Magnet Schools 1
Running Head: EFFECTS OF MAGNET SCHOOLS
The Effects of Magnet School Themes on Student Post-Secondary and Career Aspirations
Melinda M. Stapley
Sam Houston State University
July 15, 2003
Magnet Schools 2
Magnet schools were created as a voluntary means of desegregation and an
alternative to forced bussing for many school districts with desegregation plans. “In
addition to their desegregation role, magnet schools also serve to enhance the educational
opportunities that are available to all students through parent and student choice.”
(Poppell, & Hauge, 2001, p.2) As Bank & Spencer (1997, p.4) state, “…magnet schools
and programs are part of a larger effort to reform American education by increasing the
choices and opportunities available to all students.”
The purpose of the research is to identify findings that either support or refute the
extent to which high school magnet programs and their themes are related to student
achievement and aspirations. This research focuses on the effects of Magnet School
themes on student post-secondary and career aspirations. The literature related to magnet
schools and other schools of choice has, for the sake of this research, been categorized by
three themes. These themes surround the study of magnet schools and the effects on
student achievement, magnet schools and effective desegregation, and the effects of
magnet schools on student perceptions and aspirations.
Magnet Schools 3
The controversy of the performance of public schooling in providing quality education
for students is an active debate as school districts and leaders work towards quality school
reform. Several ideas and strategies have been implemented in school reform with school choice
being one that is widely promoted. Magnet schools are the most widely used as a school choice
option (Poppell, & Hauge, 2001).
Magnet schools began in the 1980s and 1990s as a voluntary means of desegregation.
School districts that were under court-ordered desegregation implemented magnet schools to aid
in the desegregation process as an alternative to forced bussing. Magnet schools give parents a
choice regarding the education of their children and offer special programs and opportunities to
students. There are other methods of school choice that are implemented across the country and
each channel of school choice has been brought about for different reasons. Other venues of
school choice include voucher systems, charter schools, and open enrollment options. Minnesota,
for example, implements a statewide open enrollment system that allows parents in any district
to send their children to any other district providing the receiving school has room and the
transfer doesn’t harm integration efforts and they must provide their own transportation
(Cookson et al., 1997). Additionally, Milwaukee, Wisconsin implemented the first voucher
choice plan in 1990. This plan was designed to allow low-income families access to private
education. Selected students receive public money to attend any nonsectarian private school
(Cookson et al., 1997). Interestingly, magnet schools and open enrollment systems are the only
systems described that allow students to remain in the public school system.
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Statement of the problem
The initial implementation of magnet schools was to provide a voluntary approach to
desegregating public schools through choice. The school choice approach required the magnet
schools to develop innovative and specialized curriculum and academic experiences. Magnet
schools publicize and recruit based on the unique educational opportunities at each campus. The
goal is to recruit and retain magnet students that will diversify the public school by providing an
opportunity for students to experience innovative and valuable education. Magnet schools
provide advanced and specialized studies in themes ranging from Montessori and International
Baccalaureate, the fine arts, and technological fields such as engineering or technology.
Primarily the study will include nationally researching high school magnet programs in
engineering, technology, and the fine arts to identify if there is a correlation between students
experiencing specialized learning and the percentage of students pursing aspirations in the
respective related high education or career choices. A comparison will be established between
magnet schools and their traditional school counterparts representing similar demographics. The
data acquired will be used to identify if there is a statistically significant difference in the number
or percentage of students in magnet programs that pursue the identified fields over the number or
percentage of students from traditional campuses pursuing the same fields.
Statement of the Purpose
The purpose of this study is to identify a correlation, if any, between the number of
students attending high school magnet programs in the areas of engineering, technology and the
fine arts and the number of students pursuing careers or higher education in theses fields. This
study will give numbers to the intuition that magnet schools do in fact assist students in career
choices. If magnet schools do in fact produce a statistically significantly larger number of student
Magnet Schools 5
pursuing careers or higher education in areas related to magnet themes, this study may open a
door for school and business relations. This study will also give feedback to magnet schools.
