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'Linked learning' seems to work for high school students

California is making a laudable commitment to vocational programs that provide relevance to students' studies and set them on a career path.

November 13, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has been the driving force behind the allocation of $250 million for career education programs in high schools. He says “career-oriented curriculum” reduces dropout rates “by engaging students in real-world work.”
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) has been the… (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — It used to be called "shop." Then educators started using two-bit labels like "vocational education." And it got worse.

"Career tech," they renamed it when the dot.com era emerged. Now it goes by "linked learning." Or is it "career pathways?"

I'm confused.

"Call it shop-plus," says Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the Legislature's leading proponent of whatever it is.

I'll roll my eyes and refer to it as "linked learning." Yuk.

Whatever it's called, it seems to work for high schoolers where it exists, which isn't enough places. It provides relevance to their studies and sets them on a career path. So maybe "career pathways" is a better tag after all.

By any name, the state government — thanks largely to Steinberg — is making a major financial commitment to it.

Amid scandals and skirmishes, this is something the Legislature has done that is unequivocally positive and has drawn little attention. It is a "good news" story.

Unlike hundreds of bills passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, this one was not trivial. It was significant and futuristic.

It took a slice — $250 million — of the $55-billion education budget and dedicated it to linked learning/career pathways as a one-time expenditure. If it works, there'll undoubtedly be a push for more.

Steinberg insisted on it as part of the overall $138-billion state budget deal in June. Looking at the $250 million in that perspective, it's chump change. But it's by far the biggest-ever state investment in these types of career education programs and reverses years of recession-rooted spending slashes.

The quarter-billion dollars will be doled out in competitive grants to high schools, community colleges and their "business partners" — a Steinberg blurb says — "to create pathways for careers in high-need and high-growth economic sectors."

It's designed "to address a skills gap in California," the program description continues, "where employers in the state face a shortage of skilled workers in certain occupations" despite a high unemployment rate.

Steinberg says "skill shortages are particularly profound in sectors requiring scientific, technical, engineering or math expertise, which are also projected to be the fastest growing occupations in the next decade."

He says "career-oriented curriculum" has significantly reduced dropout rates "by engaging students in real-world work."

The money can be used for training teachers, updating facilities (high-tech shops) and creating new curricula that link classrooms and businesses. It sounds rather vague, but will be sorted out by the state Department of Education, which will award the grants.

How about paying for internships at local businesses? "Don't think so," says Joel Redding, an Education Department official who is working on the implementation. "Businesses would be doing that."

Tax credits? "Don't think so."

Redding says the state will insist on schools being specific about how the money would be spent, that "appropriate fiscal controls are in place" and that there's honest data collection on results.

Yes, state bureaucrats and school administrators don't want to blow this landmark program by wasting the money.

The state expects to start accepting grant applications in January and mailing checks by June, in time for the next school year.

Steinberg has been pushing this sort of thing — call it career tech — for years.

Last spring, he led legislators on a field trip to the Long Beach Unified School District, which has one of the better linked learning programs in the country. The senator says he found students there more engaged and focused than in many other public schools.

Of the 23,000 high schoolers in the district, about 18,000 are involved in linked learning, says program administrator Nader Twal. Students there learn about robotics, health services, biotechnology, arts and entertainment, computer systems, business finance — a long list of stuff.

It doesn't subtract from regular academic courses — English, science — but refocuses that curriculum toward possible careers. Often, students intern at local businesses.

"They're able to answer their own question, 'Why am I learning this in class?'" Twal says. "Fundamentally, when students understand why they're learning, their attention and performance goes up."

And, truly, this does go far beyond shop.

For example, there's a "social justice" academy in Long Beach where students study world history. But they also assume the identity of foreign diplomats and participate in international negotiations. These might be students who are thinking about law school or, Twal says, could wind up going into journalism.

That's a big difference from my day, when I took typing and wrote for the school paper.

David Rattray, senior vice president for education and workforce development at the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, is a big booster of linked learning.

"Historically, students in more affluent communities have gotten opportunities — summer jobs, internships, mentors in their families. But kids in cities didn't have that kind of social equity. I love this [linked learning].

"Kids from low-income families living in communities of high poverty also need to dream and believe that there's hope for the future, a place to go, a pathway to lifelong success. Right now, for too many, their only pathway is from school to prison."

Says Steinberg: "This stuff isn't sexy. But I think the country is hungry for it. They're hungry for a different definition of education reform."

Call it shop for the 21st century.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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