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PREPARING STUDENTS FOR COLLEGE AND CAREER: New Alliance Issue Brief Examines Elements Behind California’s Multiple Pathways Approach

“Today’s workforce demands a new approach to high school education and California’s multiple pathways approach offers a smart solution: education directly linked to the state’s and region’s economic needs.”

The traditional American high school has long represented a critical decision point at which students must choose to pursue college or a career. Yet there is growing recognition that to best serve students and society, today’s high schools must shift their focus from preparing for college or career to ensuring that students are ready for college and career. So says Preparing Students for College and Career: California Multiple Pathways, a new issue brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education that examines how California’s multiple pathways approach combines rigorous college preparation with workplace exposure in an effort to improve student engagement, academic achievement, and success after high school.

“Today’s workforce demands a new approach to high school education and California’s multiple pathways approach offers a smart solution: education directly linked to the state’s and region’s economic needs,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. “This approach provides students with a learning experience that recognizes the demands—and importance—of college and career while preparing students for the full range of opportunities available after high school without limiting them to a particular career path.”

The brief is careful to note the differences between California’s multiple pathways approach and the “Multiple Pathways to Graduation” approach that has gained popularity in New York City. The New York City version is a districtwide recuperative strategy designed to offer multiple, nontraditional high school options based on data about students’ needs and reasons for dropping out of school. Meanwhile, the California Multiple Pathways approach is a comprehensive high school reform strategy used across the state that is characterized by a college-prep curriculum, a technical core organized around an industry theme, additional help for students, and workplace learning opportunities.

According to the brief, the California multiple pathways movement was developed in response to the state’s struggle with dropout rates, adolescent literacy, and achievement gaps. The brief notes that although the approach is still evolving, the fundamental idea has remained consistent: engaging technical classes and opportunities that allow students to experience the workplace environment combined with academically rigorous coursework that students need to graduate career and college ready.

Specifically, each program is set in the context of a major industry sector—such as arts or medical technology—and integrates academic instruction with a demanding technical curriculum and work-based learning experiences. The result is multiyear programs of study that are rigorous, relevant, and directly connected to regional and state economic needs. And by setting up students for success in the full array of options after high school, California’s multiple pathways approach seeks to bridge the college-career divide that has long characterized the American education system.

By understanding how academic concepts are valuable in work-based scenarios, students feel directly involved in their education and career paths. For example, the brief profiles a construction, architecture, and engineering focus pathways program at the Stanley E. Foster Construction Tech Academy in San Diego where students were asked to bid on the construction of a theme park for a team project. Students applied key academic and communication skills to create a business plan, get a design approved, and build a physical model. A recent survey of the academy’s alumni showed that every student from the academy’s Class of 2008 went on to enroll in some form of postsecondary training.

Because California is a microcosm of the United States, the brief argues that the work there offers important lessons for stakeholders addressing the national high school crisis. It cites three reasons why California’s multiple pathways effort has the potential to improve student outcomes in both California and the rest of the nation:

  • Applied learning: Research has proven that many people learn better when they are taught concepts in context.
  • Academic-technical integration: When teachers collaborate to integrate subject matter across all disciplines, it can result in positive student outcomes.
  • Engagement and real-world context: The relevance of coursework is important to student motivation and engagement.

At the same time, the brief pinpoints several challenges to implementing pathways reform. The first is a human capital challenge around hiring and training qualified teachers, administrators, and leaders. The brief notes that it can also be difficult to foster a culture of teacher collaboration, especially between academic and career-technical teachers. Another major obstacle is securing the funding necessary to cover the various costs associated with pathways programs—an obstacle that is further complicated during times of economic downturns or recession. And although the program garners strong support from state leadership and numerous stakeholders, administrators must also draw on a variety of local, state, and federal funding streams—in addition to donations from businesses and communities—to meet funding needs. Other impediments stem from the difficulties of aligning policies designed for traditional academic and technical policy and practice.

“The nation has much to learn from the efforts underway in California around multiple pathways,” said Wise. “Secretary Duncan’s call to innovate and an unprecedented influx of federal funding offers a unique opportunity for cross-cutting programs like multiple pathways to receive the support, funding, and flexibility needed to serve students—not just in California but everywhere. As early results from multiple pathways have demonstrated, this approach can help solve problems that are national in scope, particularly high school graduates’ lack of preparation for college and employers’ dissatisfaction with recent graduates.”

The complete brief is available at

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