Magnet and theme based schools will be able to see if these programs have significant effects on
student futures or if they are merely interesting vehicles for a high school education.
There is a statistically significant difference in the number or percentage of magnet
students that pursue postsecondary education or related career fields in the areas of their
specialized studies in magnet programs as compared to their traditional school counterparts.
There is no statistically significant difference in the number or percentage of magnet
students that pursue postsecondary education or related career fields in the areas of their
specialized studies in magnet programs as compared to their traditional school counterparts.
Significance of the Study
The need for school reform is becoming greater, as the topic of school reform is
discussed more and more frequently. With the implementation of No Child Left Behind many
school agencies are struggling for ways to ensure student success. Much research has been
conducted regarding the impact of magnet schools on student achievement, and some of the data
are contradictory, as discussed in the literature review section. One area that has not been fully
studied is the impact of magnet schools on student aspirations and post-secondary choices.
Magnet schools are currently one of the top four school choice options. However, if data
can be gathered to show that students who attend magnet schools are statistically significantly
more apt to attend college or enter career fields related to their area of study in magnet themes it
would give magnet schools added validation. Magnet schools may have been originally
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implemented to reduce racial isolation as a result of a court order, but they may have an even a
further reach of impact if magnet schools are producing more college students and specialized
technical workers than their traditional high school counterparts.
Definition of Terms
The terms used in this research study include the term magnet school, which is defined by
Magnet Schools of America as the voluntary component of a district’s mandated desegregation
that offers special enrichment programs. Another term, traditional school refers to the general
comprehensive public high school found in most urban and suburban school districts. Finally, the
term themes refers to the special enrichment programs offered at magnet schools. The themes
that this study focuses on are engineering, technology, and the arts.
The three main questions of this research are:
1. Do students who attend a magnet high school aspire to and attend college in fields of
study related to high school magnet themes in statistically significantly larger numbers
than students who attend a traditional high school?
2. Do students who attend a magnet high school aspire to and attend college in statistically
significantly larger numbers than students attending traditional high schools?
3. Do students attending a magnet high school enter career fields related to high school
magnet themes in statistically significantly higher numbers than students who attend
traditional high schools?
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The main variable that the researcher will be unable to control is the number of survey
responses completed. The researcher will also be unable to control the number of students in
each school that have access to the Internet to complete the survey.
The variables that the researcher is able to control include that 15 magnet and 15
traditional high schools will be selected. The researcher will conduct the survey via the Internet.
Additionally, the researcher will only solicit responses from students who are currently seniors
and students who have graduated high school within the last three years. Also, the researcher will
only select magnet schools that do not have academic entrance requirements for attendance.
Magnet schools were created as a voluntary means of desegregation and an alternative to
forced bussing for many school districts with desegregation plans. “In addition to their
desegregation role, magnet schools also serve to enhance the educational opportunities that are
available to all students through parent and student choice.” (Poppell, & Hauge, 2001, p.2) As
Bank and Spencer (1997, p.4) state, “…magnet schools and programs are part of a larger effort
to reform American education by increasing the choices and opportunities available to all
students.” The literature related to magnet schools and other schools of choice has, for the sake
of this research, been categorized by three themes. These themes surround the study of magnet
schools and the effects on student achievement, magnet schools and effective desegregation, and
the effects of magnet schools on student perceptions and aspirations. Magnet schools have
grown in number since the first schools of choice were implemented in the late 1960s and early
Magnet Schools 8
1970s (Waldrip, 2000). Magnet schools as a whole began implementation by many large districts
in the late 1980s and 1990s (Poppell, & Hauge, 2001). Along with this growth, questions have
flourished regarding the effectiveness of such schools of choice. This research paper will
examine some of the research on effectiveness of magnet schools regarding student achievement,
magnet schools as effective desegregation tools, and effectiveness of magnet schools regarding
student perceptions and aspirations.
