Next Generation California Partnership Academies


The transition from high school into postsecondary education and a career has become particularly challenging given today’s complex, fast-moving, and highly technological economy. Even as the national high school graduation rate has improved over the past two decades and many states have raised their graduation requirements, high school graduates without postsecondary credentials and career-specific skills lack work opportunities. Many students, and particularly low-income, minority, and first-generation college students, struggle to attain the credentials needed to reach a comfortable living wage. To combat this problem, one approach widely adopted in the United States is the career academy model. For almost 50 years, career academies have aimed to blend academic rigor, a curriculum spanning college readiness and workplace knowledge, and engaging and relevant experience in the workplace to help prepare students for successful transitions to postsecondary education and, ultimately, to productive and gainful employment.

MDRC’s landmark randomized controlled trial of career academies, starting in the mid-1990s, followed study participants for eight years after high school graduation and found sustained earnings gains for academy participants. Moreover, these labor market impacts were concentrated among young, mostly minority men, a group that, nationally, continues to experience the most severe decline in real earnings. In the years since that early study, career academies have proliferated from a few hundred to approximately 7,000 across the United States. This widespread scale-up of career academies amid the vast changes in education and labor markets over the past 20 years gives rise to new questions about career academies’ impact on young people’s education and employment outcomes in the current environment.

To explore these questions, MDRC is conducting a new rigorous study of career academies, in partnership with the California Department of Education and the College & Career Academy Support Network and with funding from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The study will explore the effects of California Partnership Academies (CPAs), which are partially state-funded career academies within high schools across California. Similar to the original study, this study will look at the impact of these programs on high school graduation, postsecondary success, and employment and wage outcomes for eight years after expected high school graduation.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

There are over 400 California Partnership Academies (CPAs) operating in high schools across the state. CPAs are three- or four-year programs that vary in their career themes, size, and specific programming, but similar to most career academies, CPAs focus on three key elements:

  • A small school-within-a-school structure with cohort scheduling of students and common preparation time for the academy teachers

  • Integration of academic and career-technical curricula focused on college preparation

  • Partnerships with employers who provide program guidance and work-based learning opportunities

CPAs are partially funded by a grant from the state, which requires that 50 percent of the students entering each CPA meet at least three of the following six “at-risk” criteria: (1) having a poor attendance record, (2) being significantly behind in credits, (3) demonstrating low motivation for the regular school program, (4) being economically disadvantaged, (5) having English language learner or special education status or being homeless, or (6) having a low grade point average.

The evaluation has been developed in conjunction with the California Department of Education and the College & Career Academy Support Network. These organizations will provide enhanced technical assistance to the CPAs participating in the study to ensure high levels of implementation across the study. The study will explore the following key research questions:

  1. What is the impact of being offered a seat in a CPA on students’ high school performance and graduation?

  2. What is the impact of being offered a seat in a CPA on students’ higher education outcomes: postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and certificate or degree attainment?

  3. What is the impact of being offered a seat in a CPA on students’ long-term employment outcomes: length of employment, industry sector, and wages?

Similar to the original MDRC Career Academies Evaluation, this replication study will track students’ outcomes during high school and for eight years after expected high school graduation.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

About 20 California Partnership Academies (CPAs) and their host high schools across the state will participate in the study. Similar to the original MDRC Career Academies Evaluation, this study is centered on a student-level randomized controlled trial. Students will be randomized via lottery within the high schools to participate in the CPA or not.

Four main data sources will be used over the course of the study to measure student outcomes and the contrast in services received by the CPA participants and their comparison group counterparts:

  1. Longitudinal data from the California Department of Education (CALPADS): students’ demographic information, school enrollment and attendance, course data, and high school graduation

  2. National Student Clearinghouse data: postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and certificate and degree attainment

  3. California State Unemployment Insurance data: long-term industry sector and wage data

  4. To measure the difference between the CPA (program) condition and the counterfactual (comparison) condition, a student survey will be administered during the spring of students’ senior year for both program and comparison students. This survey will capture data about students’ experiences related to the three main CPA model components discussed under “Agenda, Scope, and Goals.”