California Linked Learning District Initiative: Implications for the Future of High School Students


Since 2009, SRI Education has been funded by the James Irvine Foundation to evaluate the California Linked Learning District Initiative, an innovative approach to transforming the high school education experience through a combination of rigorous academics and work-based learning opportunities. Intended to make high school both engaging and relevant, the initiative’s goal is to effectively provide high school students—especially those who are in low-income and underserved communities—with a solid foundation for success in college, careers, and life.

SRI Education recently released its fourth-year evaluation report, which includes new data on student engagement and achievement outcomes from eight of the nine districts participating in the Linked Learning initiative. We’re encouraged by the results, which indicate the approach is making a positive impact. After adjusting for students’ prior achievement and background characteristics, we’ve found that 9th and 10th grade Linked Learning participants are earning more credits than similar peers. By the end of 10th grade they are more likely than similar peers to be on track to complete the general subject courses, commonly referred to as a-g courses, required for admission to University of California (UC) and California State Universities (CSU). This means we can expect these students to be more likely to graduate high school and be prepared to attend a four-year college—and in many cases they are coming from districts where students find it challenging to finish high school.

We’ve also found that students in the Linked Learning program are more likely than their peers to report that high school is helping them improve on 21 st century skills, such as being able to present in front of a group, use computer technology to make informed decisions, and work with others in a professional setting. In addition, students report having a more positive academic mindset about believing that if they work hard, they can be successful.

As we’ve talked to the students over the course of the evaluation period, they have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm and engagement with their Linked Learning experiences. They enjoy the projects, the connections to industry, and the opportunities to hear from professionals in different fields talking about the range of careers that are available to them. These experiences provide the students with social capital that they might not otherwise obtain. Through this supportive community, students can begin to see a future beyond high school and the immediate challenges in front of them.

We’re seeing positive results come out of this initiative, and many more California districts are signing up to participate in the new AB 790 Linked Learning Pilot Program. As these districts are developing their own Linked Learning programs, they can look to the key lessons and learnings that are included in this year’s report to help lay the foundation for a successful program. For instance, it’s critical to have a common vision and buy-in on goals from key stakeholders across the district and outside of the district – from parents, the community, and industry partners. Because developing that common vision can take time, there needs to be a plan for communicating the core ideas of Linked Learning, as well as effective leadership from the district superintendent and school board. In most cases, it’s also essential to employ a dedicated Linked Learning director who can lead the work and move the vision forward.

Looking ahead, our next report will include new data on the first group of students that we began following at the outset of this initiative in 2009. For the first time, we’ll learn whether the Linked Learning students graduate from high school at a greater rate than their peers, as well as whether the students actually complete the a-g requirements and if so, whether they complete them at a higher rate than their peers.

Beyond these high school outcomes, it will be important to investigate how well the students transition after they graduate from these Linked Learning programs, including whether they matriculate into college at higher rates than their peers, and if they are retained in college at higher rates. This will be a critical outcome to examine, because historically the students in these nine districts have had relatively low rates of matriculating, and even lower rates of staying in college due to a variety of challenges, such as financial factors and the need to help support their families.

The development of a Linked Learning program is not a trivial undertaking, but the potential rewards are significant and have implications for the future of California’s students. As a researcher, it has been exciting to see promising results that indicate this approach can help students graduate and prepare for college – particularly for a population in which many of the students do not have this opportunity. Through the Linked Learning initiative and the supports it provides, we are encouraged that these students will come away with 21 st century skills that will allow them to persevere through the challenges of high school and college, and ultimately set them up to be successful in their careers and life.

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