ERIC Identifier: ED340813
Publication Date: 1991-08-00
Author: Inger, Morton
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban
Education New York NY.
Improving Urban Education with Magnet Schools. ERIC/CUE Digest,
Despite the wide variety of magnet schools and programs, magnets differ from
"regular" or "zoned" schools in three principal ways: (1) Magnets have a unified
curriculum based on a special theme or method of instruction; (2) enrollment is
open to students beyond the geographic attendance zone; and (3) students and
parents choose the school.
Magnets were developed in large urban universities in the 1970s primarily as
an aid in desegregating schools. The idea was to create schools so good that
they would draw a racial cross-section of students out of the segregated
neighborhood boundaries, avoiding the political opposition engendered by
Virtually all magnets now have long waiting lists, despite that in many,
students have to travel long distances to school, the class day is longer, and
the work is harder than in nonmagnets. Moreover, some are in rundown
neighborhoods; some have large pupil/teacher ratios; and some are in decaying,
depressing buildings. (In the successful Fashion Industries High School in New
York City, for example, classrooms and hallways have not been painted since 1940
(Mitchell, Russell, & Benson, 1989).
What, then, draws so many students to magnets? This digest suggests ways that
magnet schools are perceived to provide a superior education.
THE APPEAL OF MAGNET SCHOOLS
1. Program coherence. Magnets
have a specialized core curriculum or specialized pedagogy. The consistency of
the theme or method of teaching, and the identification of staff with its theme,
curriculum, methods, goals, and activities all mesh to form a coherent whole.
2. A safer, more orderly climate; an environment conducive to learning; and
an image of excellence. Magnets have a strong commitment to parent involvement
and they try to mold student attitudes and values. As a result, magnets attract
better-motivated students, which reinforces the favorable school atmosphere.
3. A sense of shared enterprise and a committed, enthusiastic faculty and
student body. Because of the school's nurturing atmosphere and its image of
excellence, and because more students apply than get accepted, students who are
admitted, and teachers who teach in a magnet, feel special about themselves and
4. Career preparation. The school's focus on an occupation or a field of
study -- and the attendant job prospects -- gives students a sense of direction
and lets them justify to themselves, their parents, and their peers the effort
they put into schoolwork.
5. A committed, charismatic principal.
6. Implementation of educational reforms. Magnets are frequently associated
with reform measures such as an absence of tracking, contextual teaching,
cooperative learning, and teacher collegiality.
7. School autonomy. Staff at most magnets are relatively free to solve their
own problems in their own way, without needing approval from the school
district. This independence contributes to the feeling among students and staff
that the school is their special, unique creation.
Not all magnets have all of these characteristics, of course, and they are
not totally free of constraints. Like other schools, magnets must meet city and
state requirements in areas such as curriculum, student body diversity, and the
selection, hiring, and retention of teachers. They are also, like other schools,
subject to state and local budget allocations and the priorities established for
ARE MAGNET SCHOOLS BETTER THAN REGULAR, ZONED SCHOOLS?
answer is not clear-cut. Two reports, both using 1983 data on 45 magnets in 15
urban districts, came up with different emphases. Blank (1990) stressed the
educational achievement of magnets, reporting that 80 percent of the magnet
schools had average reading and math achievement scores above their district
Dentler (1990a), conversely, concluded that while a few magnets were
exceptionally good, "[M]ost magnets, like most nonmagnets, vary tremendously in
their ability to [deliver high educational quality]" (p. 70). As support, he
cited data from the 32 schools for which there were reading and/or math
* 26 of the 45 magnets equaled or exceeded the mean reading scores for their
districts, 14 exceeded the district average by 10 or more points, and 7 exceeded
it by at least 30 points. However, the reading score of 6 magnets was below
* Most magnets equaled or exceeded district averages in math, 13 of them by
10 points or more, and 6 by at least 30 points. However, seven fell below
average in mathematics.
Hill, Foster, & Gendler's 1990 study of inner-city public and Catholic
schools included three magnet ("focus") schools. The Catholic schools included
New York's Partnership Program, which pays tuition for public students to attend
inner-city Catholic high schools. Most of the students selected for the
Partnership Program were African American or Puerto Rican, from single-parent
welfare homes, and had poor academic records.
