Magnet Schools Provide Academic and Social Benefits, Study Reports

Casey Cobb, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, speaking with John Brittain during the conference titled Public School Choice in a Post-Desegregation World: What have we learned and where are we going?
Casey Cobb, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, speaking with John Brittain during the conference titled Public School Choice in a Post-Desegregation World: What have we learned and where are we going?

Both white and minority children in Connecticut’s magnet schools showed stronger connections to their peers of other races than students in their home districts, and city students made greater academic gains than students in non-magnet city schools, Casey Cobb and a team of colleagues found in research commissioned by the state.

Cobb, associate professor of education policy and director of the Center for Education Policy Analysis at the Neag School of Education, says an analysis of school climate variables indicating positive racial attitudes favored magnet school populations.

“The likelihood that they would interact with persons of other races was much higher,” Cobb says. “That’s the intent of magnet schools, to bring persons from different backgrounds to create a more vibrant community.”

Cobb, whose research focuses on school choice, desegregation and accountability, collaborated with researchers from Syracuse University and Educational Testing Service on the report of how well magnet schools have given students in Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury access to less isolated environments, racially and economically. The colleagues are also finalizing a similar study of the state’s Open Choice program.

Bruce E. Douglas, executive director of Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford, said, “I recognize and commend Dr. Cobb and his colleagues for the foundation research they did in looking at magnet schools’ ability to measure up to their purpose. … It’s been referenced at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University as one of the seminal pieces of research that verify integrated education through magnet schools works.”

Since the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill court mandate, voluntary enrollment magnet schools have become a primary strategy to comply with the order, spawning dozens of the popular schools with themes such as science, the classics and the arts.

Cobb’s team showed that city students attending magnets scored higher on state tests, had less absenteeism, higher college aspirations and lower dropout rates. Overall, the magnet climate was more in step with that of a wealthy, suburban non-magnet high school.

Although, racial attitudes differed little between ninth-graders in magnet schools and their peers in non-magnets, 12th-grade students of color in magnets felt significantly closer to white students and more likely to have white friends, the report concluded.  Likewise, white magnet students felt significantly closer to students of color and reported having multiple friends of color.

The researchers did note that magnet school students in the lower grades reflected some discomfort about teacher-student relationships and the sense of safety and belonging in their new schools, but those issues disappeared among students in the later grades.

Taking advantage of oversubscribed admissions lotteries for magnets and state test scores, the researchers were able to compare students randomly offered a magnet school seat to those who were not. In addition, statistical controls were used to expand their sample. The results, which appeared in the December issue of the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal, showed that magnet students significantly outperformed non-magnet students on high school tests in reading and math, and on middle school tests in reading.

Cobb says magnet schools can be costly investments and serve a small percentage of children in isolated circumstances, but their successes cannot be denied as decision makers debate how to build on desegregation efforts in the future.

“We need to pay attention in looking at the magnet school model as a viable option. They can be expensive, but they certainly have some tangible benefits,” Cobb says.

Bifulco, R., Cobb, C. D. & Bell, C. (2009). Can Interdistrict Choice Boost Student Achievement? The Case of Connecticut’s Interdistrict Magnet School Program. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(4), 323-345. doi: 10.3102/0162373709340917

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