Linked Learning Works to Close the Skills Gap

By Partnership for 21st Century Learning

By Rebecca Sterling

The US is struggling with a significant gap between employers' expectations and young adults' skills sets.

Recent data shows that:

  • By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in America will require postsecondary education—which only 60 percent of Americans currently have. That leaves a gap of 5 million jobs. (Learn more in Ready Nation's Shrinking State Skills Gap report)
  • Nationwide, over 95% of jobs created post The Great Recession have gone to workers with some post-secondary education. (Learn more in Georgetown University Center on Education's America's Divided Recovery: College Haves and Have-Not report)

California, the world’s 8th largest economy, is well-positioned to test big solutions to workforce and skills gaps, such as reimagining the indicators and measures used to assess preparation for college and career.

To solve the skills gap challenge, California and other states have invested significantly in Linked Learning, a high school redesign approach that prioritizes college and career readiness upon high school graduation. A growing number of districts in California and across the country are implementing Linked Learning pathways. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the nation serving more than 640,000 students, has been implementing Linked Learning since 2010.

“The work of Linked Learning calls for strong vision, identifies clear outcomes, requires commitment at every level, and insists on time to develop the approach and institute it with fidelity,” said Esther Soliman, Linked Learning director for LAUSD. “We are asking teachers and administrators to actualize monumental changes in what they teach, how they teach and how they assess. We need to provide time for these shifts to occur and to be firmly embedded in the pathways. When we do, Linked Learning has a transformative positive impact on student engagement and achievement. Our Linked Learning certified pathways have significantly increased their graduation rates, attendance, the number of a-g credits earned, and scores on their Smarter Balance test.”

District leaders, such as Soliman, want a way to distinguish high-quality pathways that are achieving such improved outcomes for students, as well as a system that incentivizes continuous improvement, equitable access, and the establishment of new pathways to prepare more students for college and career.

Linked Learning’s power to positively impact student preparation for college and career comes from the close integration of four core components: rigorous academics that prepare students to be admitted to and succeed in college; sequenced high-quality career-technical education; work-based learning that provides exposure to real-world workplaces and reinforces the professional skills needed to thrive in a career; and support services to address individual students’ needs and ensure equity. A multi-year evaluation by SRI International of Linked Learning in LAUSD and eight other districts that have systemically implemented Linked Learning found that Linked Learning makes a positive difference for students, leading to decreased dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and more credits earned and more college preparatory courses taken by students in Linked Learning pathways when compared to students in traditional high school.

The evaluation study also provides evidence that quality implementation of Linked Learning matters and is essential to improving student outcomes as well as contributing to more equitable outcomes for all students. To recognize high-quality Linked Learning pathways and support the scaling of this approach across the growing Linked Learning field, the Linked Learning Alliance developed and recently launched Linked Learning Certification.

Linked Learning Certification is an online platform that recognizes high-quality Linked Learning pathways and supports pathway development through a tiered system of recognition. It allows pathway leaders to track progress and identify areas of concern or success. For example, schools will be able to better identify how robustly they are implementing pathway features such as the work-based learning continuum and student supports, as well as track progress and reflect on areas to improve.

As pathways achieve levels of Linked Learning certification, it signals that the pathway has met a clear standard of excellence. Employers and postsecondary institutions will be able to take Linked Learning Certification into account as an indicator of students’ preparation to succeed in college and as an employee in today’s global economy.

While Linked Learning Certification was developed with the input of the Linked Learning field based in California, schools, and districts in other states can use the Certification tool to help solve the skills gap challenge. Linked Learning Certification has already been adopted for use by college and career pathways in Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, Kansas, and even outside the country in Saskatchewan, Canada.


Rebecca Sterling serves as a Program Manager with the Linked Learning Alliance. Rebecca supports the Alliance’s enterprise solutions, including Linked Learning Certification and Analytics, and LaunchPath, a regional work-based learning management tool.

This post originally appeared on the Partnership for 21st Century Learning (P21) blog. Reposted with permission.

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"The US is struggling with a significant gap between employers' expectations and young adults' skills sets."