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Survey: Students in Calif. Career Pathway Programs on Track for Higher Grad Rates

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California high school students enrolled in career academies using an approach known as Linked Learning earn more credits, are better prepared for college and are less likely to drop out than classmates in traditional high school courses, but don't score any higher on standardized tests, according to a recent study by SRI International. 

In its fifth annual evaluation of nine California school districts participating in a Linked Learning district initiative, SRI's Center for Education Policy found that overall the effort "shows promise for greater student engagement and moderately greater success in school."

Career academies, also known as pathways, combine college-prep academics and hands-on learning with career-oriented training in partnership with local industries that help design the curriculum and provide mentors and internships for the students.

There are 37 different Linked Learning pathways in the nine California school districts piloting the district initiative.  They run the gamut from health sciences, engineering  to performing arts, architecture, business, and law.

Gary Hoachlander, the president of ConnectEd California, the organization that launched Linked Learning in 2006, said the report was both encouraging and forthright.

"What was particularly encouraging was when we look at students who are participating in certified Linked Learning pathways versus those who are not, we see students in pathways accumulating significantly more credits, which puts them on a track where they're much more likely to graduate from high school," said Hoachlander. On the other hand, he added, "We'd certainly like to see better evidence of performance on standardized tests."

Pathways have been around for decades. Linked Learning was created with funding from the San Francisco-based James Irvine Foundation in an effort to develop uniform standards for implementation and quality. Programs meeting those standards can become certified Linked Learning pathways.  For a wonderful look inside a Linked Learning program, check out this May 2011 article by Education Week's Catherine Gewertz.

Hoachlander said the report highlighted a particular need to improve professional development.  Pathways are multidisciplinary and require teachers to collaborate on lesson plans and design projects that integrate academics with real-world problems to find solutions.  Students in sustainable energy pathways, for example, have conducted research testing the effectiveness of bio-fuels and portable solar energy packs for use in developing countries.    

"Linked Learning is fundamentally about changing the way we teach in the core academic subjects as it is delivering high-quality, career-based, career-technical education," Hoachlander said. "That's a heavy lift and I don't think that we are yet consistently succeeding. I think there's a great deal of variability."

 The SRI researchers said the shortfalls are to be expected since the program is still new.  

"It takes a long time to really move test score results," said senior researcher Roneeta Guha.  "The work in the first couple of years was ramp up." 

She also pointed to findings in the study that found pathways students with low prior achievement earned more credits than similar students enrolled in traditional high schools, as did girls, English language learners and students from under-served ethnic and minority groups. The study also found some evidence that students with low prior achievement who enroll in certified pathways have higher test scores than their similar peers in traditional high school programs. 

Some of the strongest benefits of pathways, however, are not directly academic but certainly have an impact on student achievement. As the graph below shows, when SRI surveyed high school seniors, pathways students were more likely than students in the traditional high school program to report that they improved their communication skills, learned how to collaborate and work with people from different backgrounds, made better decisions, were more responsible, and developed organizational skills that helped them set goals for school and manage their time effectively.

student skills survey SRI Linked Learning.png

A student in a law pathway described his internship as "an opportunity for me to put into practice what I've been told to do...look confident, shake hands...[The] confidence, [knowledge on] dress, attire, punctuality...[I] don't feel I would have gotten [these things] had it not been for the law academy."

At the same time, the students also worried that they wouldn't be ready for the demands of college. As one pathway student put it: "I don't feel prepared. I need someone like the teachers to be telling me 'oh this is due, or your grades are [getting] low, or do this or do that' and I know in college there's not [going] to be anybody telling me...I'm basically on my own."

SRI has funding for two more reports.  The next one will look more closely at high school graduation and whether students are taking the courses they need for college.  In the final year, researchers will follow pathways students after high school graduation to see whether they're in college or working or both.  

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