Stories of Innovation in College and Career Pathways

May 30, 2017

By Bill DeBaun, Director of Data and Evaluation

On May 2, the Senate Career and Technical Education Caucus in conjunction with the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted “College and Career Pathways: Stories of Innovation.” The Alliance is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization focusing on high school redesign for underrepresented students. The briefing revolved around “highlighting innovative approaches across the country to college and career pathways that have led to positive outcomes for traditionally underserved students.”

The Alliance does work in this area under the heading of “Linked Learning.” It focuses on reorganizing high schools around preparing students for college and career, which has obvious connections to NCAN’s work with Strada Education Network in preparing members to incorporate career success into their critically important college access and success work. Four components organize Linked Learning: rigorous academics, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and comprehensive support services. The effort started in 2009 in nine California school districts.

"A bottom-up renaissance"

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), a staunch champion of career and technical education (CTE), paid the briefing a visit to provide some remarks. He began by proclaiming, “This is a renaissance around CTE in this country. It’s a bottom-up renaissance. We see it in employers and schools realizing it’s incredibly important. We need to make sure policies don’t get in the way of the renaissance but promote it.” Kaine noted that the bipartisan CTE Equity and Excellence Act had just been introduced in the Senate -- legislation that provides funding for both innovation in CTE programs and redesigning the high school experience. CTE, he said, should “integrate into everyone’s curriculum, not just be a separate curriculum.”

Sen. Kaine called for an “emphasis on teaching workplace skills through job shadowing, internships, apprenticeships. Employers have a need for technical skills but also for life skills: communications, teamwork, creativity, problem solving.” The 2016 Democratic nominee for vice president also decried what he sees as a “lingering second class attitude about the merits and virtues of CTE.”

Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon moderated the briefing, and began by pointing out that his city has 55,000 residents and 48,000 jobs. Accounting for the young and the elderly, “there are enough jobs for every man, woman, and teenager.” Despite this, during the Great Recession, unemployment skyrocketed to 19.5 percent because residents “didn’t have the right mix of skills.”

That skill mix has become a “key priority for America’s mayors," Cabaldon continued, adding that the system has for too long separated secondary schools as putting students on a path toward either college or vocational education. Cabaldon noted that real-world experiences in the workplace, paired with a college preparatory and CTE curriculum, both engage students in their learning and help them to learn workplace and “soft” skills.

Students feel "extremely prepared" for postsecondary

Jose Bojorquez, a construction engineer, said his Linked Learning experience at a San Diego high school helped him to overcome the challenges of being a first-generation student in a number of ways. First, it kept him engaged in his high school curriculum because he was able to apply concepts in class to his time in a workshop or workplace learning key skills. Through jobs and internships, he was able to apply those skills in the field. His high school connected him to his local institution (San Diego State University) through field trips and events where he was able to meet university staff. Eventually, he earned a full scholarship to SDSU, graduated, and earned a full-time job right out of college.

Seraiya Wright, another Linked Learning high school alumna currently enrolled at Howard University, noted that her high school “prepared me more than I ever would have realized to build a career path for myself ... It helped me find my niche.” That discovery came about through work-based learning projects that integrated every aspect of what students were learning in the classroom. “When it came time for postsecondary, I felt I was extremely prepared,” Wright said. Her high school also prepared her for a career by stressing professional skills like how to dress and having an elevator pitch. “I had my diploma and my wonderful experiences under my belt, but I also was prepared to speak and felt very competent in my work,” she added.

"Putting the 'and' in college and career ready"

NAF, formerly the National Academies Foundation, is a nonprofit focused on educational design that brings together four elements: academy development and structure, curriculum and instruction, advisory board, and work-based learning. The concept of Linked Learning suffuses the academies in their network. Bill Taylor, their Vice President of Community Engagement, stressed “the journey involves partners. We are reshaping the high school experience to be college and career ready. We are putting the 'and' in college and career ready.” NAF does this work hand-in-hand with industry partners that have challenges they would like the education system to address. NAF’s academies in 36 states focus on five career industries: finance, hospitality and tourism, information technology, engineering, and health sciences. "This is happening at scale -- It’s not happening in isolation,” Taylor noted, but in order to scale, the process cannot rely solely on “superhuman teachers.” He added, “[We are] drawing the work of it away from the teacher and implementing systems to do this institutionally. We need to be really intentional around that, we can’t just hope that it happens.”

Cynthia Brown is the Director of Student Pathways at the Porterville Unified School District in Porterville, CA. Porterville, which is in the Central Valley, is a very rural, agricultural community. Brown noted that the school district always kept up with the vocational training to provide the surrounding community with skilled employees, but they also had a strong college preparatory curriculum. “We didn’t want students to have to choose between the two,” she explained. Adopting Linked Learning practices, including career and technical experiences throughout the year, saw Porterville improve its secondary and postsecondary outcomes, student behavior, student and teacher attendance, and more. Over time, the district expanded from two career pathways to 13, and today 70 percent of students are enrolled in one. These pathways represent many different industry sectors. Brown explained that if students choose to pursue a career in the pathway they selected, that’s great, but if they change their mind, they also consider that a success. After all, “it saves a lot of money and moves them onto their chosen path much more quickly.”

The briefing’s last panelist was Sarah Steinberg, Vice President of Global Philanthropy at JP Morgan Chase & Co., which has invested in strengthening career-focused education. This investment results from two observations: high levels of unemployment even when the economy was improving, and hearing from business clients about trouble filling middle-skill positions in their companies. To try to build an education and training system that provides the skills and credentials people need to build careers and education, JP Morgan Chase funded the $75 million New Skills for Youth in collaboration with the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Forty-four states applied for this competitive process. Twenty-five received initial planning grants, and 10 received longer-term implementation grants. The project’s two main goals are to increase across the board the number of students completing pathways that start in high school and end with a career credential, and getting to systems change and transforming the design and delivery of CTE in those states.

What the research says

Although the panelists’ individual experiences were in focus at the briefing, it is worth noting that there is substantial rigorous research examining the effects of Linked Learning. SRI International’s seventh-year evaluation report on California’s Linked Learning District Initiative finds a number of benefits for students enrolled in career pathways. For example, Linked Learning students earned nearly nine more credits by the end of high school and were 5.3 percentage points more likely to graduate high school. The evaluation also found increases in gains on 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, and informational literacy. Linked Learning students who did not pursue postsecondary education and entered the workforce from high school more often reported having jobs with sick days, paid vacation, and health insurance than their peers. In terms of postsecondary transitions, students in career pathways and their peers in traditional high schools were as likely to enroll in college. Of those who enrolled, they were as likely to enroll in a four-year school and persist to the second year. Despite this overall finding, African American students from Linked Learning pathways who enrolled in a postsecondary institution were 12 percentage points more likely to enroll in a four-year institution than their peers.

Both the stories and the research around Linked Learning offer encouraging insight in how to combine college and career success. The difficulty for college access and success programs is that, although the Linked Learning intervention is well-defined in what it comprises, it is also based in the K-12 system and requires substantial stakeholder buy-in and high school transformation. That puts its complete implementation out of reach for many NCAN members, although those that are districts or have close ties to them have a road map for this work, should it interest them. Despite this, there may be components or tenets that members can pull from and implement into their work.

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