Magnet Schools and Student Achievement
There are differing results of studies in the area of school choice and the effects on
student achievement. In a study conducted by Lee, Coladarci, and Donaldson (1996), in an
attempt to assess the effects of school choice on student academic commitment and achievement,
Lee et al. determined that school choice had no affect on either academic commitment or
academic achievement of students. Academic commitment was defined as behaviors such as;
paying attention in class, participating in class, turning in work on time, and completing more
work than assigned (Lee et al. 1996). Academic achievement was defined by the results of four
achievement tests administered during the student’s senior year. Lee et al. did acknowledge the
fact that magnet schools may have affective consequences on students in spite of the fact that this
study did not show academic consequences. However, notable in this study of 8,827 students,
only 14% of the students in the sample were categorized as exercising school choice. This small
number was attributed to the fact that he had stringent guidelines on the variable of school
Poppell and Hauge (2001), examined the effectiveness of magnet schools in Jacksonville,
Florida based on several factors including; unique and innovative programs, desegregation,
academic achievement of all students, and parent and community participation. These
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committees were formed using the Magnet Schools of America criteria for the Magnet Schools
of Merit Award (Poppell & Hauge, 2001). Poppell and Hauge created committees to research
each of the areas stated above. This was a daunting task because the district, Duval County
Public Schools, had created magnet schools at approximately 78 of the 150 schools. The
academic achievement variable was studied using achievement tests for grades 4,5,8, and 10
because data were available over several years, and both magnet and non-magnet students’
results were available to study.
In the area of academic achievement, the results of the study are shown below:
1. Academic achievement for magnet students exceeds non-magnet academic achievement
at all levels – elementary, middle, and high schools.
2. In the dedicated academic magnet schools, academic achievement exceeds the district
3. Academic achievement for disadvantaged magnet students, those eligible for free or
reduced lunch, exceeds that of disadvantaged non-magnet students. (Poppell, & Hauge,
In a different study, Adcock and Phillips (2000) stated that school performance is often more
related to student demographics than anything about what the school is doing or the school itself.
The Adcock and Phillips’ study also focused on the effectiveness of magnet school, however,
one of the areas controlled for was student demographics. Adcock and Phillips’ study was called
the value added school assessment system and is defined by the following,
That is, school effectiveness is the extracted measured contribution of the school
from the student test results. The ‘value-added’ model measures school
effectiveness using a statistical model that accounts, to the extent possible, for all
Magnet Schools 10
of the non-school factors that contribute to growth in student achievement.
(Adcock, & Phillips, 2000, p. 3)
The findings included that students in magnet programs performed as well or better than students
in non-magnet programs. In further study, however, findings determined that when student prior
ability or IQ was taken into account, there was no longer a statistically significant difference
between the academic achievement of the magnet and non-magnet students. “However, this
outcome is largely due to the fact that more able students are self selected for the magnet
program.” (Adcock, & Phillips, 2000, p. 14)
A study on the outcomes of career magnet schools and comprehensive high schools in
New York City looked at students who were randomly selected to attend the career magnet high
schools and compared data from these students with data collected from students who were
randomly denied attendance to the same high schools and conversely attended neighborhood
comprehensive high schools. This study found that students attending career magnet high
schools cut class less frequently than their comprehensive high school counterparts (Flaxman,
Guerrero, & Gretchen, 1999) Additionally, Flaxman et al. discovered that students attending
career magnet schools were significantly less likely to engage in at-risk behaviors such as
fighting, smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs than their counterparts at comprehensive high
schools. These factors affecting student achievement were listed as no-risk by 41% of students
attending the career magnet high schools as compared with only 19% of comprehensive high
school students (Flaxman et al., 1999). The aspirations of these students are discussed in a later
section of this research paper. However, this study appears to show that students attending the
career magnet high schools constructed healthier outlooks on life than their counterparts at
comprehensive high schools.
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The discussion continues revolving around student achievement in magnet schools.
