When shopping for a new home, a buyer requires some basics. Perhaps the most important requirement is a good foundation. The reality is that time can erode the foundation of any structure—no matter the material used, the location, or the upkeep. You could make the same argument in the case of magnet schools.
Magnet schools have been a part of the U.S. education system for almost 50 years. They were first used in response to the Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) ruling, in which the Supreme Court held that segregated schools are inherently unequal and are therefore unconstitutional. Parents, policymakers, and administrators viewed magnet schools as a better option for integrating schools than the other available options, such as busing. Magnet schools continue to educate millions of students, even as court orders to desegregate are lifted: in 2015, magnet schools enrolled slightly more students than charter schools (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016).
The context of magnet schools has changed dramatically since their first use, however, and these changes have complicated magnet schools’ efforts to integrate. For example, with its ruling in Parents Involved (2007), the Supreme Court made it more difficult to consider race as a factor in admissions. Additionally, as magnet schools now form part of a larger system of school choice, they face more competition for students and funding. Finally, the Hispanic population has been growing rapidly since the 1960s, and the population of White students in traditional public schools has been declining. Such contextual changes raise questions about how well magnet schools function in the modern education system.
I recently studied the effectiveness of magnet schools in a modern context, using student- and school-level data from one of the nation’s largest urban districts. This district, referred to here as LUD, has over 100 magnet schools that serve a large number of traditionally underserved students. The analysis centered on two major outcomes: integration (racial, socioeconomic, linguistic, and achievement) and student achievement. Two perspectives were used to understand how magnet schools change school and district composition. The microlevel assessment analyzed individual participation in magnet school choice and looked at what student and school characteristics were related to choosing a magnet school. The macrolevel assessment aggregated the actions of individuals and looked at how school and district composition changed as students left traditional public schools for magnet schools. To examine student achievement impacts, I looked for improvements in math and reading scores on a standardized exam. Quasi-experimental methods were used to address the selection bias that arises from the nonrandom assignment of students. Much of the analysis was broken down by magnet type to better understand how different magnet policies influenced the results.
The findings indicated that LUD magnet schools had little effect on district integration and on student achievement in math and reading. Although magnet schools were more integrated than traditional public schools, there was little change in district segregation when students left their zoned schools for nonzoned magnet schools. Thus, magnet schools are moving advantaged students away from traditional public schools in the district. At the same time, the analysis provided little evidence of improvements to student achievement. Most estimates pointed to a null or negative effect.
Although this analysis of integration and student achievement does not provide much evidence of benefit from magnet schools, the results need to be put into context. A limited range of student outcomes was studied here—magnet schools could provide other benefits to students. Additionally, magnet schools are most likely reducing the flow of advantaged students out of the district to other schools of choice, and these students are then mixed into schools that serve nonchoosers.
So do magnet schools need a renovation? There is a mixed bag of evidence. The foundation might have a few cracks. It may be time for magnet schools to consider new strategies to ensure they are benefiting students and communities to the greatest degree possible.
Dr. Julie Harris is a research analyst with expertise in quantitative research on improving college readiness and college-going rates. Julie has experience studying English learner students, law, education finance, and issues surrounding school choice. Julie joined the Education team in 2015, and she is currently working on a five-year Institute of Education Sciences grant to evaluate Florida’s College and Career Readiness Initiative. Julie holds a Ph.D. in educational policy from Michigan State University. She also earned a doctoral specialization in the economics of education, which was sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences through a predoctoral fellowship. She also earned an M.S. in economic research with a minor in geography and a B.A. in economics with a minor in business law from the University of North Texas.
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 490 (1954).
National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Number and enrollment of public elementary and secondary schools, by school level, type, and charter and magnet status. Digest of Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_216.20.asp
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
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The views in this piece represent those of the author alone.