Photo by City Year on Flickr.

Mayor Gray yesterday announced the creation of 9 Career Academies within public high schools.  The Academies will operate as schools-within-schools and provide career-specific internships and occupational training integrated with regular high school coursework.

The Academies, based on a model found nationwide, are expected to boost academic and occupational outcomes of high school students. But Councilmember David Catania, chair of the DC Council Education Committee, questioned the modest scale of the initiative, and a study casts doubt on the extent of the Academies’ impact.

The largest study of Career Academies concludes that they raise earnings for some participants and increase the chance that graduates will marry and raise children. But they do not raise graduation rates.

The Career Academies are a recommendation of a Career and Technical Education Task Force that issued recommendations to Mayor Gray last December.  Students accepted at a participating high school will be eligible to enroll in the Career Academy at that school. 

SchoolAcademy TypeWardSector
Cardozo Education CampusIT1DCPS
Columbia Heights Education CampusHospitality1DCPS
Dunbar High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
McKinley Technology High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
McKinley Technology High SchoolIT5DCPS
Phelps ACE High SchoolEngineering5DCPS
Wilson High SchoolHospitality3DCPS
Friendship Collegiate AcademyIT7Charter
Friendship Tech Prep High SchoolEngineering8Charter

When asked why no DCPS high schools east of the Anacostia River are participating, DCPS spokesperson Melissa Salmanowitz replied, “All DCPS schools were invited to apply. In the future, we hope to explore supporting more academies in more schools and industries.”

Each Career Academy will have 75-100 students, according to State Superintendent of Education Emily Durso. The Academies will last from 9th or 10th grade through 12th grade.

The initiative is small from a funding perspective, only $2.7 million for the planning year, with future funding dependent on annual budgets. Eight Academy Directors and 9 College & Career Coordinators will be hired at a cost of $1.9 million.  No additional teachers will be hired.

Councilmember Catania called the funding “paltry” in an interview with WAMU.  Catania told the Washington Post that “if this city can find $150 million to build a soccer stadium, we can certainly find money to make a commensurate investment in our young people.”

Why don’t Career Academies have more of an impact?

But if the District wants to improve career pathways for high school students, it’s not clear what we should spend more money on. 

The largest study of Career Academies concluded not only that they don’t increase graduation rates, but also that the boost in future earnings was limited to males in the group. And that boost was 17%, or $3,700 per year. These are hardly the dramatic outcomes many have expected from effective career and technical education in high schools.

The study, by education research organization MDRC, is fairly reliable.  It is better than many education studies in that it tracked the same group of students over a period of time. And it compared students in Career Academies to students who applied to those programs but weren’t admitted for lack of space, thus helping to ensure that the two groups studied weren’t fundamentally different due to self-selection.

The Career Academy approach teaches basic education courses in the context of occupational training.  When this approach has been used with adults who lack basic literacy skills, the academic and occupational outcomes have been far better than when the subjects are taught separately. So why isn’t the same true for high school students in Career Academies?

One possible explanation is that the classes for adults put a basic education teacher and an occupational skills trainer in the same classroom, an expensive method. Career Academies simply retrain an existing teacher to integrate occupational skills into academic curriculum.

Is career and technical education in high school a good idea? Are Career Academies the right way to provide it? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they seem to be the ones that education officials in DC should be focusing on.