Hill et al. (1990) found that the focus and the Catholic schools far exceeded
the "zoned" schools in graduation rates; percentages of students completing an
academically demanding college prep course; percentages of students taking the
SAT; and SAT scores.
Some magnets have exceptionally good records with inner-city student
populations. Mitchell, Russell, & Benson (1989) selected nine exemplary
magnets and found attendance rates higher and dropout rates lower than at most
schools in their districts. In Chicago, where the high school dropout rate is 45
percent, the rate at the School for Agricultural Sciences -- 89 percent African
American and Hispanic -- is less than 2 percent. The Manhattan Center for
Science and Math, where 98 percent of its students are African American or
Hispanic and over three-fourths are from low-income families, the dropout rate
is under 2 percent, and 97 percent of its graduates enroll in college (1989).
ISSUES FOR POLICYMAKERS
The very success of magnet schools
raises a central question of whether their success comes at the expense of
Student creaming. Are magnets successful, for example, because they draw the
best students from other schools? Magnets do draw to their halls -- and away
from nonmagnets -- better, more highly motivated students.
But it is equally evident that pedagogical and administrative features of
magnets produce powerful effects in and of themselves. Their focus,
organizational cohesiveness, strong leadership by the principal, and relative
freedom from central office rules and procedures are highly correlated with
improved achievement scores.
Furthermore, the use of selective admissions criteria varies. According to
1983 data cited by Dentler (1990b), nearly two-thirds of the magnets were
selective in their admission of students on criteria other than race or
ethnicity. More recently, Blank (1990) found that only 15 percent of magnets
used "highly selective" criteria such as test scores. But even when a magnet
school has no such admissions criteria, most of the students are select: with
very rare exceptions, students with failing grades, or records of bad behavior
or truancy, do not get selected in magnets.
However, Dentler's 1983 data found that half of the magnets with the highest
achievement scores were not at all selective (Dentler, 1990a). Hill et al. found
considerable success at magnets and Catholic schools even when the students had
previous poor academic records, and the better results were not caused by
differences in curricula, teacher traits, or student backgrounds. The key
factors were a clearly defined purpose and the organizational cohesion and
flexibility to pursue that purpose.
Resource hogging. Another concern is whether magnets draw scarce resources
away from other schools. They cost more, particularly high schools, and some
require heavy capital outlays. While Mitchell et al. (1989) found the difference
in operating and recurring costs between magnets and nonmagnets "relatively
small," McDonnell said that, "Magnets cost from 10 to 12 percent more than
traditional schools" (1989, p. 2). But Chabotar (1988, cited in Dentler, 1990a)
found that the cost differentials decline over time as start-up costs are
absorbed. Still, some magnets provide quality education even when they face the
same resource problems as nonmagnets.
Elitism. A broader issue centers around a key strength of magnets -- their
ability to focus on student outcomes and on a unique mission. Nonmagnets have
diffuse missions, a great variety of programs, and "are controlled by piecemeal
demands, rules, claimed entitlements, and contractual provisions" (Hill et al.,
1990, p. 38). However, they have diffuse missions and a variety of programs
because the many constituencies with a stake in public schooling demand them.
These demands are legitimate, and a large, unanswered question is whether
magnets succeed because the regular public schools are left with the burden of
responding to these contingencies.
Blank, R. K. (1990). Analyzing educational
effects of magnet schools using local district data. Sociological Practice
Review, 1(1), 40-51.
Dentler, R. A. (1990a). Conclusions from a national study. In Estes, N.,
Levine, D. U., & Waldrip, D. R. (Eds.), Magnet schools: Recent developments
and perspectives. Austin: Morgan Printing and Publishing.
Dentler, R. A. (1990b). The national evidence on magnet schools. Address at
the Regional Conference on Magnet Schools: Equity and Excellence II. San Jose:
Southwest Center for Educational Equity.
Hill, P. T., Foster, G. E., & Gendler, T. (1990). High schools with
character. Santa Monica: The RAND Corporation.
McDonnell, L. M. (1989). Restructuring American schools: The promise and the
pitfalls. Brief No. 6. New York: Teachers College, National Center on Education
Mitchell, V., Russell, E. S., & Benson, C. S. (1989). Exemplary urban
career-oriented secondary school programs. Berkeley: National Center for
Research in Vocational Education.