Career Academies: Exploring College and Career Options (ECCO)


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.


Agenda, Scope, and Goals

Exploring College and Career Options (ECCO) began in 2009 and was funded by the Institute of Education Sciences of the federal Department of Education. The project grew directly from the previous MDRC study, and responded to the documented need to strengthen the work-based learning component of academies while providing enhanced college and career exploration opportunities. The project resulted in a cohesive program consisting of curricula, resources, guides, and professional development materials. The goal was to ensure that all students in Career Academies understand the connections between what they learn in school and their future, make informed decisions about college and career, and acquire the skills to succeed in both.

In addition to developing and implementing ECCO, MDRC conducted research to address the following questions:

  • To what extent did the academies implement each of the intervention’s components with fidelity? Which factors promoted or impeded full implementation?
  • Did the intervention improve the academies’ ability to provide high-quality career development and work-based learning opportunities?
  • Did the intervention hold promise for improving key outcomes for students, including engagement in school, awareness of college and career options, and acquisition of 21st-century skills?
  • What structures and resources need to be in place at the academy, school, and district levels for ECCO to be expanded and sustained?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

  • With the help of Bloom Associates and in partnership with the National Academy Foundation and the Center for College and Career in California, ECCO was pilot tested in 18 career academies in six school districts in: Atlanta, GA; Miami-Dade County, FL; Hillsborough County, FL; Los Angeles, CA; Concord, CA; and Oakland, CA.
  • Data were collected to measure both the implementation of ECCO and its influence on key student outcomes. In addition to regular site visits, during which school leaders, teachers, students, and employers were interviewed, MDRC administered a student survey and a survey of employer hosts, collected student class rosters to measure retention, and collected time-use logs completed by coordinators to assess the level of effort needed to deliver the program as designed.
  • The study found that students in academies that adopted ECCO were more likely to report participation in college and career awareness exploration activities. While not without its challenges, ECCO was implemented with reasonable fidelity with varying levels of financial and professional development support. The program consists of several components including a paid, part-time site coordinator; professional development; curricula; and resource guides to support a set of nonclassroom activities, such as career exploration visits, internships, and college campus visits. For more information about ECCO, please visit ConnectEd, which is publishing the curriculum.