July 1, 2009

Assessing California's Multiple Pathways Field: Preparing Youth for Success in College and Career

How do you construct a new field? As Irvine’s Youth program and its partners develop the infrastructure needed to expand the multiple pathways approach in California’s high schools, a new field-building framework is helping them understand what it needs to flourish.

By: Don Howard, Pat Wu

Executive Summary

High school is not meeting the needs of the majority of students in California. About one-third of new ninth-graders in the state drop out before graduating. Another third finish high school, but lack the academic and technical readiness to succeed in college or a career. Only a third graduate on time and transition easily to postsecondary education and lasting career success.

The James Irvine Foundation believes that, to close the achievement gap, young people must be prepared in high school to succeed in college-level education and to succeed in their careers. Irvine’s Youth program supports “multiple pathways,” an innovative approach to high school education that integrates rigorous academics with demanding career and technical education, comprehensive student support services and relevant work-based learning opportunities. The evidence to date suggests that more students will complete high school on time, prepared for both college and career.

Not every multiple pathways student will choose to go directly to college after high school, but these programs are designed to provide students with the preparation, skills and opportunity to make that decision for themselves. They will have the ability to choose their own path, not have it chosen for them because of poor academic performance, inadequate preparation for college or a lack of relevant workplace skills.

The Youth program’s goal is to increase the number of low-income youth in California who complete high school on time and earn a postsecondary credential by the age of 25. To achieve this goal, the program seeks to expand and strengthen California’s multiple pathways field. To that end, Irvine commissioned the Bridgespan Group to assess the state of the field and identify its key opportunities and challenges. The Foundation initiated this work both to inform its strategy and to catalyze the field’s development.

Assessment Method

Bridgespan consulted with a 24-member advisory committee representing the multiple pathways field and met with more than 60 additional leaders in the field through interviews and a focus group (see Appendices A and B). Research also included interviews with a few prominent skeptics of the multiple pathways approach, a review of available secondary research (see Appendix C) and an examination of the landscape of organizations in the field (see Appendix D). The findings and recommendations from this field assessment are discussed in this paper.

Five Signs of Strength and Related Findings

A field assessment framework was developed to structure this investigation — informing the types of questions asked in field interviews and the review of secondary literature — in order to help ensure that information captured about the multiple pathways field was consistent and thorough. (Read "The Strong Field Framework," a guide to the field assessment framework, from www.irvine.org.) The framework identifies five characteristics of strong fields.

In support of each, the assessment surfaced a number of findings.

1. Shared Identity: In strong fields, people work toward a common goal, identify as members and use a common set of core practices and methods to achieve that goal.

Findings: Those interviewed were aligned around a common purpose and goal. However, it became apparent that the multiple pathways field is at a nascent stage in terms of developing a shared identity. Members of the field do not often agree on terminology or the definition of key concepts.

2. Standards of Practice: Strong fields have codified their practices, created exemplary demonstration models, built training and professional development programs to support practitioners, and established processes and organizations to ensure the quality and fidelity of implementation.

Findings: The multiple pathways field is just beginning to develop standards of practice. Members of the field report promising demonstration models through a network of model programs, but they say the field still lacks large-scale, systemwide demonstrations. In addition, the field lacks sufficient infrastructure to support teachers and administrators and to help organizations meet the growing demand for multiple pathways programs.

3. Knowledge Base: Fields with a strong knowledge base have expert researchers and practitioners engaged in the ongoing improvement of the field and involved in documenting and disseminating knowledge and best practices to support others.

Findings: The multiple pathways knowledge base has a solid foundation and is growing. Members of the field find existing evidence of program effectiveness encouraging, but they also believe that there is a need to develop, codify and disseminate best practices concerning work-based learning and program assessment. In addition, interviewees report that few vehicles to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration exist.

4. Leadership and Grassroots Support: Influential leaders and exemplary organizations advance strong fields. They also have a broad base of support from critical constituencies, such as parents, students, policymakers and the business community.

Findings: The field assessment indicates that district, policy and business leaders are showing growing support for the multiple pathways approach. While evidence of such support and leadership is emerging in discrete instances, there is no strategy for systematically engaging parents and students across the state in the multiple pathways field.

5. Funding and Supporting Policy: Strong fields benefit from an enabling policy environment that makes available sufficient funding to sustain core practices.

Findings: While a handful of leading policymakers are supportive of multiple pathways, this has not yet translated into an overarching policy framework or dedicated funding for multiple pathways. Multiple pathways innovators and entrepreneurs have been able to cobble together the funding required to support their work. Conversations with these actors made it clear, however, that reaching the next level of scale will be difficult without incentives and supports for those who are less intrinsically motivated to move in this direction. Broad statewide adoption is highly unlikely without new policies and funding streams.

Recommendations for Building the Field

California’s multiple pathways field has built significant momentum through steady program growth, promising evidence of a positive impact on student outcomes and a supportive group of influential policymakers and exemplary organizations. However, when the field is assessed against important measures of strength, it becomes apparent that the field must overcome a set of key barriers to advance beyond this early stage of development and make multiple pathways available to many more youth. To overcome these barriers, the following targeted strategies are recommended:

1. Develop a clear, precise definition of multiple pathways, messaging aligned with that definition and a quality-control system to distinguish high-fidelity implementations.
The field is not aligned on a definition of multiple pathways. Though honing in on a precise definition and messaging may alienate some members of the field, the value of such a definition may be worth it.

2. Establish large-scale, systemwide demonstrations.
Large-scale demonstrations are held back by a combined lack of evidence, infrastructure and regional intermediaries. The field needs to overcome these barriers to prove the feasibility and impact of multiple pathways at a district or county level.

3. Work to increase state funding and create more supportive policies that would facilitate broad adoption.
Implementation of multiple pathways at the district or county level provides a unique opportunity to learn what’s required for greater scale and to build a constituency for statewide adoption. Policymakers should be involved in these demonstrations, perhaps through a formalized partnership, so that they can see the benefits and the requirements of multiple pathways when implemented at a district or county level. Parents, students and district leaders in these demonstration sites should also advocate for state-level funding and supportive policies for multiple pathways.

The multiple pathways approach is one of the most promising solutions available to address the lack of academic and workforce preparedness among today’s students, as well as the challenge of engaging young people who do not find school relevant. By making learning relevant, multiple pathways increases student engagement and thereby has the potential to improve academic proficiency, reduce the dropout rate and better prepare students for success in college and career.

Please download the full Assessing California's Multiple Pathways Field: Preparing Youth for Success in College and Career report from the James Irvine Foundation.

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.