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The Big Blur: Are You Doing It? Probably Not.

And that’s OK if we stay focused on the big idea.

March 20, 2024

At a Glance

JFF challenges policymakers and education and workforce leaders to think bigger about the transformations required to blur the lines separating K-12 and postsecondary education and the world of work.

Joel Vargas Vice President
Practices & Centers Topics

In the 2021 Jobs for the Future (JFF) paper The Big Blur, we argue for an entirely new way to organize learning for older adolescents, roughly ages 16-20.

Instead of the high schools and colleges they attend today, learners would be in new institutions starting in what we now think of as grade 11. They would get paid for work-based learning experiences and within four years complete—at no cost—a first postsecondary credential or degree, preparing them for a well-paid job upon graduation and a clear avenue to further education should they so choose. Education finance, governance, accountability, instructor qualifications and training, and education-employer partnerships would shift significantly to make such institutions the norm. This would blur the lines between the now separate public systems of K-12 schooling, postsecondary education and training, and the world of work.

The Big Blur was both a lament about the glacial pace of improvement in postsecondary credential attainment rates and career readiness nationally and a thought experiment about what it would mean to stop jerry-rigging connections between dysfunctional and divided systems with models like dual enrollment and instead start from scratch based on what such approaches have taught us about optimizing learning for young adults. Our Big Blur vision also points to the need for a change in paradigm to meet the demand for more workers with postsecondary education and training in today’s economy: If increasing the supply of such workers is imperative, postsecondary education and training should be a public responsibility just as K-12 education is today.

In sum, the big idea of The Big Blur is that we need to make a step change toward a transformed system of learning for older adolescents and young adults that’s more equitable and calibrated to our dynamic economy.

We need to make a step change toward a transformed system of learning for older adolescents and young adults that’s more equitable and calibrated to our dynamic economy.

The Blur Is More Than a Pathway

Some of the leaders who have most fervently welcomed this idea are innovative advocates of dual enrollment, early college programs, college and career pathways, and work-based learning. And yet in many cases, people who say they embrace our Big Blur vision inaccurately equate models that connect secondary and postsecondary learning in very specific ways with the Big Blur, which we see as a more all-encompassing transformation of existing systems. For example, they might say things like, “By doing dual enrollment, I’m doing the Big Blur” or “By providing work-based learning for some students, I’m doing the Big Blur.”

The conflation is understandable, but ironic.

The steady but slow proliferation of innovations that bridge and align systems, which JFF has promoted, supported, and applauded over many years, was a big part of the inspiration for the Big Blur. When done well, these models have shown evidence of helping to increase the number of young people—particularly those underserved by our current systems—who complete postsecondary education, training, and career experiences with labor market value.

Antecedents to the Big Blur

Here are overviews of three innovative education and training models that inspired JFF to envision the Big Blur: Early college high schools, dual enrollment, and work-based learning.

  • Early college high schools are designed to give high school students opportunities to earn an associate’s degree or gain one to two years of transferable college credit within four to five years of the time they enter high school. Pathways in technology (P-Tech) early college high schools have a similar purpose, but with a six-year time frame and a focus on degrees in subjects that are connected to jobs in IT and other fast-growing fields. Early college schools are effective and have a positive and lasting impact on participants’ postsecondary enrollment and success, according to research studies evaluating long-term longitudinal data for graduates of these schools starting in the early 2000s. For their part, P-Tech schools are newer and their graduates are generally younger than those of other early college schools, but there’s still evidence that they’ve delivered strong results to date. Both are growing. The American Institutes for Research found more than 1,200 early college and P-Tech schools in a recent national survey, and such schools account for about 20% of high schools in Texas.
  • Dual enrollment’s reach has grown substantially in the past 20 years, as has the body of evidence confirming its effectiveness, as JFF Senior Advisor Nancy Hoffman describes in a forthcoming brief. The impact has been so strong that high school students who participated in dual enrollment have been largely responsible for bolstering community college enrollments at a time of overall post-pandemic decreases. Correspondingly, demand for dual enrollment has increased because many states have accountability systems that reward K-12 districts for offering high school students opportunities to complete college courses.
  • States are increasingly enacting policies and taking other steps to try to promote the design and scaling of education-to-career pathways systems that feature work-based learning experiences. The goal is to systematize the design of these programs and coordinate their implementation across K-12 districts and postsecondary institutions, and to integrate intermediary organizations into the administration and implementation of these programs so they can broker connections between education institutions and employers. A range of findings from evaluations of a multitude of approaches to work-based learning offer insights into the design features that are most promising and highlight the need for additional research and development of these programs.

