Integrating College Prep and Career Education

"Linking Learning to the 21st Century: Preparing All Students for College, Career and Civic Participation," released in April as an updated to "Multiple Pathways," a brief released in 2008, by Dr. Marisa Saunders, a research associate at UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, and Christopher Chrisman, an associate with Holland & Hart, renames and updates the multiple pathways concept with Linked Learning -- college prep education in a career-themed environment.

The brief overviews Linked Learning as it functions in four magnet schools in San Diego's Kearny High Educational Complex. Linked Learning creates a project-based learning environment focused on neighborhood concerns and needs. Students are prepared for further education or a professional path when they graduate.

Reform in a linked learning environment rests on three research-based propositions according to Saunders and Chrisman.
  • Learning both academic and technical knowledge is enhanced with the two are combined and contextualized in real-world situations.
  • Connecting academics to real-world contexts promotes student interest and engagement.
  • Students provided with both academic and career education are more likely to be able to choose from a full range of post-secondary options.
Additionally, a well-designed program must contain:
  • A college-prepatory academic core that satisfies the course requirements for entry into state public university using project-based learning and other engaging classroom strategies,
  • A professional/technical core well-grounded in academic and real-world standards,
  • Field-based learning and realistic workplace simulations that deepen students' understanding of academic and technical knowledge through application in real-world situations and
  • Additional support services to meet the particular needs of students and communities, which can include supplemental instruction, counseling and transportation.
Marisa Saunders answered some of our questions about Linked Learning via email.

SPM: Can you give me a brief history of the movement towards Linked Learning? I saw that it was previously called Multiple Pathways — where did this style of linking academics and vocational learning (I’m not sure if vocational is the correct word here or even if that’s a current term anymore) begin?

Marisa Saunders:
The integration of an academic and a career-themed curriculum is not a new idea. Indeed, late 19th-century advocates claimed that manual training would complement academic studies in a balanced education. In the 20th century, John Dewey and other progressive reformers made a similar claim that would allow students to achieve alternate and important “ways of knowing.” More recent efforts to integrate an academic and career technical education include Career Academies that organize a college-prep curriculum around a career-related theme. The Career Academy model, which started in Philadelphia more than 40 years ago, has been widely replicated throughout the United States. There are approximately 500 career academies in California (referred to as California Partnership Academies).

The recent name change from Multiple Pathways to Linked Learning in California was an effort to distinguish this approach from other reform strategies that target a subset of students — those who are struggling through high school or those who have already left. These other instantiations of Multiple Pathways presume that the high school works well enough for most students, and as such does not advance an intellectually rigorous, contextualized approach to academic learning for all students. Linked Learning, on the other hand, transforms the high school and is premised on the idea that all students can benefit from a balanced, integrated curriculum.

SPM: The example you used is in San Diego — is Linked Learning mostly popular on the west coast? Are there other places in the U.S. that have successful Linked Learning programs?

Marisa Saunders:
Linked Learning is not the only strategy for integrating academic and career education — several states and school districts have introduced reform policies that incorporate elements of a Linked Learning approach. Examples include Career Academies, “High Schools that Work” and “Tech Prep,” [which] has grown into a major national strategy for improving students' academic knowledge and technical skills. It is estimated that approximately 47 percent of the nation's high schools (or 7,400 high schools) offer one or more Tech Prep programs.

SPM: How is a typical school day different for a student in a Linked Learning program compared to one in a traditional college-prep program or in a vocational high school?

Marisa Saunders:
A student enrolled in a Linked Learning school experiences school very differently compared to a student enrolled in a traditional high school. First, the student chooses to attend the particular pathway because he/she is attracted to the theme of the school. The integration of the theme brings his/her academic learning to life and provides relevance. We often cite the example of the physics class that uses the technical knowledge and practice of auto-mechanics to reinforce and teach the physics standards. Similarly, the auto-mechanics class can infuse appropriate and related academic concepts (physics), into the technical course to provide a theoretical foundation and reinforce physics standards that students must master. Second, a student enrolled in a Linked Learning pathway often experiences non-traditional school structures. For example, block scheduling allows more time for project-based learning and provides opportunity for offsite learning that enables the student to learn from adults outside the classroom setting.

SPM: I saw that you identified four principles that a well-designed Linked Learning program must contain. When a Linked Learning program fails, where do they usually go wrong? How can a school recognize that their program isn’t successful?

Marisa Saunders:
There are many ways to implement a Linked Learning pathway. Indeed, Linked Learning pathways come in many shapes and sizes — programs vary in their theme, how they organize coursework, the extent to how much time students spend on and off campus, partnerships with business and industry and so forth. While this is a strength of the model, the variation also makes it difficult to pinpoint a particular weakness in a school’s implementation of Linked Learning. In our research we found that the strongest examples of Linked Learning implementation occurred at school sites where there was a clear vision and articulation of pathway goals and buy-in at all levels. Oftentimes schools worked backwards and identified the knowledge, skills and abilities they hoped their graduates would leave with, and teachers worked collaboratively to ensure students attained these skills beginning in the ninth grade. Providing teachers with the time to integrate the curriculum, plan projects and discuss goals for students is instrumental in a pathway’s success.

SPM: Is Linked Learning meant to be implemented only in charter or magnet schools? Could Linked Learning be used successfully in the public school system? Would Linked Learning translate well from urban schools to suburban and rural high schools?

Marisa Saunders:
No, absolutely not. Linked Learning is being used successfully in a growing number of public schools (including some charters and magnets) located throughout California and elsewhere. ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career is currently working with 11 California school districts that have developed master plans for expanding Linked Learning in their high schools. Further, there are approximately 500 California Partnership Academies (CPAs) — one structure and example for implementing and integrating a college-preparatory curriculum with a career theme — operating in California public high schools.

SPM: What do you see in the future for Linked Learning programs? How would you think the success of Linked Learning will progress?

Marisa Saunders:
Our current research of Linked Learning implementation efforts in California has shown that there is great promise for Linked Learning. While the schools we have studied have encountered a number of obstacles in their implementation efforts, they are working diligently to identify and overcome these hurdles. Many of the schools have made ambitious structural changes that allow for greater integration, and many of these efforts are being supported at both the district and state level through policy changes that accommodate greater structural flexibility. We have also learned, however, that structural changes are insufficient in transforming the high school. The pathways we studied challenge deep-seated cultural norms by taking the position that all students can master complex academic and technical concepts, and that differentiated school practices do a disservice to all. These schools are committed to providing all of their students with the tools they need to succeed in college and career.

We imagine that as a growing number of schools demonstrate success through a Linked Learning approach, these schools will serve as great examples for other schools looking to transform their high schools.