Study of the Impact of Specialized Public High Schools of Science, Mathematics and Technology

Research Team

Principal Investigator/Project Director
  • Rena F. Subotnik
Team Members
  • John Almarode 
  • Edward Crowe 
  • Christopher Kolar 
  • Paula Olszewski-Kubilius 
  • Maie Lee  
  • Robert Tai

Background and Overview

Specialized public high schools of science, mathematics and technology (SMT) are commonly viewed as the “crown jewel” of their respective school districts, and many times, of their respective states. These schools are intended to coalesce the most academically talented, science-focused students in each district or state and typically draw excellent teachers as well. As the nation considers policies to address SMT education issues, options for additional functions are likely to arise. Yet, no existing studies provide a comprehensive analysis of the contribution that these schools make over and above regular high schools.

The objective of the study is to pursue the following research questions:

  • Are graduates from specialized SMT high schools more likely to enroll in SMT related studies and career fields when compared with graduates from regular nonmagnet nonexamination high schools with comparable academic and demographic backgrounds?

  • What school models employed by specialized SMT high schools are most associated with entrance into SMT-related studies and career fields?

  • To what degree do graduates from specialized SMT high schools who pursue non-SMT degree concentrations and careers attribute value to the SMT skills and content they experienced at their high school?

  • Do graduates from specialized SMT schools differ in their professed understanding and personal interest regarding science-related public issues from graduates of regular nonmagnet, nonexamination high schools with comparable academic and demographic backgrounds?

One method of addressing these questions is to conduct a national, retrospective survey study of specialized public SMT high school graduates 4-6 years out with a comparison group of similarly talents students, also 4-6 years out, who received other enrichment experiences but graduated from regular high schools. Though this approach cannot offer causal conclusions, its broader impacts come from the potential to inform educational policy in a more timely fashion than more complex research designs. Individuals who graduated from specialized SMT schools will be surveyed and, as a comparison, we will also survey individuals of similar academic achievement and interest who did not attend these types of schools.

The research described on this website has been funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation, NSFDRL 0815421.


A central purpose of this grant is to delineate educational and career consequences of the long held aims behind the formation of specialized public SMT high schools and to provide insight into the educational practices that appear to be most strongly associated with these outcomes. Through these efforts, we believe this study will make an important contribution to public policy decisions on SMT-related education issues.

Research Timeline

Year 1

Year 2

Year 3

Phase 1 pilot

Survey design Pilot sampling & contact Pilot data collection            
    Phase 2 pilot
    Pilot sampling & contact Survey redesign Pilot data collection        

Phase 3

        Pilot sampling & contact Finalized survey design Main data collection

Data analysis & follow-up qualitative data collection

Dissemination of findings

Pilot Survey Development

During this phase of the project, pilot data are being collected for research questions 1, 3 and 4 (see above). Question 2 is being addressed during stages 2 and 3. Answers to these questions are being collected by way of a survey, currently live, of specialized high school graduates (6 years after their high school graduations) at our pilot site, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, and two comparison samples of same age regular high school graduates matched by academic ability and interest in SMT subjects from the Center for Talent Development (CTD) housed at Northwestern University. One CTD sample includes high ability students who enrolled in advanced summer courses in mathematics or science and who did not attend specialized high schools. The second CTD sample did not enroll in advanced mathematics and science courses, did not attend specialized high schools, but tested as highly able students.

During Year One we gathered potential questionnaire items from three of four advisory groups, including staff and administration of our experimental and comparison group sites, the leaders of a consortium of specialized high schools, and a group of methodologists who serve as consultants to the project.  At the beginning of Year Two, we organized and culled items gathered from these meetings to ensure that each item was:

  • Tied to one of the research questions.

  • Worded so as to elicit the information we wanted.

  • Grounded in the literature.

A draft survey of over 300 items was reduced to approximately 100. 

In December 2009 we met with our panel of science education policy members, Norman Augustine, Barry Bozeman and Kathleen Sullivan to discuss some of the following questions related to the study.

Stage 1 – Pilot Survey Testing

Between January and February of 2010, we sent out the 100-item draft survey to all of our advisory groups as well to a convenience sampling of specialized high school graduates. All the feedback from this vetting process was compiled, analyzed and incorporated into a new iteration of the survey completed in March 2010. 

The survey went live on June 7th. We will be collecting data and sending out timed reminders to survey participants for the next 2 months. Emails for a total of 116 out of 200 total graduates of IMSA and 195 out of 332 potential same age participants were found and used to contact participants for survey completion.

Stage 2 – Exploring School Models

Stage 2 began in November 2010 with a revision of the survey instrument, based on the pilot data. The draft survey of over 300 items was reduced to approximately 85 for the final instrument. The final instrument was disseminated to groups of alumni from 8 schools in order to study differences among specialized school models.  Two from each of the four school models. The models include: 

  • Residential

  • Part time

  • School-within-school

  • Comprehensive

Data collection ended in fall 2011.

Stage 3

Year 3 was devoted to testing the final instrument with various school models and recruiting schools for the final stage of the study to include approximately 20 schools and a control group conducted during the 2011-12 school year (Year 4).

See the multilevel outcomes of this project (PDF, 229KB).

Materials from culminating conference