Elementary Schools that ‘Converted’ to Magnet Status under Federal Program Offer Mixed Results on Student Achievement, Diversity, AIR Study Finds

Washington, D.C. – An examination of nine years’ worth of data on elementary schools that converted to magnet schools to boost student achievement and increase demographic diversity offered mixed results. While there was limited evidence that the schools were successful in increasing diversity, a study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found inconclusive evidence of increased student achievement.

The study, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences, focused on schools funded by the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP).

In the 1970’s, the federal government embraced magnet schools in an attempt to enforce desegregation. MSAP was established in 1984 to promote diversity and enhance achievement through magnet school programs, including those that entirely “convert” to magnet status by adopting a specialized curriculum (such as performing arts or math programs) or certain instructional methods (such as open classrooms or team teaching). Nationwide, there are roughly 2,700 magnet schools.

The AIR study focused on the performance of 21 elementary schools in 11 school districts. The data covered schools from before conversion through implementation from 2002-2011.

The study examined two approaches to magnet conversions. The Traditional Magnet approach hinges on the idea that converting a school predominantly serving low-income households or minority groups will lure students from outside the school’s attendance zone—typically, those who are higher achieving or more economically advantaged. The hypothesis is that recruiting new students will have a “spillover” effect, according to the study: Higher achieving students will help raise teachers’ expectations and improve the behavior and achievement of students from the neighborhood.

The Destination Magnet approach works in reverse. In this scenario, a relatively high-performing school, often in a more affluent neighborhood, will adopt a new focus or curriculum and open enrollment, making it a “destination” for students from outside the neighborhood—students who frequently attend struggling schools, are lower achieving, and come from poor or minority families.

The study compared the performances of the magnet schools to their districts, and to other public schools that did not convert, to isolate any effect the conversion may have had on any changes. Examining 17 traditional magnet schools and four destination schools, researchers found:

  • Achievement in traditional magnet schools was higher after conversion, outpacing district achievement in English language arts (ELA), but not in math. Average ELA achievement in traditional schools went up by an average of 8.1 percentile points, while average achievement in the districts went up by an average of 5.6 percentile points.
  • Achievement in destination magnet schools lost ground to their districts over the conversion period. After conversion, ELA achievement in the districts increased by 6.9 percentile points while achievement in the magnet schools changed little, rising just 1.4 percentile points. Average math achievement in the districts rose 8.9 percentile points after conversion while achievement in the magnet schools did not change.
  • The most concrete evidence of conversion’s effects was a decline in the concentration of minority students in traditional magnet schools. On average, neighborhood schools that converted to magnet schools initially served 84.5 percent minority students, compared to an average of 64.1 percent in their district. After conversion, the percentage of minority students at traditional magnet schools remained virtually unchanged (84.9 percent) while the concentration of minorities in the district as a whole rose to 66.3 percent. Thus, the demographics of the magnet school became more like those of the district—one goal of this type of conversion.

“For almost all of the outcomes examined, including achievement, there was no significant difference between the changes in the magnet schools and the changes that would be predicted had they not converted,” said Sami Kitmitto, a principal researcher at AIR and co-author of the report with Julian Betts, an economics professor at the University of California-San Diego. “The one exception is the result related to minority students in traditional magnet schools.”

View the full report on AIR's website: What Happens When Schools Become Magnet Schools? (PDF).

About AIR
Established in 1946, with headquarters in Washington, D.C., the American Institutes for Research (AIR) is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts behavioral and social science research and delivers technical assistance both domestically and internationally in the areas of health, education and workforce productivity. For more information, visit www.air.org