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October 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 2

Do Magnet Schools Boost Achievement?

In the face of great challenges to our urban school systems, many believe that schools with specially defined missions, such as magnet schools, offer better academic opportunities to urban youth. But how successful are urban magnet schools? Do they promote higher achievement?
Until now, little evidence has been available to answer such questions. Using a recent national survey, I undertook research to get some answers. I compared student achievement in magnet schools, comprehensive public high schools, and both Catholic and secular private schools (see Gamoran 1996). My research was supported by a federal grant to the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Reinvesting Social Capital

In recent years, magnet schools have proliferated in urban areas, largely as a result of their role in desegregation efforts (Steel and Levine 1994). But for purposes of raising achievement scores, desegregation is not as important as the school's distinctive mission, which can serve as the focal point for building a community of teachers, parents, and students.
This is especially critical in inner-city school districts, which often lack what James Coleman (1990) refers to as "social capital"—that is, strong social networks in which norms, expectations, trust, and a sense of interpersonal obligations prevail. Recent decades have seen the withdrawal of institutions that once anchored these communities—businesses, social clubs, and churches, for example (Wilson 1987). This exodus, combined with the deterioration of family structure, has left many teenagers without positive role models and social networks to give their lives direction (Anderson 1990).
Coleman argues that schools with specially focused missions are needed to help overcome this family and community breakdown. As students engage in a common mission, they may form strong social ties. Unfortunately, most American teenagers attend comprehensive high schools whose goals tend to be unfocused and diffuse. They often fail to provide students with strong academic guidance and a sense of purpose, and fail to engage students in serious academic work (Newmann 1992). Because these schools are designed to be all things to all people, their critics maintain, they are not well suited to the complexities of today's society (Powell et al. 1985).
Coleman suggests that Catholic and independent schools, with their distinctive missions, might better serve many students' needs (Coleman and Hoffer 1987). So, too, might magnet schools and other specialized public schools. When families choose a magnet school, they are asserting an interest in the school's particular mission, and this links them with other families and teachers who have presumably chosen the school for similar reasons (Doyle and Levine 1984).
When I began my study, I speculated that student achievement would be higher in magnet schools than in comprehensive public schools. I reasoned that students would form social relationships around the magnet schools' specialized aims and that this would lead to better academic experiences. I was right about the achievement differences; I found that students in magnet schools did score higher on science, reading, and social studies tests than did students in comprehensive public schools. I was wrong, however, about the reasons for these higher scores.

A National Cross Section

As the basis of my research, I used data compiled by the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) (Ingels et al. 1992). Beginning in 1988, the study tracked the achievement of some 24,000 8th graders from public and private schools across the United States. The researchers administered tests in various subjects and also distributed questionnaires to students, teachers, parents, and administrators. In my study, I examined the resulting data from the base year (1988) and the first follow-up (1990), thus monitoring the students' achievement from 8th to 10th grade.
There were advantages and disadvantages to using these national data to measure the effects of magnet schools. On the one hand, the sample was wide-ranging and broad, and so was likely to capture the national picture. On the other hand, there wasn't much depth of information about the schools. In particular, too few magnet schools were involved and there was too little detail to distinguish among the many types of magnet schools.
For the most part, I concentrated on 48 stand-alone public magnet schools—in other words, schools that are not schools-within-schools. (The longitudinal study included schools-within-schools, but unfortunately did not distinguish magnet students from students in the same schools who were not in the school-within-school program.) Because magnet schools are most often found in urban areas and the problems of urban schools are most profound, I restricted my study to schools in areas defined by the Census Bureau as a central city in a Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area.
I compared student achievement in the 48 magnet schools to achievement in 213 comprehensive public schools, 57 Catholic schools, and 39 secular private schools, for a total of some 3,000 students in my study. I examined achievement tests in four subjects: math, science, reading, and social studies.
From student questionnaires, I obtained data on gender, race, ethnicity, and family structure (single-parent or two-parent). Parent questionnaires offered information on the socioeconomic status of students' families. And from administrators' questionnaires I drew information on the schools' racial, ethnic, economic, and family composition.

Public vs. Private

At first glance, I observed large achievement differences among the four types of high schools. Students in both types of private schools (Catholic and secular) outperformed students in public schools. The lowest achievement in all four subjects occurred in the comprehensive public schools. On the math test, where the average score was 38 points, students in comprehensive public schools scored 4 points below students in Catholic schools and 11 points below students in secular private schools. On the science, reading, and social studies tests, where average scores ranged from 14-22 points, students in comprehensive public schools lagged 1-3 points behind Catholic school students, and 4-6 points behind those in secular private schools.
These raw differences can be misleading, however, because different types of students attend the different types of schools. In particular, I found that white students and those of higher socioeconomic status were overrepresented in private schools and underrepresented in public magnet schools as compared to public comprehensive schools. Therefore, the question arose, to what extent were the achievement differences due to differences among the students and to what extent were they "value added" by the schools themselves?
To address this question, I added statistical controls for the students' prior achievement, gender, race, ethnicity, and family structure, and for the different compositions of the schools. Through this technique, we could compare students who were similar to one another and whose schools (in all four categories) were composed of similar types of students.
After making these adjustments, most of the achievement differences between public and private schools disappeared. This indicates that most of the original differences resulted from different types of students, not from "value added" by the schools. In math, Catholic school students ranked the highest, and the difference between their scores and those of students in the comprehensive public schools was statistically significant. In other subjects, however, differences between Catholic schools and comprehensive public schools were small and insignificant. These findings are displayed in Figure 1, which uses comprehensive public schools as the reference point.

