Why Magnet Schools Fail!


 Even though the best of intentions and policy are used in implementing the magnet schools, there seem to be no good answers to many of the following problems.  These are the things I learned when I researched magnet schools.  I knew some things about them but learned a great deal more that is even worse than I thought.


Enrollment Problems


The underlying premise for magnet schools is that students and teachers will get to pick the school and/or subject theme of their choice.  In reality probably not 50% of the students really get their choice.  There is never an equal balance of students who want a particular school.  Principals in Jackson, Tennessee and Little Rock say they have very difficult problems in this area because there are some schools that students just don't choose.  Other schools always have long waiting lists.


Because of this problem, some magnet schools in Little Rock have what they call "restricted enrollment" where students are required to attend the magnet school in their area, and then other students from other areas are enticed to attend in order to add to the enrollment.


Once there is a chance (or policy) for choice, and one's choice is denied, resentment is aroused in the parents and the students, a problem that does not exist when students attend the area school where they live.


"First Come First Served" Unfair to Underprivileged Children


The policy of "First come first served" presents another problem."  Some parents are willing to spend the night at the sites where registering takes place in order to get their children in the school of choice (which arouses resentment in them as well; sleeping in a car all night is not much fun.)   Most magnet schools adopt "first come, first served" approach in the beginning but later switch to a lottery system because the underprivileged parents in some cases can't and in other cases won't make the sacrifice for their children.  Therefore, the underprivileged children are the ones that are cheated.  This causes a greater proportion of students in poverty to end up at one or two schools and the wealthier, more privileged children at the other schools. 


A board member of the Review Board on magnet schools in Little Rock said in a recent telephone  conversation that Little Rock used  "first come first served" in the beginning but changed it to lottery selection later because the under privileged children were being cheated.  Pine Bluff began with "first come first served" and then changed to lottery later as well.  I am pretty sure that Jackson, Tennessee did the same. (The students sign up for the school of choice, and the computer picks the student by lottery.  When the slots are filled for that particular school, the other students are assigned to another magnet school.)


Magnet School Lead to Resegregation by Ability, Poverty, and Race


In some magnet schools, they basically have "ability enrollment" where they require certain abilities.  The IB school in Hot Springs (Park Magnet) is a great example of that type of enrollment.  According to the IB Coordinator there, students don't measure up on the required tests; they are informed that they will probably fail.  If the parent insists, the district allows them a chance at a slot in the IB school; but if the student doesn't measure up, then that student is put back in one of the other magnet schools.  Most parents don't risk that.


Park IB School is a perfect example of what happens in that case.  In that particular school, the only school at Hot Springs with high scores has 75% white and 25% minority students (which can also be translated as students in poverty). Their magnet school with the lowest scores has 71% minority and 29% white.  Therefore the wealthy, highly gifted, white students wind up in one school, and the poor, underprivileged minorities wind up in another school.  I have found that when the higher than average achievers are removed from the classes, it takes much of the spark from the classroom.  The lower students need the motivation and knowledge that they gain from these students.  Therefore, these lower students usually drop even lower.  After 27 years experience of teaching, I have also found that discipline becomes worse both in the gifted and talented group and in the lower group as well. (That would take a few minutes to explain, but I would be glad to do it for anyone who would like an explanation.) 


Another problem with choice is that most parents want their children at the same campus for convenience, so only one student in the family would end up really getting his/her choice.  When all the above factors are combined, probably no more than 50% of the students get to really choose, and the "choice" premise flies out the window and dissatisfaction mounts.


Least Educated and Least Experienced Teachers End Up

Teaching Most Needy Students


Your most educated teachers and most experienced teachers usually end up at the wealthier districts, leaving the least educated and least experienced teachers with the neediest students.    For example, we took the names of the teachers assigned to the five future magnet schools in Jonesboro and went to the courthouse and ascertained their level of education and experience.  We found the following: (See chart below the summary for comparison of all five future magnet schools.)  





5 yrs or less experience

10 yrs or less experience

Bachelor's or  BS + 15

Master's, or More

Poverty rate  *

Percent Minorities















  14 *















Micro Society









International Studies







*Could not find educational level of two of the teachers at Hillcrest

*Poverty rate is figured on number of students eligible for free or reduced lunch.


This looks to me like a lawsuit waiting to happen.  As long as students attend schools located in their vicinity or neighborhood, and teachers hired and assigned at various schools as teachers leave,  the district is probably fairly safe from desegregation orders,  but once they lose that status, what would keep minorities from suing and asking for balance in racial makeup of school and equal quality in teachers. And would they not be in the right. 

Unfortunately a district can't have both choice for teachers/students and equity (racial balance and equally qualified teachers.)  This was pointed out by the administration in a question they answered on the web as follows:  

"#11: by Renee on 12.13.2006 @ 10:17pm CST

Regarding equity. Will that be figured into each classroom or the school as a whole? If it is in each classroom, will it be the same percentage for each magnet school location?

Answer: The magnet school plan is based on parent and student choice, not equity."


Innovative Teaching Techniques Often End Up Lowering Scores


Another tenet of magnet schools is innovative teaching techniques.  In fact, in order to get grants, magnet schools nearly always agree to do something different with curriculum than in the past which means innovative teaching techniques.  These techniques are not tried and tested and often end up lowering scores rather than improving them.


