Innovations in Education: Successful Magnet High Schools
September 2008
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Research Methodology

The research approach used to develop this guide is a combination of case study methodology and benchmarking of best practices. Used in businesses worldwide as they seek to continuously improve their operations, benchmarking has more recently been applied to education. Benchmarking is a structured, efficient process that targets key operations and identifies the following: promising practices in relationship to traditional practice, previous practice at the selected sites (lessons learned), and local outcome data. The methodology used here is further explained in a background document,26 which lays out the justification for identifying promising practices based on four sources of rigor in the approach:

  • Theory and research base;

  • Expert review;

  • Site evidence of effectiveness; and

  • Systematic field research and cross-site analysis.

The steps of the research process were: defining a study scope, seeking input from experts to refine the scope and inform site selection criteria, screening potential sites, selecting sites to study, conducting site visits, collecting and analyzing data to write case reports, and writing a user-friendly guide.

Study Framework and Data Collection

A conceptual framework was developed to guide the study of the selected sites. While there is a lot of daily activity at any school, each case study needed to focus on those practices most likely to contribute to a school's success and sustainability. The framework for this study was an adaptation of that used in a previous guide, Creating and Sustaining Successful K-8 Magnet Schools, published in 2008, derived from the research literature on magnet schools, organizational effectiveness, and sustainability of school reform. Components were added from the research literature on secondary school reform. The dimensions of the conceptual framework were academic excellence through a theme-based program, commitment to equity and diversity, building school capacity, and strategic partnerships. A site visit was conducted at each school to gather the information for this guide, each visit lasting for two days and including informal observations throughout the school, attendance at events, and interviews. The primary source of data was interviews with a variety of key groups, including parents, teachers, administrators, district leaders, and school partners. An interview protocol was developed based on the study framework and adapted to each role group. Interviews were digitally recorded with key interviews and later transcribed for more detailed analysis.

Documents from each school served as an additional source of information. Collected during the site visit, these documents included such items as school schedules, sample assessments, curriculum plans, newsletters, application forms, brochures, and report cards. Principals and district magnet office staff also completed a standard form to facilitate consistent compiling of school demographic and outcome information.

Site Selection Process

Consideration for this guide, a school had to be a dedicated magnet, not a school-within-a-school program, although some had a schoolwide theme and others had more than one strand within the same school. Each school had to show evidence of strong academic achievement as well as success in reducing minority-group isolation. Each had to have graduated at least one class of students.

Strong academic achievement meant that student proficiency rates were above 50 percent in reading and math on state standardized tests. All schools in this guide made adequate yearly progress (AYP) for at least three years. Reducing minority-group isolation was measured in reference to the demographic characteristics of the district as a whole, and selected schools closely mirrored the district composition or further reduced minority-group isolation.

The process of identifying sites began with a broad scan of possible sites. A list of 52 districts with strong magnet programs had been developed for the earlier guide, and this was one starting point. Additionally, researchers drew from the abstracts of 1998 and 2002 Magnet Schools Assistance program (MSAP) grantees, lists of current and former Magnet Schools of America award winners (MSA Schools of Excellence and Schools of Distinction), and individual nominations by the magnet school researchers, practitioners, and board members of the Magnet Schools of America who served as the guide's external advisory group.

Based on screening of schools' achievement data and minority-group isolation data (see "Reducing Minority-group Isolation Criteria" below), the initial list of 84 schools was narrowed down to 12 schools. Additional information about specific program features and updated data were collected using phone interviews with school administrators to fill gaps in information.

From this group of 12 schools, eight schools were ultimately chosen as case study sites, based on the compiled information and criteria ratings on a screening matrix. Demographic variation, a range of promising practices, geographic location, and achievement data were all considered in the final site selection.

Selection Criteria

A cross-section of schools were selected to highlight magnet high schools successfully meeting the integration and achievement needs of their particular districts. Considerations included districts with a high number of traditionally underserved populations (e.g., low income, special education, African--American, and Latino students); variation in academic programming and magnet themes; both schoolwide and multiple-strand programs; inclusion of inter-district and feeder-pattern arrangements; and a range of geographic locations. All schools met the following criteria, prioritized by the advisory group as key issues for consideration.

Achievement Criteria

Schools selected met AYP targets for at least three consecutive years, including the most recent year for which data were available. Researchers looked for schools that scored at least at the 50th percentile in math or reading on state standardized tests with demonstrated evidence of continued improvement over several years, or for schools that were consistently high achieving in the 90th-percentile range annually. Data from state departments of education Web sites and the Web site provided achievement information. Researchers looked for additional evidence that the schools were demonstrating higher achievement for low-income, minority, or students receiving special education services in comparison with a similar population of students in its local district public schools.

Reducing Minority-group Isolation Criteria

Compared to district demographics or interdistrict targets, these schools are maintaining representative student populations with regard to race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic background, or are demonstrating more pronounced reduction in minority-group isolation.

Analysis and Reporting

A case report was written about each site, and reviewed by site administrators for accuracy. From these case reports, artifacts, and transcripts of interviews, the project team identified common themes that contributed to success across the sites. This cross-site analysis was built using both the research literature as reflected in the study scope as well as emerging patterns in the data.

This descriptive research process suggests promising practices, including ways to do things that other educators have found helpful and lessons they have learned, as well as practical "how-to" guidance. This is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices. Also, readers should understand that these descriptions do not constitute an endorsement of specific practices or products.

Using the Guide

Ultimately, readers of this guide will need to select, adapt, and implement practices that meet their individual needs and contexts. Schools and districts coming together in learning communities may continue to study, using the ideas and practices from these sites as a springboard for their own action research. In this way, a pool of promising practices will grow, and educators can support each other in implementation and learning.

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Last Modified: 11/19/2009