Figure 1. Student Achievement in Specialized Urban High Schools Compared to Public Comprehensive Schools

In math and science, student achievement in secular private schools was similar to that in comprehensive public schools. In reading and social studies, student achievement in secular private schools appeared to be below that of students in comprehensive public schools, but these differences were not statistically significant. Therefore, once we took into account the different types of students who attended these schools, we concluded that there were no achievement differences between students in public comprehensive schools and in private secular schools.

Magnets Do Well

In public magnet schools, achievement was higher than that in public comprehensive schools in all four subjects (see Figure 1). In science, reading, and social studies, these gaps were statistically significant. The magnet school advantages, however, were only about one point or less. So how meaningful were these differences?
As a benchmark, I calculated the achievement differences between students who dropped out before the middle of 10th grade and those who stayed in school. I controlled these calculations for prior achievement, race, gender, ethnicity, and family structure. (I included all students, not just those in urban schools, because the data did not indicate which dropouts would have attended urban schools.)
The benchmark comparisons now looked like this: In science and reading, the achievement advantage of the magnet school students over the comprehensive public school students was about as large as the advantage of students who stayed in school over those who dropped out. In social studies, the advantage of magnet students over those of comprehensive public school students was more than one and one-half times the advantage of students who stayed in school over those who dropped out.
Thus, I concluded that the achievement benefits of magnet schools were substantial. (By contrast, the advantage of Catholic school students in math was relatively small—less than a quarter of the size of the gap between dropouts and those who stayed in school.)

Revising the Theory

To test my hypothesis that student achievement would be highest in magnet schools, I examined three conditions at the four types of schools: (1) school climate, measured by the principal's agreement with statements such as "Students place a high priority on learning" or "Teacher morale is high"; (2) students' social bonding to schools, gauged by their agreement with statements such as "Teachers are interested in students" or "There is real school spirit"; and (3) the number of courses students took in math, science, English, and social studies.
These conditions did account for the Catholic school students' achievement advantage in math over that of public comprehensive school students. They did not, however, account for the advantages of magnet students over comprehensive school students in science, reading, and social studies.
What, then, did account for the higher achievement of magnet school students? There are two possibilities. One is that social relationships are stronger, but need to be measured in different ways. For example, the questions could focus more directly on relationships between teachers and students and among students, as well as on how those academic concerns are handled in these relationships. A second possibility is that, to attract students, magnet schools may receive additional resources from their sponsoring school districts (Steel and Levine 1994) and use these resources to help students academically.

Qualified Support for School Choice

This study's findings are encouraging for advocates of public school choice at the high school level. The fact that magnet school students scored higher on science, reading, and social studies tests than did students in public comprehensive schools strengthens the case for creating specialized public schools in urban districts.
Several caveats are in order, however. First, the study did not distinguish among the many different types of magnet schools. Although magnet schools appear to have positive effects on average, this finding no doubt masks important differences.
Second, the study may not show the full effects of school choice. It revealed achievement advantages for students who attend magnet schools, but did not show what happens to students who live in the same districts as the magnet schools but do not attend them. Do these students suffer educationally when their peers are siphoned off to magnet schools? This question deserves close attention.
The study is less favorable for supporters of private school choice. Although Catholic schools exhibited higher achievement in math, if public schools created a comparably focused academic environment, this difference would likely disappear. More strikingly, secular private schools appear to have no achievement advantages, a finding that is consistent with Witte's (1996) assessment of the Milwaukee private school voucher program. As with magnet schools, however, private schools are a diverse group, and the average finding of no achievement differences may be hiding benefits in some schools and disadvantages in others.

Anderson, E. (1990). Streetwise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coleman, J. (1990). Foundations of Social Theory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Coleman, J. S., and T. Hoffer. (1987). Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities. New York: Basic Books.

Doyle, D. P., and M. Levine. (1984). "Magnet Schools: Choice and Quality in Public Education." Phi Delta Kappan 65: 265-270.

Gamoran, A. (1996). "Student Achievement in Public Magnet, Public Comprehensive, and Private City High Schools." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 18: 1-18.

Ingels, S. J., L. A. Scott, J. T. Lindmark, M. R. Frankel, and S. L. Myers. (1992). National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 First Follow-Up: Student Component Data File User's Manual. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics.

Newmann, F. M., ed. (1992). Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Powell, A., E. Farrar, and D. K. Cohen. (1985). The Shopping-Mall High School. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Steel, L., and R. Levine. (1994). Educational Innovation in Multiracial Contexts: The Growth of Magnet Schools in American Education. Palo Alto, Calif.: American Institutes for Research.

Wilson, W. J. (1987). The Truly Disadvantaged. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Witte, J. (1996). "Who Benefits from the Milwaukee Choice Program?" In Who Chooses? Who Loses?, edited by B. Fuller and R. F. Elmore, pp. 118-137 New York: Teachers College Press.

End Notes

1 The Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded the grant to the institute. The views expressed here, which are based on that research, are my own.

2 In this analysis I relied on ordinary least squares regression, although I also used more sophisticated statistical techniques (multi-level models and selection-bias models) and obtained comparable results.

3 That is, the difference was measured precisely enough that we could be confident the difference in the wider population of students was greater than zero.

Adam Gamoran has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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