MDRC in the News

How Effective Are ‘Career Academies’?

The Atlantic


Ask a group of preschoolers, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and firefighter usually makes the list of dream jobs—as do ballerina and superhero. Firefighting is a profession glorified in media and children’s books, but most childhood aspirations don’t become a reality. Experienced firefighters are in high demand across the country—in small towns, medium-size cities, and major urban areas. So school officials and county leaders in Pensacola, Florida, came up with a novel solution to address its firefighter shortage: Grow your own. Starting in the 2016 school year, a new career academy at Pine Forest High School will recruit and enroll students interested in a firefighting job. “Not only is it good for students, but employers … see these high-school career academies as a feeder for [recruiting and hiring] employees,” Michelle Taylor, the workforce-education director for the Escambia County School District, said in the Pensacola News Journal…..

…..Taking a broader outlook on this school model, career academies are a hybrid of the vocational education of the 1970s—with its emphasis on skilled trades and occupations—and more recent efforts to raise college-and-career-readiness in high school. Often defined as a school-within-a-school, career academies generally feature small learning communities, integrate business and industry partnerships, and provide students with a curriculum blending traditional and technical courses—all designed to smooth the school-to-work transition or ease the pathway into postsecondary schooling. The combination has proven to be widely popular, and career academies are increasingly touted for boosting student engagement, improving academic performance, and enhancing future job and earning prospects. According to the National Career Academy Coalition, an advocacy group, there are some 7,000 career academies across the country, enrolling about 1 million students.

In April 2014, the approach received a prominent endorsement and major funding when the Obama White House announced the Youth CareerConnect grant program, a collaboration between the labor and education departments to reward school districts that teamed up with colleges and workforce groups to combine “rigorous educational standards with work experiences and skills [to] enhance instruction and deliver real-world learning opportunities for students.” Nationally, $107 million in grants was disbursed to 24 organizations and school systems—including Los Angeles, New York City, and Denver—to create and expand career-academy offerings.

While the concept is over 40 years old, the proliferation of career academies rose sharply following a landmark paper in 2008. Researchers at MDRC, a nonpartisan education and social-policy think tank, in 1993 began studying students who were randomly assigned to career academies and their non-career academy peers. The students were followed through high school and for several years after graduation. The study’s author, James Kemple, found for students at highest risk of dropping out, participation in career academies improved attendance and the likelihood of graduating on time. Young men in career academies also went on to land higher-paying jobs, though the effects for young women were smaller. As the study concluded, “Investments in career-related experiences during high school can produce substantial and sustained improvements in the labor market prospects and transitions to adulthood of youth”…..