Career Academies: A High School Reform That Has Worked

By Becky Smerdon and Aimee Evan (guest authors)

To date, there are only a handful of rigorous research studies on high school reform strategies. One notable exception is a study conducted by one of the National High School Center’s partners, MDRC.[1] The MDRC evaluation shows that students attending career academies have been less likely to drop out than those not in a career academy, have taken more courses, and are more likely to graduate on time.[1] Moreover, career academy students, specifically young men, earn more in the marketplace than do non-career academy students.[1,2]

Career academies typically have three common characteristics; they: (a) are small learning communities, (b) employ a career-theme-embedded college preparatory curriculum, and (c) partner with employers, the community and/or local post-secondary institutions to provide students with opportunities for internships, job shadowing, job talks, and other motivating activities that provide students with real world connections.[3]

Federal programs, such as the Small Learning Communities Program and Race to the Top, indirectly support career academies, and several states have legislation supporting career academies, which are typically implemented in high schools. For example, California provides support for nearly 500 Partnership Career Academies at hundreds of high schools through multiple funding streams. Florida requires that every district have at least one career academy.  And many school districts, often in large urban areas, have restructured their high schools into small learning communities, many of which are career academies. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the New York City Department of Education, and the Houston Independent School District are just a few of the urban systems that have supported and promoted the career academy model as a major strategy for high school reform efforts.[4]

One of the conclusions drawn from MDRC researchers: “Investments in career-related experiences during high school can produce substantial and sustained improvements in the labor market prospects and transitions to adulthood of youth.” As more districts and states create and implement career academies, it is important to note another conclusion drawn by the MDRC researchers: career academies are challenging to implement on a large scale with high levels of fidelity; thus, evaluation findings to date may not apply to programs that are partially implemented or that use only selected features of the career academy approach.[5] In other words, as we are reminded time and again from research and evaluation studies of school reform, implementation is critical.

Guest Authors:  Becky Smerdon is founder and Managing Director of Quill Research Associates, LLC. Aimee Evan is a Senior Research Associate at Quill Research Associates, LLC.


Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.


[1] Kemple, J., & Snipes, J. (2000).  Career academies: Impacts on students' engagement and performance in high school. New York, NY: MDRC; Kemple, J.J., & Willner, C.J. (2008). Career academies: Long term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. New York; NY: MDRC.

[2] For the National High School Study’s publication on this study, see:

[3] Stern, D., Dayton, C., Raby, M. (2000). Career academies: Building blocks for reconstructing American high schools. University of California Berkeley. Career Academy Support Network.

[4] Brand, B. (2009). High school career academies: A 40-year proven model for improving college and career readiness. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

[5] Kemple, J.J., & Willner, C.J. (2008). Career academies: Long term impacts on labor market outcomes, educational attainment, and transitions to adulthood. New York; NY: MDRC.

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