Marisa Saunders: New Book Examines Successes of Linked Learning in High Schools

Linked Learning students gain first-hand look at professional industries, mentoring, and collaborative work skills.

Imagine a high school classroom where students never ask the age-old question, “Why do I have to learn this?” UCLA/IDEA researcher Marisa Saunders had the opportunity to observe several such classrooms in ten career academy high schools across California. With her fellow researchers, she was able to distill what makes these schools successful in their efforts to provide relevant and career-oriented instruction with Linked Learning, an initiative of The James Irvine Foundation. Their findings make up Saunders’ recent book, “Linked Learning: A Guide for Making High School Work.” (Los Angeles: UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, 2013) .

Saunders says that the book identifies shared strategies across the ten schools that she and her team observed over a two-year period.

“Our guidebook is not a ‘How to Implement Linked Learning,’” she says. “What we found was that these schools all had what we called key conditions… that provided a foundation that allowed Linked Learning to flourish and transform their school sites. They share a commitment to equity, a culture of care and respect, partnerships with outside organizations, and create an environment that works for adults and for students.”

The stated purpose of these schools, according to Saunders, is to make sure all students graduate from high school prepared for their next steps in life – college, careers, and civic participation. With a formula of rigorous core academics, courses in real-world technical skills, work-based learning opportunities, and supports that meet the needs of individual students, Linked Learning schools focus on a theme or industry sector such as finance and business, health science and medical technology, and engineering. Saunders says that coursework in technical subjects at Linked Learning schools easily complements academic subjects, and vice versa.

“We came in one day and saw a group of students in this big open space,” she says of a class observation. “They were testing catapults that they had built in teams. Students had to design the catapult and understand the physics behind it. But they were solving math problems simultaneously. It was really amazing to be able to talk to a student and they could share with you the math that they were doing and how they could apply it to estimate the trajectory of a projectile.

“Another great example is the algebra class we sat in. It was part of a health academy, and during this lesson, students were asked to calculate the correct dosage for a patient based on their age or [weight]. They were calculating difficult math problems and applying difficult concepts, but it totally made sense to them. You would need math to figure out why a two-year-old’s dosage is going to be different from the [dosage for] a 200-pound male.”

Saunders says that the ability for students to see the connections across the curriculum at a theme-based academy made them “truly excited about their learning and [about] what they were learning,” and that school is no longer an activity to endure before being allowed to do what they really care about.

“Connections are meaningful, it doesn’t happen accidentally,” she says. “Something they were learning in their history class related to something they were learning in their English class. Teachers work together to create a coherent curriculum that makes sense to kids and engages them. Students are then able to take that learning and connect it to their internships or other activities that take place outside of school.

“The school bell rings at three, and only a few of these kids will take off. They have robotics club or engineering club, or stay after school to work on a project with their schoolmates. It’s pretty amazing to see kids so engaged and enthusiastic.”

Saunders is currently working on a retrospective study of alumni of the Linked Learning pathways that she and her research team observed, with results from students who graduated between 2006 and 2010, along with a comparison sample of 2,000 students who attended traditional high schools. She says that the contrast between the two groups on how their high school experience impacted their current experience in postsecondary institutions and the workforce was revealing.

“In particular, graduates of [Linked Learning] schools discuss two things,” notes Saunders. “They discuss the incredible relationships they have with other students and with adults in these environments; not just in the school environment, but the relationships they’ve had an opportunity to establish… outside of the school through their internships. And the impact of those relationships seem to last. The idea that somebody cares about you and your future… they hold on to those experiences.”

“Some of the skills that are not necessarily measured through standardized tests – like the ability to collaborate, think creatively, problem solve – those are skills that [Linked Learning] graduates refer to. They felt that they had an advantage compared to their peers who graduated from traditional high schools, in terms of being able to apply this skill set, not only in the workplace but in their communities or in college.”

According to the study, students who attend a Linked Learning pathway graduate from high school at a higher rate than students statewide. This is remarkable in itself, but even more so given that Linked Learning schools enroll greater numbers of students from groups at risk of not graduating.  Moreover, Linked Learning alumni are more likely to attend a two- or four-year postsecondary institution versus not attending college at all compared to the random sample of students from traditional high schools..

To download “Linked Learning: A Guide for Making High School Work,” click here.