There is growing evidence that a Linked Learning approach will improve student outcomes.
Probably one of the most recent and comprehensive assessments of the research debates—philosophical, theoretical, and empirical—surrounding academic and career preparation in American high schools is made by Jeannie Oakes (now directing education programs at the Ford Foundation) and her former colleagues at University of California at Los Angeles.
A new report by the Career Academy Support Network provides, for the first time, comparisons between students in each CPA and non-academy students at the same high school. This report uses data on academy students from the October 2010 reports submitted by each CPA to the California Department of Education (CDE) for the 2009-10 school year. In addition, this report also uses information from the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program to compare the characteristics of academy and non-academy students, and to analyze scores from the California Standards Tests (CSTs).
These reports conclude that, while all the evidence is not yet in, there is a strong case for making Linked Learning a major focus of high school reform. Other studies also offer evidence that Linked Learning, when well-designed and implemented, can produce substantial learning benefits for many of California's high school students. Read on to learn more about findings in key areas:
1. Learning in Context
Some of the more convincing findings supporting Linked Learning began emerging in the 1980s from work in learning theory and cognitive science. Research shows that many people learn better and faster, and retain information longer, when they are taught concepts in context (Sticht et al. 1987).
One prominent study (PDF, 2.26 MB) offered strong evidence that integrated academic and technical curriculum leads to higher test scores if implemented well. In this research, career and technical education (CTE) teachers were paired with mathematics teachers who identified the mathematical content embedded in the CTE teachers’ subjects and developed lesson plans to teach the math within the occupational context. The 57 CTE teachers who helped develop the math–enhanced lessons were randomly assigned to classrooms and delivered the curriculum for about 10 percent of class time over the course of one year; 74 CTE teachers not participating in such development taught other classrooms with traditional instruction.
The almost 3,000 enrolled students were given math pre–tests and were tested again a year later. Those taught the integrated curriculum significantly outscored the control group on two tests of math ability.
Other research on the effectiveness of career academies and other forms of career and technical education also provides strong evidence of the benefits of pathways. While more research should be done, the findings suggest that teaching integrated curricula can improve student outcomes in specific, measurable areas.
2. Higher Earning Power
An integrated curriculum combined with work–based learning and career guidance can lead to higher wages after high school. Employing rigorous experimental design and random assignment, an MDRC study (PDF, 3.12 MB) examined the outcomes of 1,700 students enrolled in career academies that offered the Linked Learning approach to predominantly minority students. The study showed that four years after graduation from high school, career academy graduates were earning more than their traditionally educated counterparts. While this was true for both men and women, the result was statistically significant for academy males, who earned 18 percent ($10,000) more over the four–year period after high school.
The study could not isolate the precise causes of these higher earnings. The wage gains could reflect mastery of general industry knowledge and skill, an increased ability to apply academic knowledge and skill, greater proficiency in problem solving, development of networking and teamwork skills, or other learning not measured by conventional standardized achievement tests. Nevertheless, the earning gains enjoyed by academy students suggest that additional learning was occurring in academy programs, which was sufficiently valued by employers to warrant higher wages.
This study found further that academy students did neither better nor worse than comparable high school students on academic achievement as measured by standardized tests. Nor was the academy students’ postsecondary attainment compromised. Since these career academies were not yet teaching core academics any differently from the way courses were taught in traditional high school classes, these results are not surprising. It remains to be seen whether more contextualized or problem–based approaches to academic instruction can produce higher academic gains and better rates of postsecondary persistence and attainment.
3. Higher Academic Achievement
Other research on career academies is also promising—indicating increases in graduation rates, exit exam passing rates, and the number of students eligible for state colleges. In a study conducted collaboratively by ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, and the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California at Berkeley, researchers found that students in California’s partnership academies were much more likely to complete the 15 academic courses (the a–g requirements) needed to be eligible for admission to California’s public colleges and universities. The study found that 50 percent of graduating seniors in partnership academies had completed the a–g requirements, compared to only 39 percent of graduates statewide. A Profile of California Partnership Academies 2009-10 (PDF, 1.50 MB) found that 50 percent of graduating seniors in partnership academies had completed the a–g requirements, compared to only 39 percent of graduates statewide.
Similarly, academy students were much more likely to pass the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). For example, 71 percent of African American students in academies passed the math portion of the CAHSEE in 2005, compared with 55 percent of all African American high school students in the state.
Graduation rates were also better, with 96 percent of academy seniors graduating compared to only 87 percent of high school seniors statewide. (Data were unavailable for the study to calculate graduation rates from entry in ninth grade to graduation.) While it is possible that selection effects— that students enrolled in the academies were more motivated or better prepared to begin with— account for some of the outcome, it seems unlikely that this could explain such a large difference.
Even without an integrated curriculum, students simply taking both academic and technical courses may have lower dropout rates and better achievement gains than comparison groups of students. A study (PDF, 9.85 KB) examining data on more than 4,000 students found that those in California’s ROCPs improved their grade point averages more than comparison students enrolled in non–CTE programs. ROCP students were as likely to enroll in postsecondary education and to earn higher wages. Significantly, these students were lower achieving and of lower socioeconomic status than the comparison group.
In addition, in data analyses from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which has monitored student achievement data and other factors for over a decade, researchers found that the risk of dropping out was four times higher when students took no CTE courses than when they completed three such courses for every four academic courses. Participation in CTE courses had an even more positive effect for the lowest achieving students (Mitchell 2006, citing Neumark 2004).
4. Higher Postsecondary Participation
Finally, postsecondary participation rates (PDF, 227 KB) may be higher for those enrolled in Linked Learning pathways. Three other studies of career academies followed students beyond high school. Two found higher rates of postsecondary participation among academy students compared with their peers, while one found no difference.
Although these particular studies of career academies did control for various student background differences, their methods do not rule out the possibility that there was something about the students in the academies, rather than the programs themselves that explains these encouraging results.
Research to date suggests that the approach of integrating challenging academic and technical curricula in the context of real–world application can produce many benefits for students, especially those who traditionally have not done well in conventional high school programs. Like most research in education, the findings are not always conclusive, and the field needs additional exploration—especially more studies employing experimental design that can eliminate the potential effects of students “self–selecting” to participate in career academies and other types of Linked Learning pathways.
Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence of positive outcomes for students. Perhaps just as compelling, none of the studies indicates lower performance in key areas by students in pathways compared to students in other high school programs. “Do no harm” is of paramount importance in any school improvement proposal. Pathways initiatives implemented so far respect this caution, while also producing tangible benefits for many students.
A Model for Success: CART’s Linked Learning Program Increases College Enrollment
This seven-year study, based on data from the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success (Cal-PASS), found that attendance in Linked Learning more than doubled the rate of college entrance for minority students and increased college enrollment rates for all student populations compared to local and state student populations.