The role of public charter schools in career preparation

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Justin Baer and Julie Strawn

Far too few students have access to the kind of high-quality, career-focused high school education that’ll put them on a path to postsecondary credentials connected to high-demand, high-wage jobs. Charter schools, however, may hold the most promise for quickly scaling up these models.

While well intentioned, pushing all students toward four-year college immediately after high school may do more harm than good. Despite rising enrollment rates over the past three decades, less than 40 percent of students who enroll in a four-year college graduate after four years. Graduation rates for minority students are shockingly low: 21 percent for black students and 30 percent for Hispanic students. Those students who do graduate typically enter the workforce carrying significant debt: among the class of 2015, more than two-thirds had student loan debt, and this debt averaged around $30,000.

These statistics underscore the need for robust career preparation and work-based learning in high school that puts students on a path to success in adulthood. The evidence suggests that high-quality, career-focused education in high school can boost graduation rates, increase future employment and earnings, and lead to higher enrollment in postsecondary education and training. Career pathway approaches hold promise for sustaining that momentum beyond high school, providing clear roadmaps to advancing in the workforce and articulating the education, training, and work experience steps to get there.

Public charter high schools can expand such opportunities. These schools of choice are ideal candidates for innovative career education models, particularly those that cultivate relationships with employers and industries and that aim to align student skills with employer needs. The flexibility afforded charters—in staffing, selection of curricula, structuring the school day, and other organizational features—can be leveraged to support strong, evidence-based models. Many charters, for example, can hire teachers from industry without the constraints of certification requirements and can offer more hours in internships or apprenticeships because they are not bound by seat-time rules. In short, charters may serve as incubators of innovation for career education in high school, illuminating a path to higher employability and earnings, and marketable postsecondary credentials, for students in both charters and traditional public schools. This is especially true of those that adopt two promising models:

  1. Career academies use a combination of small learning communities (“schools within schools”), integrated academic and technical curricula focused on a career theme, and work-based learning opportunities. A random assignment evaluation found that the career academies model produced sustained earnings gains over the eight years post high school, among largely minority students. Students from career academies earned, on average, 11 percent more per year than did students not from the academies, an increase of $16,704 total for each over the follow-up period. Notably, career academies’ largest labor market impacts were for young men, a rare result among youth employment interventions. The National Academy Foundation is a network of especially high quality career academies.
  2. Early College High Schools enable students to work toward a high school diploma and a postsecondary credential at the same time, at no or low cost to the student. A random assignment evaluation of early college high schools found that their students graduated high school at higher rates, and they were more likely to enroll in postsecondary education or training and to earn a postsecondary degree. New research confirms these results, with students graduating high school at higher rates and far more likely to earn postsecondary credentials. Many early college high schools have a career focus, such as health or information technology. The Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) model, for example, provides students beginning in grade nine with a rigorous high school and postsecondary academic and technical education leading to an associate’s degree within six years. P-TECH’s national networks of schools are not selective, and they focus on underrepresented student groups. The model includes a longer school day and school year, and college enrollment is free to families. Its networks have liaisons to college and industry partners, and every student has a business mentor.

Although we know many of the ingredients for successful career preparation models, they remain out of reach for most students and largely untapped by public charter schools. We suggest that the U.S. Department of Education support a “fact-finding” study that will investigate: (1) the features of career preparation models that are most strongly linked to postsecondary employment and earnings; (2) the extent to which public charter schools have adopted these models; and (3) the opportunities and constraints for expanding career preparation models in public charter schools given the schools’ diversity and flexibility.

Armed with this information, ED could then sponsor a comprehensive demonstration program in which the most promising career preparation models are implemented across a range of public charter schools. Participating schools would be selected to capture diversity in students, region, and charter organizational structure, among other key characteristics. The demonstration would be evaluated with a random assignment study to yield valuable information about how charter schools implement career preparation models and the models’ impacts on high school graduation, students’ future employment and earnings, and their attainment of postsecondary credentials tied to in-demand jobs. The results would inform broader implementation of career preparation models, both in public charter schools and in traditional public schools.

Justin Baer is the Education Practice Leader at Abt Associates, where Julie Strawn is a Principal Associate. Justin can be reached at [email protected] and 301-634-1813.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.