Career Academies were first developed some 35 years ago with the aim of restructuring large high schools into small learning communities and creating better pathways from high school to 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 at the federal, state, and local levels, has been fueled by MDRC’s random assignment evaluation of the model. This study tracked a sample of students for 12 years and found strong and sustained impacts on their labor market outcomes, most notably earnings. These positive impacts occurred without any detrimental effects on education outcomes, such as graduation from high school or enrollment in postsecondary school.
Operating as schools within schools and typically enrolling 30 to 60 students per grade, Career Academies are organized around such themes as health sciences, law, business and finance, and engineering. Academy students take classes together, remain with the same group of teachers over time, follow a curriculum that includes rigorous academic courses as well as career-oriented courses, and participate in work-based learning activities. Since the end of the School to Work Opportunities Act, however, academies have struggled to provide work-based learning and career exploration experiences to their students; in particular they have struggled to provide a capstone internship experience. This is an unfortunate trend, since MDRC’s evaluation suggests that these experiences likely played an important role in producing Career Academies’ positive impact on earnings.