Graduation Time for Linked Learning: SRI Education Issues Sixth-Year Evaluation Report

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The expansion of Linked Learning, a program that connects classroom education with real-world experiences, was among the promising approaches to high school redesign cited at the recent White House Summit on Next Generation High Schools. The summit highlighted efforts to reinvent America’s high schools, including key redesign elements such as deeper ties to postsecondary education and career-related, personalized learning experiences to better prepare students for college and career.

For the past six years, California has provided a testing and incubation site for Linked Learning through the California Linked Learning District Initiative funded by The James Irvine Foundation. With SRI Education as the independent evaluator, this pilot effort in nine California districts has documented the development and implementation of Linked Learning district systems and examined their impact on student outcomes. SRI’s sixth-year evaluation report on the initiative is the first to include end-of-high-school outcomes for students in Linked Learning pathways, and confirms many of the promising findings from previous years.

Linked Learning aims to make high school both engaging and relevant through rigorous academics integrated with sequenced career-technical education courses alongside work-based learning opportunities and personalized support. In the sixth year of the evaluation, we looked at outcomes for students in certified Linked Learning pathways—those that have successfully gone through an external review by a Linked Learning partner. We found that, compared to peers in traditional high school programs, students participating in certified pathways:

  • Are more likely to graduate from high school with a standard high school diploma
  • Earn, on average, more credits by the end of high school

In addition, certified pathways are doing just as well as traditional high school programs at helping students complete the “a–g” course requirements for admission at California’s public 4-year universities even as they retain more students who might otherwise have dropped out and were unlikely to pursue the full college preparatory curriculum. Finally, certified pathway students also have better college readiness outcomes than similar students in traditional high school programs.

Linked Learning is designed to 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. Importantly, then, we found that the promising graduation and college readiness findings hold for students coming into Linked Learning with low prior achievement levels, as well as the Latino and female students who make up half or more of the study sample. In addition, African-American students and English learners in certified pathways earned more credits than similar peers in traditional high school programs, and fare just as well in terms of graduation, dropout, and college readiness.

At a time when Linked Learning is expanding rapidly in California, we also found evidence that attention to pathway quality plays a key role in these positive findings for students. Students in career pathways that were not certified in the Linked Learning approach did not experience the positive graduation and college eligibility outcomes observed for certified pathway students. Certification indicates that pathways have implemented certain structures such as integration of career technical education course sequences and work-based learning experiences into students’ program of study. The lack of positive findings for non-certified pathways suggests that it is critical for these structures to be in place to produce positive effects on student outcomes.

In the coming year, SRI Education researchers will visit all nine districts in the Initiative to learn more about how the districts are sustaining Linked Learning as Irvine Foundation funding for the pilot ends. In particular, we will look at how regional consortia of K–12 school districts, postsecondary institutions, and local industry partners, supported with state, federal, and Irvine Foundation funding, are advancing two areas of Linked Learning that have been underdeveloped in the initiative districts: work-based learning and postsecondary partnerships. We will also keep an eye out for how districts are attending to high quality teaching and learning within Linked Learning. Without this focus, Linked Learning is unlikely to impact student learning in a meaningful way. Our seventh-year evaluation report will include an updated analysis of the end-of-high school outcomes including one more cohort of Linked Learning graduates, and for the first time will provide postsecondary enrollment rates for Linked Learning students.

This work is at the center of a suite of SRI Education projects related to Linked Learning in California, including the California Community Linked Learning Evaluation and a rigorous study of Linked Learning San Bernardino funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s Investment in Innovation (i3) fund. In addition, this work draws on SRI Education’s extensive experience studying high school reform efforts, including our evaluation of the Early College High School Initiative, our research on inclusive STEM high schools, and research on the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme.

The California Linked Learning District Initiative is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Education

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