In SRI International’s new brief, Access and Equity in Linked Learning, we share what we’ve learned about the promise and challenges of achieving equitable, career-themed pathways from our 7-year study of Linked Learning.
Linked Learning is an approach to transforming the high school experience by creating academically rigorous, career-themed pathways in either stand-alone small schools or academies within large high schools. In the brief, we examine five groups of students who are frequently underserved by traditional schools—students with low prior achievement, English language learners, African American students, Latino students, and female students—to understand the successes and challenges of school districts in fostering access and equity in Linked Learning pathways. The brief also highlights some of the promising strategies districts have enacted to increase access to Linked Learning pathways, including open high school choice policies, centralized outreach and recruitment practices, and strategic pathway location.
Evaluating access and equity in college and career pathway reforms such as Linked Learning is critical given the inequitable structure of earlier incarnations of career education in America. For much of the twentieth century, high schools were designed to prepare some students for college and others for work. College-bound students were funneled into academically rigorous, college-preparatory courses, while students not deemed to be college material—either because of low academic achievement or due to racial or economic discrimination—were tracked into vocational education courses designed to prepare them for direct entry into the workforce.
Much has changed since the heyday of vocational education; today, the national discourse on high school reform has shifted to embrace the role of high-quality career-technical education in preparing all students for both college and career. Fostered through a demonstration project funded by The James Irvine Foundation, Linked Learning is part of a vanguard of programs designed to attain these dual goals by integrating rigorous, college-preparatory academics with career-technical education and exposure to work-based learning experiences in high school career pathways that afford both equitable access and the opportunity for full participation to all students.
For the purposes of the brief, we operationalized access and equity as follows: to evaluate access, we examined districts’ choice and recruitment policies and assessed the degree to which pathways were representative of their districts’ high school student populations; to evaluate equity, we compared academic outcomes for Linked Learning student subgroups with those of similar peers in traditional high school settings. We found that achieving representative pathway enrollment is challenging due to complex interactions between district policies and practices; pathway themes, location, and reputation; and residential patterns. For example, across eight districts implementing Linked Learning, students who entered pathways with low prior achievement were underrepresented in pathways in three districts and overrepresented in pathways in two districts. We considered a given student group to be proportionally represented in pathways if it was within 5 percentage points of the group’s district average. Across the districts, we found that female students were underrepresented in engineering pathways and overrepresented in health pathways.
We also looked at end-of-high-school outcomes, such as credits earned and graduation rates, for each student group. Across the outcomes examined, we found that, on average, Linked Learning students in each of the five focal groups performed as well as or better than similar peers in traditional high school programs.
Notably, we found that the Linked Learning approach had a particularly strong, positive impact on the students who entered high school with poor academic skills. Pathway students with low prior achievement were 9.4 percentage points more likely to graduate, completed 1.7 more college preparatory semester courses, and were 6.4 percentage points more likely to enroll in a 4-year versus a 2‑year postsecondary institution than similar peers in traditional high school programs.
These findings on access and equity in Linked Learning pathways demonstrate the promise of this approach for traditionally underserved students. They also highlight the complexity of achieving representative pathway enrollment and emphasize the need for school districts to implement intentional policies and practices that provide equitable access to pathways and support success for all students.
SRI’s evaluation of the California Linked Learning District Initiative is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.