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Rigorous College and Career Pathways Need Strengthening, Researchers Say

By guest blogger Caralee Adams. Cross-posted from College Bound.

New high school programs that merge career technical education with rigorous academic courses to prepare students for both college and career are gaining momentum. But new research suggests more needs to be done to strengthen successful "pathways" in schools if the concept is truly going to take off.

"New Pathways to College and Careers: Examples, Evidence and Prospects" by Mary Visher and David Stern highlights successful college and career pathways in California, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Tennessee, where vocational programs have been transformed into comprehensive, full-time, academically rigorous high schools.

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Visher, with the nonprofit research organization MDRC, which released the report this month, and Stern, of the University of California-Berkeley, note that the number of high school students in vocational education who also took academic coursework for college jumped from 28 percent in 1982 to 88 percent in 2000.  

Still, career pathway high schools that embrace technical programs with a strong academic component are exceptions and are perceived by many as an alternative track to challenging academics for students who are not college bound, the authors say.

What do promising pathways programs include? Options for students to choose themed pathways, personalized support in small learning communities with cohorts of students, integrated curriculum, work-based learning, high standards and accountability, data-driven decisionmaking, district support, and strong partnerships with the community, according to the report.

To get more high school students to embrace the model where students learn relevant job skills along with college-prep curriculum, the authors suggest employers and community partners, work in concert with states, high schools, and postsecondary schools to improve both the quantity and quality of programs being offered. A strong infrastructure can help maintain the partnerships and provide technical support and professional development, MDRC notes.

For these pathway programs to thrive and grow, the authors say strong support is needed from elected officials, school leaders, and the business community. Partnerships with a nearby postsecondary institution or funded intermediary organization can provide a framework and help align work in the high school with college and workplace expectations.

Employers and educators are increasingly turning to third-party intermediaries as they look for strategies to work together and better prepare students for the job market.

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