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Case Study The California Linked Learning District Initiative

Making learning relevant: infusing real-world experiences into the classroom for lasting college, career and life success

Traditional education pathways are failing many young people, leaving them unprepared for the world after high school


By any measure, both California and the nation are failing to prepare too many young people, especially those from low-income households, for education, work, and civic life in the 21st century. One-sixth of California’s students do not graduate from high school. Of those who do, many lack the knowledge and skills to succeed in postsecondary education or attain high-wage employment.


The James Irvine Foundation launched the California Linked Learning District Initiative to integrate college preparation, technical training and real-world learning opportunities to improve student’s readiness for the post-graduation world.

SRI International’s nine-year evaluation of the initiative unlocked promising evidence on improved student outcomes, including increased credit accumulation and graduation rates. These findings helped educators establish evidence-based strategies and guidance for other districts and schools looking to embrace the Linked Learning approach.

Making learning relevant: infusing real-world experiences into the classroom for lasting college, career and life success

The California Linked Learning District Initiative, funded by The James Irvine Foundation and led by ConnectEd, implemented Linked Learning pathways that prepare students for success in postsecondary education and careers by connecting classroom learning with real-world experiences in pathways organized around one of California’s 15 major industries.

Compared with peers in traditional high school programs, SRI found that Linked Learning students were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to drop out, and earned, on average, more credits. Linked Learning students were equally likely to complete college preparatory course requirements and enroll in college directly after high school graduation.

The evaluation also examined issues of access and equity within the initiative, finding that the positive effects of Linked Learning were particularly strong for students with low prior achievement (see Access & Equity in Linked Learning). These students were 4.5 percentage points less likely to drop out, 7.6 percentage points more likely to graduate, accumulated 15.5 more credits and were 5.7 percentage points more likely to enroll in college than similar peers in traditional high school programs.

In addition to documenting outcomes, SRI’s evaluation surfaced a set of strategies that promote the successful implementation of Linked Learning by both school districts and individual pathways (see What it Takes to Create Linked Learning).

To assess the initiative’s implementation and impact. SRI conducted staff interviews, student focus groups, surveys of high school students and recent graduates, and reviewed program documents. SRI also conducted analyses of student high school and postsecondary data to compare outcomes for pathway students with those of similar peers in traditional high school programs.

The evaluation report was cited in the recent What Works Clearinghouse practice guide on preventing dropout in secondary schools. Final evaluation results are available in the seventh-year evaluation report and Linked Learning and Postsecondary Transitions.

The work conducted by SRI International as discussed in this case study is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

September 2019

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