Researchers from all sides of the spectrum grapple with the question, Do magnet schools
increase student achievement over traditional counterparts, or are smarter students selecting to
attend magnet schools rather than traditional schools? As stated previously, there is evidence for
Magnet Schools and Effective Desegregation
Magnet schools were initially introduced into the educational system as a means for
voluntary desegregation of schools. Magnet schools provide parents and students with choices
regarding education rather than forced bussing to integrate school districts. Research has been
conducted to see if magnet schools have effectively met this original objective. According to
Poppell and Hauge (2001) researchers question the effectiveness of magnet schools in meeting
desegregation goals. One report indicated that only half of the schools targeted for desegregation
were able to meet their objectives. In the study of magnet schools in Jacksonville, Florida,
Poppell and Hauge (2001) noted that of the district’s 78 magnet schools, 47% met minimum
desegregation requirements of the court order. Not addressed in the study, but one question that
is raised surrounds the effect of magnet schools on the other schools in the district. If 47% of
magnet schools are meeting desegregation requirements, what effect does that have on the
traditional schools the students are coming from? Are the magnet schools pulling students from
traditional schools and thereby placing two schools in compliance at once? This is a possibility
that was not addressed in the discussion, but may warrant further study.
In the discussion of the study, Poppell and Hauge make two important points. Poppell and Hauge
state that magnet schools have improved integration of the student population in the school
district, however, magnet schools alone cannot provide integration for the entire school system
Magnet Schools 12
(Poppell, & Hauge, 2001). The study was conducted in a large district comprised of
approximately 150 total schools. One argument may contend that in a district so large, a small
number of magnet schools may only have the effect of a drop in the bucket, even if the magnet
schools are highly effective. The statement below is yet another example of how magnet schools
have become effective schools in many ways, but may have missed the purpose for which they
were chiefly intended.
Cookson and Shroff (1997) explored urban schools and their school choice plans,
In Massachusetts choice has primarily been a means to achieve racial and ethnic
balance in schools. Experiments with choice grew out of efforts to attract whites
to inner-city schools. In the mid-1970s, Massachusetts created magnet schools to
promote desegregation, and though they did expand the school options, they left
schools more racially imbalanced than before. (Cookson, & Shroff, 1997, p.4)
However, Cookson and Shroff (1997) did note that other choice programs were effective
in reducing the racial isolation of students. The article cited Minnesota’s statewide open
enrollment option as stimulating a noticeable increase in ethnic diversity in public schools
across the state. Further noted in Cookson and Shroff’s study magnet schools in New York City
have effectively worked to reduce racial and ethnic segregation because of the large number of
magnet schools and the fact that admission to these schools is based on a random lottery system,
thereby not limiting admission to only advanced students. Magnet schools are effective in the
desegregation endeavor as long as the selection process is random and allows all students to
apply and gain admission. When admission to programs is limited to academic ability, magnet
schools are accused of what is called creaming which is pulling the top students away from other
schools and leaving the low students behind (Cookson, & Shroff, 1997).
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The Effects of Magnet Schools on Student Perceptions and Aspirations
In a study conducted by Plucker and Others (1996) comparing the aspirations of students
attending a math and science magnet with those of students attending a traditional school, results
show that magnet students had higher levels of aspirations, achievement motivation, general
enjoyment of life, and perceptions of school climate conditions. One thing to note about this
study is that the students attending the magnet school were of a higher academic ability than
students attending the general school. Although the general sample did contain students of high
ability, student intelligence or ability was not accounted for in the survey process (Plucker et al.,
1996). This case is essentially an exception to the other studies presented. The study conducted
by Plucker et al. was essentially a study of gifted student aspirations compared to aspirations of
students of regular ability. The other studies described below are studies in which magnet
schools service students of all ability levels.
Bank and Spencer (1997) conducted a study of graduates of Southwest High School
regarding their educational aspirations, achievement, and participation in a magnet program.
The study was a survey sent to graduates within a four-year span collecting data regarding
participant’s academic aspirations and achievements since graduating high school. Another
question asked if while in high school, students were participants in a magnet program or if they
followed the general course of study. Bank and Spencer (1997) stated,
It seems likely that students who attend a special program come to see themselves
as special persons. This sense of specialness should be particularly high among
those who successfully graduated from the magnet programs, and it should result
in higher educational achievement and aspirations after graduation for magnet
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students than for those who graduated from the regular program of the school. (p.
