The effectiveness of contemporary career academies

This new study from CALDER examines the type of students that modern career academies attract and the causal impacts of participation on various outcomes. Recall that seminal, lottery-based research from MDRC on career academies in the 90’s found no effects on high school graduation or initial college outcomes but did find that males had higher salaries over the long term and were more likely to “form and sustain families.” The current authors suggest that today’s career academies—in part due to new interest in college and career readiness plus the recent economic recession—mean that we need a new generation of experimental research on the latest CTE models. And they aim to deliver.

Analysts examine career academies in Wake County Public School System (NC), which has twenty academies (such as the Academy of Finance and the Academy of Sustainable Energy Engineering) inside fourteen high schools. For the descriptive part of the analysis, they examine all first-time ninth graders in 2014–15 and 2015–16. They find that academy enrollees are less likely to be minority, more likely to be male, and generally higher achieving than their peers within the same schools who did not enroll in an academy.

For the causal analysis, they examine outcomes for one large academy (Apex Academy of Information Technology) that has admitted students by lottery since 2009–10. They receive about twice as many applications as seats, so researchers are able to identify causal effects of participation in the career academy on measures such as performance, high school graduation, and college going for roughly 500 students. Unlike students who attend the regular high school, Apex Academy has technology-based paid internships for all juniors, a four-year sequence of IT courses, and soft skills training, among other offerings.

Analysts find that enrolling in Apex Academy increases the likelihood of graduating from high school by about 8 percentage points, which is mostly driven by the impacts on male students. The academy also increased the likelihood of college attendance within one year of graduation by about 8 percentage points as well, though it had no impact on the type of college enrolled. Again, this overall effect on college-going is driven by males (estimates show that about 92 percent of male attendees in the academy will attend college versus about 78 percent of their non-academy male counterparts). The career academy also reduced the number of absences for a typical ninth grader by about 1.4 days.

On the other hand, there is little to no effect of Apex Academy enrollment on academic achievement on average or for specific subgroups as measured by the ACT, which is the mandatory exam for all high school juniors in the Tar Heel State. Nor is there impact of Apex enrollment on AP course taking or passing the AP exam.

In a succinct summary of their research, authors state, “Our evidence suggests that boys responded to the technology-rich, applied academic setting of Apex Academy of Information Technology while girls did not.” Obviously the study focused on one career academy located in technology-rich Research Triangle so we can’t apply these findings elsewhere. Still, we’re starting to see in the school choice literature a pattern of particular impacts for particular subgroups (low-income, females, males, students in urban schools, etc.) which hopefully sets the stage for the next chapter of empirical research—the conditions under which different choices prove most beneficial for which students.

SOURCE: Steven W. Hemelt et al., “Building better bridges to life after high school: Experimental evidence on contemporary career academies,” CALDER (January 2017).

Amber M. Northern, Ph.D.
Amber M. Northern, Ph.D. is the Senior Vice President for Research at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.