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Building a System of College and Career Pathways in New Mexico

By Gary Hoachlander
Santa Fe cityscape with the Bataan Memorial Building in foreground and mountains in the background

Like all states, New Mexico aims to enable all of its young people to graduate from high school ready to succeed at college and in careers. Yet, in 2018, only 74% of New Mexico high school students were graduating on time, and the percentages were even lower for African American (69%) and Native American students (66%), as well as those who are economically disadvantaged (69%). Academic proficiency rates for high school students in English language arts and mathematics are also stubbornly low. Moreover, if the state mirrors national patterns, many of those graduating lack sufficient academic and technical proficiency to pursue some form of postsecondary education without remediation and advance beyond entry-level employment. In short, in an era of rapidly increasing global competitiveness, the state is relegating too many young people to life on the margins, barely subsisting in low-wage jobs that offer little prospect for advancement and are at risk of elimination through automation.

This would be a dire situation even in normal times. Now, it is made even worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and economic disruptions that threaten to widen achievement gaps and further erode the future prospects of those furthest from opportunity. Making this even more challenging is the rapid erosion of state revenue resulting from widespread unemployment and the implosion of oil and gas prices.

Based on a yearlong study of the challenges facing New Mexico schools, this report aims to provide state leaders and stakeholders a research perspective on the challenges facing education and identifies evidence-based ways that state policy can address them through career and technical education pathways. This report complements the main report, Improving Education the New Mexico Way, and is one of a series stemming from this research. It focuses on developing high school pathways that integrate college and career preparation and combine classroom and work-based learning to make high school more engaging and relevant, while also advancing opportunities to develop high-level cognitive skills in the core academic disciplines.

Career and Technical Education in New Mexico

Before the current crisis, New Mexico had embarked on an effort to improve the economic prospects of young people by undertaking an important examination of career and technical education (CTE) and its role in the larger k–12 and postsecondary education systems. To be sure, CTE could have an important role to play in revitalizing New Mexico’s education system. Research shows that participation in CTE—especially three or more courses of focused, high-quality technical instruction—can produce positive impacts on high school completion, postsecondary transition, and future earnings.

However, research shows that these gains are relatively modest and do not include any positive impact on student achievement. Further, data reveal significant patterns of over- and underrepresentation of demographic groups in major industry sectors. For example, female students were significantly underrepresented in enrollments (26%, versus 49% of the total population) in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), as were Native American students (3.8%, versus 10% of the total population).

There are, however, bright spots across the state. Particularly in some of the larger districts with multiple high schools, researchers found Early College high schools, where students can simultaneously earn a high school diploma and an associate degree, as well as evidence of career academies operating within some of the larger comprehensive high schools. And a growing body of research supports making CTE an integral part of students’ larger secondary and postsecondary educational experience through the design of local systems of college and career pathways. This comprehensive approach connects CTE to core academics and offers students a broader, more coherent high school experience.

High-Quality Systems of College and Career Pathways

An analysis of the Linked Learning District Initiative in California, a multiyear effort to design and implement districtwide systems of comprehensive “linked learning” college and career pathways, indicates the promise of the pathways approach. Research shows that students in high-quality college and career pathways experienced a range of positive outcomes compared to peers in traditional high school programs. They were better prepared to succeed in college, career, and life; earned more credits in high school; were less likely to drop out and more likely to graduate on time; had greater confidence in their life and career skills; and reported experiencing more rigorous, integrated, and relevant instruction. Students who had low achievement scores in earlier grades made significantly better academic progress when they participated in pathways in high school. Lastly, the 4-year college-going rate for African Americans in these pathways was 12 percentage points higher than peers not participating in pathways.

This report recommends that New Mexico maintain its commitment to college and career readiness for all, while also being mindful of the current pressures and limitations on state policy and school operations. Specifically, it recommends that, over the next several years, New Mexico redesign its traditional high schools to become part of local systems of college and career pathways. These pathways would make career and technical education an integral part of secondary and postsecondary education in New Mexico by integrating CTE and core academic curriculum, combining classroom and work-based learning, providing personalized student supports, and aligning secondary and postsecondary programs to prepare all students for postsecondary education and career success.

This comprehensive approach connects CTE to core academics and offers students a broader, more coherent high school experience.

Immediate, low-cost steps to take during the COVID-19 recovery period include:

  • Develop CTE curriculum and work-based learning experiences that can be delivered virtually and build the capacity of academic and CTE teachers to teach remotely.

  • Convene a task force to develop a state college and career pathways framework and establish quality standards that can guide the launch of pilots and the eventual design of the new system. This framework should include four essential components:

    1. College preparatory core academics (math, science, English language arts, social studies, world language, and the arts) emphasizing real-world application, project-based learning, and performance assessment

    2. A cluster or sequence of four or more challenging CTE courses embracing industry standards in the sector that is the theme of the pathway and, wherever possible, offering related dual enrollment and industry certifications

    3. A continuum of work-based learning experiences, beginning with career awareness, mentoring, or job shadowing in grade 9 and evolving into internships and/or school- based enterprise by 12th grade

    4. Personalized student supports including college and career counseling, accelerated instruction in mathematics and English language arts, and attention to social-emotional learning

  • Establish state standards for pathways that ensure quality and equity of access, participation, and success.

  • Adopt a system of metrics that can be used to monitor pathway implementation and quality and to support continuous improvement, both locally and statewide. Integrate data from the pathway assessment system with New Mexico’s existing data systems at the state and local levels to promote pathway quality and continuous improvement in integration.

  • Amend New Mexico’s Graduation Requirements Statute (§ 22-13-1.1) to encourage and support students’ participation in high-quality college and career pathways.

In the longer term, the state can adopt policies and make new investments that create a system of college and career pathways that prepare all students for postsecondary education and career success.

  • As part of the continuing implementation of the H.B. 91 CTE pilot, create a demonstration of college and career pathways systems in 6 to 10 districts throughout the state.
  • Incentivize k–12 to postsecondary articulation and alignment of college and career pathways with both 2-year and 4-year institutions by ensuring an appropriate distribution of state funding to participating institutions for dual credit courses that are part of pathways, without double-funding these courses.
  • Incentivize employer engagement and work-based learning, including industry certifications and entrepreneurship.
  • Build the capacity of educators, district leaders, and communities to implement well-designed, high-quality college and career pathways. Such an effort could include professional development for site leaders and both academic and CTE teachers, as well as incentives for teachers to earn dual academic and CTE credentials. Local communities could also develop graduate profiles defining what graduates of their schools should know and be able to do to guide the design of each college and career pathway.
  • Establish a College and Career Pathways Trust as a public–private partnership among the state, the business sector, and philanthropic organizations to fund and implement a system of high-quality college and career pathways. This joint effort would integrate CTE and core academic curriculum, combine classroom and work-based learning, and align secondary and postsecondary programs.

Building a System of College and Career Pathways in New Mexico by Gary Hoachlander is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Support for this research came from the Thornburg Foundation as well as from the Learning Policy Institute’s core operating support from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the author and not those of our funders.

Updated March 5, 2021. Revisions are noted here.