Bank and Spencer also found that self-esteem of high school graduates and participation
in the magnet program were correlated with educational aspirations. However, Bank and Spencer
discovered that there was no significant relationship between participation in magnet programs
and educational achievement (Bank, & Spencer, 1997). This latter finding is consistent with
findings discussed in earlier sections. Additionally, Bank and Spencer felt that given more time
between graduation and the study, more students would have had an opportunity for more
educational achievements (i.e. Greater number of semesters of college and/or advanced degrees),
and therefore would be a correlation between participation in a magnet program and academic
achievement of graduates.
Another study conducted in New York City comparing students in career magnet high
schools with those in comprehensive high schools showed that more career magnet graduates
planned on attending college than their comprehensive high school counterparts. The New York
City also showed that of all the graduates attending college, career high school graduates took
more college credits than their counterparts (Flaxman et al., 1999). In addition to these findings,
Crain, Allen, and Little, (1999) found that students enrolling in courses that prepared them for
jobs immediately upon graduation had negative effects on academic performance. Crain et al.,
stated, “Indeed, a commitment to placing a student in employment after graduation seems to lead
to a de-emphasis on academic performance.” (Crain et al., 1999, p.2)
A difficulty is presented in deciphering if the reason magnet schools generally have a
positive effect on student achievement and aspirations is because magnet schools are superior
Magnet Schools 15
school environments of if students feel special for attending special schools and therefore are
merely living self-fulfilling prophecies.
In addition to the research discussed thus far, there are areas of magnet schools that did
not fit in one of the categories previously, but are nonetheless noteworthy. One of these studies
compared the effective principal leadership between magnet and non-magnet schools. Hausman
and Goldring (1996) asked two questions in their research study, these questions are:
1. Do differences exist between magnet and non-magnet teachers’ ratings of effective
2. What influences do school background characteristics, student achievement, teacher
professionalism, and other workplace conditions exert on teachers’ ratings of effective
principal leadership? (Hausman, & Goldring, 1996, p.7)
Contrary to popular belief, Hausman and Goldring found that non-magnet principals were rated
as more effective by their teachers than principals of magnet schools. One of the explanations of
this finding is that principals of magnet schools have additional responsibilities than principals of
non-magnet schools. These responsibilities include marketing to recruit and retain students,
creating business and community partnerships to enhance the theme of the school, and greater
parent involvement. Since the principals must spend time focusing on additional areas of
responsibility, this may cause some teachers to perceive magnet principals as less visible and
aware of what is going on in the school (Hausman, & Goldring1996). Whatever the case, these
findings are surely different than original assumptions.
Other research of note surrounds the fact that the largest indicator of student achievement
is not race or ethnicity, but rather socio-economic status of the families. In his book, All Together
Magnet Schools 16
now, Kahlenberg (2001) discusses the fact that when poor students attend school with other poor
students this situation creates a double handicap. When this is pared with the fact that poor
students attend poor schools in poor neighborhoods these conditions result in education that is
unequal that of middle-class America. Kahlenberg proposes that school choice initiatives focus
on integration of students of differing socio-economic status rather than students of differing race
Magnet schools and their effects have been studied in a variety of ways. Not all studies
have included large samples of data, or even effectively controlled variables. This results in
differing, even conflicting data and results of similar studies. One area that deserves further study
and more evidence is the area of student aspirations and actual plans for post-secondary pursuits.
Why magnet schools are effective is not entirely clear, but seems to be a meld of different
reasons and the whole seems greater than the sum of the parts. Perhaps the cause is curriculum
and instruction, possibly feeling special, or maybe the cause is the organization or leadership of
the school. For the most part, whatever the reason, students who attend magnet schools are
changed for the better in many ways. Some students may experience greater levels of academic
achievement, some may experience higher levels of aspirations or self-esteem, and others may
merely feel special for having the opportunity to attend a different, specialized school. Further
research is needed to identify more concretely what effects magnet school have on students for
long range goals and achievements.
Magnet Schools 17
The data will be collected using a survey to be distributed to seniors, who will graduate in
spring, of magnet schools with a focus in engineering, technology, or the arts. This survey will
also be distributed to recent graduates of the same magnet high schools who have graduated
within the past three years. The same survey will be distributed to seniors at traditional high
schools. The traditional high schools are schools that have been identified as having similar
demographics as the magnet high schools. Additionally, recent graduates of the identified
traditional high schools will also be sent surveys. The surveys ask participants to identify current
academic and/or career situations and high school situation (magnet or traditional). Participants
are also asked about future aspirations regarding school and career choices.
The sample will include participants from fifteen large magnet high schools and fifteen
traditional schools. Contacts for the distribution of surveys to the magnet schools will be made
through colleagues in the Magnet Schools of America organization. Traditional high schools will
be found through contacts in the public school system. Participants will be asked to complete an
anonymous survey through the Internet. Results will be tabulated at a web-based database and
the researcher may access the results at any time.
Students in their senior year of high school will be contacted via email through their
school principal and will be asked to complete the electronic survey. Recent graduates will be
contacted via email by the researcher directly. All survey information will be stored at a web-
based database and will be accessed by the researcher.
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Information from the surveys will be coded into numerical data that can be analyzed
using the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS) software. A correlation will be
analyzed between magnet schools and traditional schools and the number of students pursuing
studies in theme-related fields.
This research is intended to show that magnet schools are much more than just a method
to integrate school districts. Magnet schools are innovative learning environments that give
students opportunities beyond the traditional school setting. Magnet schools give students a
special pride related to the fact that they are involved in a special program. This special feeling
may be enough to encourage students to go to college who might otherwise not. The researcher
hopes that this study will give magnet schools extra validity as a school choice option,
encouraging students to remain in the public school system.
The effects of magnet school themes on student career and education aspirations are an
area in need of more study. Any research at this point in time is merely scratching the surface of
the potential magnet schools hold.
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Adcock, E.P., & Phillips, G.W. (2000, April). Accountability evaluation of magnet school
programs: A value-added model approach. Retrieved July 2, 2003 from the ERIC
Bank, B.J., & Spencer, D.A. (1997, March). Effects of magnet programs on educational
achievement and aspirations. Retrieved July 2, 2003 from the ERIC database.
Cookson, P.W., & Shroff, S.M. (1997). Recent experiences with urban school choice plans.
Office of Educational Research and Improvement. Retrieved July 2, 2003 from the ERIC
Crain, R.L., Allen, A., & Little, J.W. (1999). The effects of career magnet schools. Columbia
University, Institute on Education and the Economy. Retrieved July 2, 2003 from the
Flaxman, E., Guerrero, A., & Gretchen, D. (1999, June). Career development effects of career
magnets versus comprehensive schools. National Center for Research in Vocational
Education. Retrieved July 13, 2003 from http://ncrve.berkley.edu/AllInOne/MDS-
Hausman, C.S., & Goldring, E.B. (1996, October). Teachers’ ratings of effective principal
leadership: A comparison of magnet and nonmagnet schools. Retrieved July 1, 2003 from
the ERIC database.
Kahlenberg, R.D. (2001). All together now: Creating middle-class schools through public school
choice. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
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Lee, D., Coladarci, T., & Donaldson, G.A. (1996, April). Effects of school choice on academic
commitment and academic achievement: Evidence from NELS:88. Retrieved July 1,
2003 from the ERIC database.
Plucker, J., et al. (1996, October). Aspirations of students attending a science and mathematics
residential magnet school. Retrieved July 6, 2003 from the ERIC database.
Poppell, J.B., & Hague, S.A. (2001, April). Examining indicators to assess the overall
effectiveness of magnet schools: A study of magnet schools in Jacksonville, Florida.
Retrieved July 12, 2003 from the ERIC database.
Waldrip, D. (2000). A brief history and philosophy of magnet schools. Retrieved July 11, 2003