Career Academies: Emerging Findings

| James J. Kemple

In 1993, MDRC began a 10-year evaluation of the Career Academy approach — a widely established school reform initiative that encompasses the key principles of the national school-to-work (or school-to-career) movement. As such, the primary goals of the Career Academy approach are to improve students’ performance in high school and to provide them with clearer pathways to post-secondary education and careers. While attempting to create more supportive teaching and learning communities within high schools, Career Academies also seek to integrate academic and vocational instruction and to provide work-based learning opportunities for students, with the aim of preparing them for their lives beyond high school — whether they are going straight into the job market or planning to attend college first.

This report is the second in a series from MDRC’s Career Academies Evaluation, which focuses on 10 high schools and their Career Academies from across the country. The first report — Career Academies: Early Implementation Lessons from a 10-Site Evaluation — described the 10 Career Academies participating in the study and their local contexts. The current report begins to look inside the participating Career Academies and focuses on the extent to which they function as “communities of support” for students and teachers. For students, such support includes the personalized attention they get from their teachers, their teachers’ expectations of them, their fellow classmates’ level of engagement in school, and the opportunities they have to collaborate with their peers on school projects. Teachers are supported by, among other things, opportunities for professional collaboration and development, adequate resources, the capacity to influence instructional and administrative decisions, and opportunities to give personalized attention to students. Both this study and previous research have identified these dimensions of support as factors that can have an important effect on both students’ motivation and engagement in school and teachers’ job satisfaction and sense of whether they are making a difference in their students’ lives.

The key findings reported here indicate that the Career Academies provide their students and teachers with a greater degree of institutional and interpersonal support than is available to their non-Academy counterparts in the same comprehensive high schools. Students in the early stages of their Academy experience report that they are somewhat more motivated to attend school and that their schoolwork seems more relevant to their future education and career goals. At the same time, while Academy students appear to be highly engaged in school, they do not appear to be more engaged than their non-Academy counterparts. Academy teachers were more likely to see themselves as belonging to a strong professional community and indicated higher levels of job satisfaction than their non-Academy counterparts in the same high schools. Nevertheless, Academy and non-Academy teachers were about equally likely to rate themselves as being highly effective with their students.

These early benchmarks of contrast between the Academy and non-Academy school environments, as viewed through the eyes of their students and teachers, should be interpreted with caution. Most important, the current report focuses on only a limited set of student experiences that are likely to be affected by the Career Academies. Many of the students participating in the study had gone through only one high school year at the time the data for this report were collected, and only about one-third of the students had reached their second year in the study. Thus, they had little or no exposure to some of the key Academy components, particularly its integrated academic/occupational curricula and work-based learning opportunities. Future reports will examine a broader set of indicators of student performance and engagement in school and at work, and will capture the cumulative effects, if any, as they accrue through high school and beyond.