About ten years ago Paragould District jumped on board with "Break the Mold Schools" that incorporated all these innovative ideas like hands on activities, de emphasis on textbooks, projects learning, inquiry learning, mini courses, cooperative (group) learning; teachers as coaches or guides rather than as authority, and block scheduling.   The principals and Kim Wilbanks described these same innovative techniques at the public forum in Jonesboro at the high school gym. Paragould was one  of the first 20 districts in the nation to get huge grants for this "Break the Mold Schools" program and for what they called "Diamond Schools"  Following is the way this event is described at this link: :http://www.wpaag.org/Huckabee%20Wants%20Milken%20Award%20Winners'%20Input.htm  The footnotes below that give documentation can be found at this link. 


 In 1995 a $25,000 Milken award was given to a Principal Shewmaker of Ridgecrest High School in Paragould, Arkansas by then ADE Director Gene Wilhoit; a blue ribbon panel appointed by the state department made the selection according to the newspaper. 6    This principal had implemented so many innovative techniques encouraged by the Arkansas ADE that according to the local paper, “The high school’s standardized test scores have decreased since he became principal in 1990, becoming the lowest of any school in the county.”   Tenth Grade Language Arts had dropped to 35%. 7       


These low scores did not deter the ADE from bolstering their innovative programs by presenting him with the $25,000 Milken award.  However, the paper reported that the district before the innovative changes  “had racked up the strongest scores on the exams given statewide to 4th, 7th,  and 10th  grades.” 8


The following year, in 1996,  one year after  receiving this Milken Award, this  principal and his superintendent left the school amid a great deal of controversy.   According to the paper, in 1997, board director "Dr. John Honeycutt noted that with the change in administration last year, the district has undergone a 'philosophical change of back to the basics.'" 9   I believe some of those same board members are still around.  You might wish to talk to some of them. I could fax you the newspaper articles if you are interested in them or mail you copies.


 There had been incredible excitement and a great many newspaper articles  in the Paragould area and also in Jonesobro Sun  in 1993 when this school became one of the first 21 schools in the nation to become “Break the Mold” schools “ based upon a wide variety of criteria such as innovative programs already in place in the district,” the superintendent reported. 10 


 Many teachers warned that these programs would not work, but their counsel was ignored.  I was very familiar with this situation because parents had come to me for help in fighting this now discredited  Outcome Based Education (OBE)  program to which the principal publicly subscribed.  The local paper used the headline, "OBE draws praise form Shewmaker."   11  The name OBE  has been totally discredited because of its failure in so many places like Paragould, but the aspects of the program are still burgeoning in Arkansas and the nation.   They just keep changing the names so legislators and people don't recognize them.


The ADE considered these types of reforms worthy of a Milken Award, but the community had different ideas.  There were several volatile town meetings in their debate over these OBE  “innovative” ideas and low scores, and the superintendent and principal both left amid great controversy in 1996."


Kim Wilbanks also received a Milken Award in 1991 so she is evidently well trained in  the philosophy which this high school principal used at Paragould.shttp://www.mff.org/mea/mea.taf?page=recipient&meaID=77


Busing Problems


Busing problems have  been mentioned by several with whom I talked about the magnet schools.  More time on the bus is not going to help any students, and it could mean that the students and parents would have longer days, and teachers would have longer duty.  The  state requires a certain length of time in actual classroom teaching, so the shuttle bus time could cause the day to be lengthened.   If that happens, teachers, parents, and students will be very unhappy. 


These are just some of the reasons that magnet schools have very little or no chance of succeeding along with, of course,  the costs.  No school in Arkansas has received a federal grant for magnet schools in the last two years according to the Director of the Magnet School Review Board in Little Rock. Grants are most often given to those schools that have extremely high minorities, minorities much higher than Jonesboro.   The principal at Jackson, Tennessee said the 2nd round of grants is almost an impossibility to obtain and has left many schools in the lurch when the first phase of  funding expired. 


I heard of  no parents demanding magnet schools or innovative teaching techniques.  Even teachers, who were asked if parents had the opportunity to express their opinions before the decision about magnet schools was made, said the decision should be an administrative one not the parents' parent decision to make.   I hope you as board members who were elected by the community, do not feel that way.  True many parents are on board with you, but they haven't heard both sides of the issues.  And many are not on board with you.


Attached find the presentations by the principals. I don't know how the principals  or the teachers can possibly find time to teach the basics if they implement even one third of the projects they mentioned in their presentations.  Overseeing projects and hands on activities is the most time consuming endeavor in education.  To add the stress required to implement these projects on top of all the stress the state has imposed on teachers can in no way benefit the students.


I don't  really believe all these principals are sold on these programs.  I believe they are doing what they have to do for their job.  At Hoxie the administrators tried to implement outcome based education (with same principles as this).  They also had some ugly meetings. I still have those front page newspaper articles as well.   Teachers had asked us to come and share information with them about the program, and at least ten met with us secretly one night.  The very next night they had to speak in favor of the innovations in a public meeting or face loss of favor with the administration.  The top three administrators at Hoxie  were gone within a couple years after that.


 Administrators and board members often times don't realize how teachers really feel about a situation because the teachers know the administrators are their bosses, and teachers know that they need to please them in order for things to go well with them.  Also, some parents are very unwilling to disagree with the prevailing opinion of the school district because they fear their children might face some negative consequences.  For example, some parents in the Jonesboro District  who slept in their cars to get their children registered in their  school of choice earlier this month, said they were going to stay silent until their children were placed, and then were going to complain about the procedure.


Debbie Pelley