California Partnership Academies: They’re effective – and threatened

California Partnership Academies (CPAs) are college-and-career pathways that typically enroll 150-200 students within a large high school. The good news is that they work. The bad news is that their funding is threatened.

The state currently supports nearly 500 CPAs, each receiving a grant of about $60,000, depending on how many students are enrolled and whether students achieve performance targets for attendance and course credits. By law, the state grant must be matched by the local district, and matched again by contributions from local employer partners.

A report released last October found that 95 percent of CPA seniors in 2009-10 graduated at the end of the school year, compared with 85 percent statewide. And 57 percent of CPA graduates reportedly completed the “A-G” course sequence required for freshman admission to UC or CSU  – compared with 36 percent of graduates statewide. These results are especially impressive because at least half of the students entering CPAs must be “at risk” as indicated by low income and a record of low grades and test scores, poor attendance, and misbehavior.

The recent results closely resemble findings from a report on CPAs five years earlier. Since the 1980s, evaluations of “career academies” – the generic name for this kind of college-and-career pathway – have consistently found positive results for students during and after high school.

The most rigorous study, which randomly assigned some career academy applicants to the academy and others to the regular high school program, was conducted by MDRC from 1994 to 2008. The study corroborated many of the earlier results. Notably, among students most at risk, 79 percent of academy students stayed in school until spring of senior year, compared to 68 percent of the control group. Eight years after high school, students assigned to academies had average monthly earnings of $2,112, compared with $1,896 for the control group. The study also found both the academy and control groups had high postsecondary educational attainment.

In California, 3 percent of students in grades 10-12 are enrolled in one of the nearly 500 existing CPAs. The Linked Learning initiative is building support in school districts to sustain and expand the number of CPAs and other college-and-career pathways.

Unfortunately, the ongoing state budget crisis threatens the expansion and even the survival of CPAs. An immediate threat is loss of funding in June 2012 for about 200 CPAs that were authorized by two recent laws, SB 70 and AB 519, both of which are sunsetting.

A second threat is the push to consolidate or eliminate all “categorical” (special-purpose) grants from the state to local school districts. In theory, cutting the strings on categorical grants frees local decision-makers to target funds more efficiently on local needs.

The special-purpose funding for CPAs should be exempt from the policy to eliminate categorical grants. There are several justifications for such an exemption.

First, the evidence that these programs successfully prepare students for both college and careers is stronger than for any other existing approach to improving high school education for at-risk students.

In addition, the CPA legislation contains a unique combination of quality-assurance mechanisms.

  • CPAs are funded through a competitive application process, in which applications are scored by a panel of reviewers who have expert knowledge of the program.
  • Each CPA is required to submit an extensive annual report that details both the quality of program implementation and the performance of students enrolled in it. The state rewards the academy only for those students performing at required minimums.
  • These annual reports also provide information on required program components as specified in the Education Code, such as cohort scheduling, mentorships, internships, curricular integration, course sequences, and the membership and role of local advisory boards. This accountability process has led to the de-funding of dozens of non-compliant programs over the years.
  • The amount of state funding for each CPA must be matched by an equal contribution from local employers. This provides additional necessary resources, especially for work-based learning and other experiences outside the classroom, at no expense to taxpayers.
  • Each academy is required to have an advisory board that includes representatives of local employers and other community partners. Their participation, in addition to their material contributions to match the state grant, ensure that local employers and community partners are attentive to program quality.

California Partnership Academies are not a panacea, and there is room for improvement in their design and execution. But the evidence shows that they work, and the benefit they provide to California taxpayers exceeds their cost. Eliminating or cutting them would be a serious setback for California.

David Stern is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of California, Berkeley, where he joined the faculty in 1976.  His research, teaching, and policy work have focused on economics of education, high school reform, and educational equity. He has been Principal Investigator for the Career Academy Support Network since 1998.