Why Aren’t Magnet Schools More on Educrats’ Radar?

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/08/15/why-arent-magnet-schools-more-on-educrats-radar/

A commemorative issue of Education Next published in the spring of 2016 was devoted to comments on James Coleman’s 1966 report titled “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” In his article in that issue, 

economist and education researcher Eric Hanushek quoted the report’s central conclusion:

… That schools bring little influence to bear on a child’s achievement that is independent of his background and general social context; and that this very lack of an independent effect means that the inequalities imposed on children by their home, neighborhood, and peer environment are carried along to become the inequalities with which they confront adult life at the end of school.

Despite the strong conclusion of the 1966 Coleman Report (commissioned by the Civil Rights Act of 1964) that family background carries more weight than schools and teachers in explaining academic achievement, almost all efforts to improve academic performance by low-achieving students since then have resulted in educational policies, programs, and interventions, and in recent years these initiatives have targeted all students from preschool to college, not just low achievers.

However, despite the billions (if not trillions) of dollars that have been spent on these public and private educational initiatives, they seem to have been mostly ineffective in turning low achievers into higher achievers — to judge by scores on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. High school scores in reading and mathematics are about the same as they were more than 50 years ago.

Educators have never figured out how to turn massive numbers of underachieving adolescents into higher achievers. It has been easier for educators and policy makers to tell legislators they needed to appropriate more money to implement their ideas for educational “reform” (as does former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in his just released book How Schools Work) than to explain why their ideas haven’t worked yet. 

For reasons that are unclear in the historical record, when public officials chose to spend their energies on policies addressing “family background,” they spent it on just a small part of “family background” — low achievers’ peer environment. And they chose to do so by integrating low-achieving minority students with higher achievers to achieve racial integration. The assumption seemed to be that low academic achievement in black children reflected in part the influence of their peers through racial isolation in the schools. (Examples in the modern era include homogeneous remedial classes in elementary or middle schools or in a basic high school track beginning in grade 9.)

Many cities undertook to integrate schools with racially diverse populations. Some did it through compulsory busing schemes. Some did it through redesigning attendance boundary lines. Compulsory schemes often led to violence, chaos, and what was called “white flight.” In Boston, it also led to middle class black flight. Because supporters of compulsory busing assumed that seeing and hearing higher (white) achievers in their classes would motivate low (black) achievers to work harder (even though there was no evidence that this had ever happened on a small or large scale), the scheme was insulting, to boot. Unhappy parents placed their children in private schools or neighboring district schools or moved altogether. Peaceful or not, compulsory school integration did not turn out to be a panacea for low achievement, especially if it caused white students and black middle class students to leave the newly integrated schools.

In some cities, “magnet” high schools were developed allowing high school age students to opt for the kind of high school coursework and specific career training they thought they wanted. Some magnet high schools were “traditional” in the sense that they already were in urban areas. The goal was to attract higher-achieving students from elsewhere to these urban neighborhood-schools-turned-into-magnet-schools.  Some magnet schools were higher-performing “destination” schools converted to magnet schools that sought to attract low-achieving students from elsewhere. Some were built from scratch. Admission could be based on a lottery, an interview, or an application, or on combinations of these methods. Many new vocational/technical high schools were also established starting in the 1970s and received a large Congressional appropriation (the first authorization of the Carl D. Perkins Act) in 1984, with admission in most cases based on an application than on winning a seat by means of a lottery.

Evaluative research on magnet high schools as public schools of “choice” has found mixed results. (See here and here.) Over the years, many of them contributed to higher academic achievement and increased high school graduation rates for their low-income participants compared with their peers in regular high schools; others did not. (See here and here.)

The extent to which magnet schools have contributed to racial integration (their major purpose) is unclear. A comparison of the outcomes of traditional high schools and destination magnet high schools can be located, but not a comparison of magnet high schools and charter high schools with respect to academic outcomes and integration. (Both types of high schools can be public schools of choice.) 

Today, magnet schools and career/technical high schools may be part of a useful array of public schools of “choice” in large urban districts, although, mysteriously, both types of schools are rarely mentioned in discussions of school choice.

Why this is the case is not explained. Both magnet high schools and vocational/technical high schools are schools of choice — both types depend on voluntary enrollment, thus largely avoiding the violence and chaos that compulsory busing or redesigned attendance boundary lines often entailed, and both types of high schools may be part of a centrally administered school district, thus not alienating an already established teachers union. Both types of schools are as accountable to local voters and school boards as regular comprehensive high schools are in a large urban school district. So why have they been so ignored by the research on school choice and by educators still seeking to address the Coleman report? Although there are few in Boston, the national movement behind them still exists.

Perhaps they deserve more attention as concerns about a “resegregated” school system in Boston arise.


Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.