school and further education and the workplace. Since then, the Career Academy approach has taken root in an estimated 8,000 high schools across the country.

The proliferation of Career Academies, along with their continuing relevance to high school reform policy initiatives, has been fueled by MDRC’s random assignment evaluation of the model. Tracking students for 12 years, our study found strong and sustained impacts on students’ labor market outcomes, most notably earnings, especially for African-American males. These positive impacts occurred without any detrimental effects on education outcomes, such as graduation from high school or postsecondary enrollment.

The Coalition for Evidence-Based Policy determined that MDRC’s study meets its “top tier” of evidence of effectiveness. The Obama Administration’s 2013 budget called for a substantial investment in the “highly effective” Career Academy model.

MDRC continues to help refine and improve the Career Academies model. Our Career Academies Project: Linking Education and Careers, funded by the federal Institute of Education Sciences, seeks to strengthen the model’s work-based learning component of academies. It is piloting a cohesive program in 18 career academies in five cities: Atlanta, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough County, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Materials from the pilot, including curricula, guides, resources, and evaluation tools, will be made available to the field.