Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work
by UCLA IDEA
Week of April 22-26, 2013
To stem the tide of high school dropouts and a lack of college and career preparedness among graduates, a growing number of schools and districts across the state are turning to the promising practices and opportunities of Linked Learning.
Linked Learning, delivered through widely varied “pathways,” blends rigorous academics, a challenging career-based core, an opportunity for students to apply learning in real-world contexts, and individual support services. The practice is not uniform—pathways may vary in their theme or career focus, how they organize coursework, the extent to how much time students spend on and off campus, etc.—yet it can be equally successful, in a wide range of settings, for all students.
Linked Learning is in the process of expanding statewide. The California Department of Education identified 63 districts and county offices of education that will pilot programs beginning this fall (EdSource Today). As such, it is a key moment to identify many of the shared and effective strategies employed by schools and districts implementing the approach.
Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work, along with an accompanying DVD, highlights the experiences—both the struggles and successes—of sites that have committed to the hard work of transforming the high school experience for students by using the Linked Learning approach. Based on a UCLA IDEA study of 10 high school sites across California, this guidebook provides educators, policymakers and stakeholders interested in revamping their school communities a solid launching point. The guidebook does not offer hard-set rules or checklists for implementing Linked Learning; rather, it presents six conditions that are strongly associated with successful Linked Learning pathways. The following conditions provided the foundation that allowed Linked Learning to take root and transform high schools:
1. A Commitment to Equity: Each participating pathway was guided by a commitment to prepare all students for college and career. Before opening their doors, sites spent considerable amount of time establishing an equity-based purpose, and planning and designing a program around it. Pathways used desired student outcomes to serve as a school’s starting point and moved to shape the curriculum and structures to support this equity-based purpose.
2. Connecting Linked Learning Components: Linked Learning pathways work to integrate disparate pieces of the curriculum into a more coherent whole. A rigorous academic core, for example, that fails to connect to the pathway’s technical core or to real-world experiences re-creates the fragmentation seen at the traditional high school. Pathways often rely on overarching industry sector themes to integrate the curriculum.
3. A Culture of Care and Respect: Pathways use various strategies to establish caring and supporting relationships between students, teachers, and other adults that help teachers and school leadership identify students’ existing and developing needs. By personalizing relationships, the school communicates its high expectations and high value on a caring culture—emphasizing civic as well as academic and workplace preparedness.
4. Grounding in the Real World: Participating sites established relationships with individuals, businesses, institutions, and organizations situated in the world outside of school. Expanding the learning community to include a wide range of partners allows outside agencies to invest in students and the school community, and acknowledges the role of multiple stakeholders in the learning, growth, and development of young people.
5. An Environment that Works for Adults: Teacher enthusiasm is one of the most impressive features of Linked Learning. Linked Learning sites created environments that work well for adults as well as students by shifting the way schools operate and rethinking traditional adult relationships. Distributed leadership, collaboration, and support are common strategies employed by pathways to create professional and creative atmospheres.
6. Redefining Success: Participating Linked Learning sites use multiple means to measure their students’ success and to judge their own progress in meeting established goals. The sites studied did not define success solely on mandated standardized-test scores, but by students’ preparedness for the adult world. Understanding success in this way requires new and authentic assessment tools that go beyond test scores and course completion to capture college and career readiness, students’ civic orientations, and eagerness for life-long learning.
While Linked Learning: A Guide to Making High School Work is based on the research findings of 10 unique schools implementing the approach, the implications extend well beyond the school level. The successes highlighted are meant to serve as a springboard to effect system-wide change. Indeed, earnest efforts to expand Linked Learning must pay attention to the on-going classroom and school practices, principles, beliefs, and norms that undergird the approach—the six conditions described in this report.
It is a daunting task to reform high schools. Those hard efforts are reflected within the 10 participating sites. None of them emerged overnight as successful Linked Learning pathways. They have worked steadily over a number of years to develop an engaging curriculum, a culture of care, support and collaboration, and committed partnerships. But they have gained the growing support of their communities and districts, which recognize Linked Learning as a means to achieving systemic change.