Education-to-career pathways have real benefits for young people, and JFF will continue to support their development across the country. But building these pathways is slow and challenging work, and there aren’t enough programs in place to serve young people at scale and eliminate racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic inequities in outcomes.

That’s because these efforts are treating symptoms rather than a root cause: education systems that are divided, disjointed, and not designed to equip all students with the postsecondary education and training needed for today’s quality jobs and lifetimes of economic advancement. As such, their implementation is slow and limited in scale because they require tedious—albeit worthwhile—efforts to forge partnerships, hammer out legal agreements, configure feasible schedules for students who are enrolled in multiple systems, and negotiate agreements about who is allowed to teach in another system’s programs, who pays for what, and who has legal liability for what.

Even as JFF continues to support programs that pave pathways over potholed systems, we recognize that these efforts don’t constitute the fundamental systemic transformations that the Big Blur embodies and would usher in.

For example, if the learning experiences offered during what are now grades 11 to 14 were strategically sequenced to grow student competence and autonomy and if students were assured of having tuition-free opportunities to earn postsecondary credentials and degrees with labor market value, systems could emerge to support new education settings where students learn (and have that learning validated) in multiple modes. These learning environments could, for example, include cohorts arranged by age as well as “multigenerational” groups of learners. They could include classroom instruction, on-the-job training in workplaces, or field activities. And they could be integrated into a range of adult networks.

Moreover, we believe the systems that emerge as a result of the Big Blur would by design create opportunities for young adults to build social capital, engage in self-advocacy, and develop a sense of agency that would equip them with the skills they need to overcome racial and socioeconomic divides and confidently navigate career paths that lead to quality jobs. That’s because the career preparation activities and work-based learning experiences that would be integrated as a norm into teaching and learning would allow students to build professional networks as they interact on the job with people who work in fields that interest them.

Even as JFF continues to support programs that pave pathways over potholed systems, we recognize that these efforts don’t constitute the fundamental systemic transformations that the Big Blur embodies and would usher in.

A Tricky and Unfathomable Transition

Moving to a transformed system is tricky. It can be unfathomable to think about leaving behind familiar realities and archetypes that bound our ideas and actions. We see an opportunity for leaders in the pathways movement at the levels of both policymaking and practice to use the lessons about what’s working and not working in current systems as a lens through which to envision a fundamentally new reality—and to think of pathways initiatives as Trojan horses that can bring transformation to failing systems.

Implementing the Big Blur requires commitment to innovation and an ability to tolerate risk, and JFF is steadfastly committed to working with policymakers and education and workforce practitioners to make the Big Blur a reality. Since we unveiled our vision in 2021, we have engaged in the following activities to help bring about the transformation we’re calling for:

  • Facilitating an Action Lab where leaders from nine states are learning from one another about how to push policies to create the conditions that foster the systems changes the Big Blur requires—and build demand for those changes. JFF is using the lessons learned from that initiative to develop guidance about what those changes look like in areas such as governance, finance, and staffing.
  • Supporting a Colorado task force created by that state’s legislature to develop recommendations that can systematize innovative programs and models that will establish the foundation for widespread blurring. The group is officially known as the Secondary, Postsecondary and Work-Based Learning Integration Task Force, but members have nicknamed it the Big Blur Task Force.
  • Leading a cohort of five cross-sector state teams in the Launch pathways initiative through a process to design regional and statewide pilots to test innovative solutions that can signal the potential and power of blurring systems. For example, one state is building off of its FAFSA completion efforts and policies to design a pilot for an automated system of college admission and transition for high school students. Another is exploring how to use existing policies so that learners can take full advantage of the benefits, supports, and resources of both the public K-12 system and college systems as they transition from one to the other.

To restate the obvious, we have learned that this is work with no easy answers or straightforward paths to solutions. We don’t have a playbook for stepping outside of our existing education systems altogether and creating a new, more equitable alternative. But we’re inspired by our partners who have the stubborn audaciousness to try to push systems to take big steps toward the Big Blur. And we know we have more to learn from leaders across the country who we hope will join us in our efforts to truly transform systems.

We may not be able to achieve “Blurvana” overnight, but we have to maintain this spirit and vision and blaze a trail toward it together.

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