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Report on “Linked Learning” Supports Preparing All Students for College and Careers

Updated Legislative Brief offers policymakers guidance on how to create multiple pathways for student success

Marisa Saunders
(310) 866-2262

William Mathis, NEPC
(802) 383-0058

BOULDER, CO (April 7, 2011) – At a time when the Obama administration is pushing states to adopt policies to ensure that all students are college and career ready, the idea of “Linked Learning” holds enormous promise. An updated policy brief plus model legislation is therefore being released today, providing policymakers with guidance on how states and schools can best prepare all students for college and careers.

The updated brief, Linking Learning to the 21st Century: Preparing All Students for College, Career, and Civic Participation, was originally published in December 2008 by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The brief is co-authored by Dr. Marisa Saunders, a research associate at UCLA's Institute for Democracy, Education and Access, and Christopher Chrisman, an associate with the Denver office of the law firm Holland & Hart.

This new brief provides an update to a brief released in late-2008, explaining some progress and changes that have occurred over the past couple of years. The new brief also replaces the old title of “Multiple Pathways” with the new “Linked Learning” – a change that brief co-author Marisa Saunders says, “underscores the key principles and values of the approach – every Linked Learning program or pathway leads to the same destination: preparation to succeed in both college and career, not one or the other.”

In recent years interest has grown in providing linked learning in high school as a way to prepare all students for both college and career, instead of using a tracking system that provides academic preparation for some students and vocational preparation to others. The Saunders and Chrisman brief describes a research-based strategy for maintaining college as a universal option by using a Linked Learning approach to relate academic work to the diverse interests of students, including direct connection to particular industries and careers.

Since publication of the original Multiple Pathways brief, a growing number of schools have made a commitment to foster the academic and technical knowledge, skills, and abilities required for all students to succeed in college and career. In California, several school districts have, for example, focused on the approach as their No. 1 high school transformation strategy.

At the same time, additional research has documented the effectiveness of the Linked Learning approach, a number of education organizations have cooperated in establishing criteria to certify pathway programs, and schools have begun to seek such certification.

This approach aims to end the decades-old practice of funneling only one group of students to college preparation, while making work-focused education the default for students considered less likely to succeed. Instead, under the Linked Learning model, academic learning and real-world applications and opportunities are integrated for all students, thus exposing everyone to all potential opportunities: immediate entry into the workplace after high school, apprenticeship, technical certification, and two- and four-year colleges. “Linked Learning is designed to capitalize on the relevance and engaging elements found in many career-and-technical education programs and also build on the academic challenges and supports found in many academic, college-preparatory programs,” Saunders says.

Saunders stresses that care must be taken to avoid the “false choice between ‘college-prep-for-all’ and career and technical education” and to avoid an implementation of Linked Learning that resembles harmful tracking. For example, she has both praise and concern in response to a February report from Harvard’s Pathways to Prosperity Project. While that report helpfully points out the need for a system that better meets the diverse needs and interests of 21st century adolescents, it falls short, Saunders says, “in its failure to consider the importance of comparable academic rigor in all pathways.” The result is that the Harvard prescription risks devolving into a new and equally discriminatory tracking system.

The updated Linking Learning brief highlights the potential of the approach but warns that proper program design is essential. The first half of the brief details the key elements of well-designed Linked Learning programs. The second half provides model statutory language that illustrates how such well-designed programs can be supported by legislative enactments.

Find the updated brief from Marisa Saunders and Christopher Chrisman, Linking Learning to the 21st Century: Preparing All Students for College, Career, and Civic Participation, on the web at:

The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence. For more information on NEPC, please visit

This legislative brief was made possible in part by the support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (