U.Va. and American Psychological Association Receive $1 Million Grant to Study Potential of Specialized High Schools to Increase Science Research Careers

October 29, 2008 — The University of Virginia, in partnership with the American Psychological Association, has received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a three-year study on the contributions made by specialized public high schools to the development of scientific researchers in the life, physical and behavioral sciences.

"Specialized public high schools of science, mathematics and technology are commonly viewed as the crown jewel of their school districts, and many times of their states," said Robert H. Tai, associate professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education

No studies have provided a comprehensive analysis of the contribution that these schools make compared to conventional high schools, said Rena F. Subotnik, director of the American Psychological Association's Center for Psychology in Schools and Education. "This study will address several areas to see how these schools stand apart from traditional schools in serving science-talented students."

It aims to answer such questions as:

• Are graduates of these specialized high schools more likely to remain in the science, math or technical field than students with similar achievement and interests who attended traditional public high schools?

• Which instructional practices used by these schools are associated with keeping students in the science, math and technology tracks in college and with higher rates of entrance into science-, math- or technology-related professions?

• Do graduates of science-math-technology high schools possess perspectives on professional success and ethical scientific behavior that differ from their counterparts from traditional schools? 

These questions and others will be part of a national survey of 5,000 students who graduated from specialized public science-math-technology high schools within the last four to six years. Their answers will be compared with those of 1,000 similarly talented people who graduated from traditional high schools in the last four to six years.

Despite the growing numbers of specialized high schools, access is not widely available. With the study's findings, U.Va. and the American Psychological Association hope to target specific policy decisions to enhance access for high-achieving youth from underrepresented groups; from locations where access to specialized schools is not possible; or for those who could benefit from additional services, but wish to remain in a regular high school, Subotnik said. Only 27 states offer science-math-technology talent programs such as regional centers, magnet schools, governor schools and exam schools. 

Although this study will not offer cause-and-effect conclusions, the findings can help policymakers, parents and teachers see how students fare as a result of participating in the different types of school. It would take much more time and a more complex research design to find a causal relationship, Tai said.

"However, the study we are conducting, with its wide-ranging participation and comparison groups, will provide policymakers with the rigorous data needed to support additional specialized high schools or replicate some instructional aspects of those schools in traditional high school settings," he said.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. Its membership includes more than 148,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, the association works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

NOTE: Pam Willenz is the American Psychological Association Public Affairs contact. She can be reached at 202-336-5707.