Studies have shown that there are a number of measurable benefits to magnet schools, ranging from greater student participation in the classroom to enhanced performance in college and the workplace among graduates. On balance, students who spent a longer period of time in magnet school environments have proven superior in terms of academic performance, school attendance and social behavior (Flaxman, Guerrero and Gretchen, 1999). This is a remarkable result given that magnet schools are, in large part, an outgrowth of the turmoil that raged over school integration during the 1960s and ‘70s. Necessity, in this case, led to the invention of the magnet school formula, which was originally aimed at keeping white families from fleeing to the suburbs when new school district lines were drawn to accommodate the reapportionment of student populations. Almost by accident, magnets evolved into specialized centers of more rigorous academic pursuit and standards. However, magnet schools have come to stand for something far less inspiring than their academic performance would indicate. The superiority of magnet school students stands in direct counterpoint to the performance of students in comprehensive schools which, by comparison, have contributed to the steady decline of American public education. It is as if magnet schools have given school administrators and educators an excuse to “settle,” to regard the under-performance of comprehensive school students as inevitable and regrettable though somehow acceptable as long as magnet school students continue to perform at a high level. Identifying who will and will not be a magnet student is part of an unfair and arbitrary practice that should be replaced by a system that identifies and rewards students who display the qualities of ability, attitude and aptitude regardless of their socio-economic background.
Thus, this disparity in performance feeds a misleading and unfair image of “good students” and “bad students,” as if those in magnet schools are intrinsically more worthy. This unfortunate situation does a terrible disservice to a large section of the country’s students who may not be fortunate enough to have their names drawn in a lottery, or who don’t fit an increasingly narrow definition of academic talent. This is often the result of nothing more meaningful than a lottery, an arbitrary means of assigning students to a particular school regardless of their comparative academic skills and achievements. This is so arbitrary that it betrays the very idea of academic achievement. Many magnet schools give entrance exams, require portfolios to be submitted or use some other barometer for judging talent but operate on an unfair assumption that talent is innate and somehow isolated from other factors
that make up a young person’s character. There is a wealth of research which indicates that talent is actually “a combination of opportunity, encouragement, and deliberate practice” (Vopat, 2011). In either case, the idea that “such programs are seen as simple meritocracies that look beyond race, gender, ethnicity or socio-economic (factors) to encourage the innate talent of
certain individuals” is false and does not truly represent the best interests of America’s young people or support the assumption that magnet schools are truly destinations for the most skilled and most worthy students (2011).
Many school systems predicate their magnet school admissions based on a concept of talent and academic potential that encourages them to focus on students who live in academically high-performing communities (Khui, 2011). Unfortunately, this practice undermines students from less advantaged communities who may nevertheless have what it takes to thrive in the magnet school environment. This amounts to nothing less than a systematic form of discrimination that has more to do with harsh socio-economic reality than with ability, attitude and aptitude. It is a hard fact that children who come from socially and economically compromised backgrounds are at a disadvantage when it comes to academic performance. However, this does not excuse or validate the practice of targeting potential magnet students based on zip code. On the contrary, the educational system should be working to level the playing field for disadvantaged students, providing academic aid in the form of free tutoring and other school-based assistance so that the notion of high-performing and low-performing communities ceases to be a determinant. It is a matter of attacking the problem at its source, not rewarding manifestations of a deeper problem.
Seeking substantive answers to socio-economic obstacles to learning is, admittedly, not a hallmark of America’s educational system (or its government for that matter). Nevertheless, this is unquestionably the root of the problem with magnet schools. By rewarding students based on ability, attitude and aptitude, rather than through the assignation of arbitrary definitions of talent, magnet schools can begin to fulfill their true mission. They should be providing equal opportunity for students who display these three vital characteristics rather than resorting to outdated ideas of apportionment, thus repeating mistakes made by the nation’s school administrators over the past 50 years. At present, magnet schools simply perpetuate a restrictive system that contracts rather than expands opportunities for many of the nation’s young students. Overcoming this outmoded mindset is absolutely essential in light of the fact that America’s population is diversifying at a breathtakingly rapid pace. Basing academic advancement on discriminatory socio-economic criteria will only allow America’s educational system to fall further behind those of other, more enlightened countries.
Flaxman, E., Guerrero, A., and Gretchen, D. “The Educational Benefits of Magnet Schools.”
National Center for Research in Vocational Education, Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California.
Hui-Khui, T. Keung. “Critics Call Wake Magnet Plan Unfair.” Raleigh News & Observer, 24
Vopat, Mark C. “Magnet Schools, Innate Talent and Social Justice.” Theory and Research in
Education, 9(1), 59-72.