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Case Study

Toward the Big Blur: Momentum and Progress in Delaware

October 31, 2023

At a Glance

In this second in a series of case studies featuring leading-edge states, Jobs for the Future (JFF) highlights key policies and structures that Delaware is putting into place to erase the arbitrary boundaries between high school, college, and the world of work and open the opportunity for all young adults to move along a path toward a postsecondary credential and preparation for a career.

Meredith Hills Senior Policy Manager
Practices & Centers Topics

What comes to mind when you hear the phrases “youth career pathways” and “exemplar state” in the same sentence? If you’re well-versed in the college and career pathways space, you’d probably automatically think of Delaware, and rightfully so.

Leaders across Delaware have worked hard over the years to develop a pathways system offering all public high school students an opportunity to participate in pathway programs of study and work-based learning to attain college credit and/or a certification across key industries. This education and workforce partnership, referred to as Delaware Pathways, has long been touted for its progress, documenting outcomes and lessons that can be applied to other states looking to embark on a similar path—see here, here, and Jobs for the Future’s (JFF’s) very own resource here.

Today, 30,616 young people in Delaware are enrolled in career pathways across the 24 state-organized models and 100 localized models. Each pathway connects to an in-demand career and is developed in partnership with an employer and institute of higher education.

Our focus for this piece is not to rehash well-recorded information about Delaware Pathways but instead to highlight four state efforts we believe are essential building blocks for achieving JFF’s vision for the Big Blur. The Big Blur argues for erasing the boundaries between high school, college, and careers and creating one new system that works for all students. Specifically, the Big Blur would create the opportunity for all 16-year-olds to start on a path toward a postsecondary credential and preparation for a career by age 20. Ultimately, this will require significant restructuring of policies, systems, and how the field collectively thinks about college and career preparation for today’s young people.

Achieving the Big Blur would require:

Incentives for accountability and financing to promote new ways of organizing learning
Alignment of high schools, colleges, and labor markets so that 11th-grade students enter new institutional structures focused on postsecondary and career preparation
Governance model that unifies decision-making authority over grades 11-14 as well as over districts and postsecondary institutions that are working as a unified institution
Staffing structures designed for effectively organizing learning and work experiences and support systems for older adolescents in grades 11-14

We believe the efforts described below could help unlock the Big Blur because they build toward systems alignment, shared governance structures, and incentives for financing and accountability. Though they originate in a small state, the highlighted efforts can translate to different states, geographic locations, and industries since we see Delaware as a microcosm of the country. The state has rural and urban areas and a population makeup that mirrors national demographic data.

Delaware’s Efforts That Provide Momentum Toward Unlocking the Big Blur

Maximizing the Role of Intermediaries to Facilitate Systems Integration

Intermediary organizations unite a diverse set of partners, resources, and learners around a shared vision. They act as the bridge between stakeholders and program participants who may not have been connected otherwise. They can also source support and resources to develop and test new programs. As a result, intermediaries are vital to pushing the boundaries beyond traditional education models that typically focus on seat time and credential attainment as an end goal. While silos still exist, effective college and career pathway intermediaries unite people across the education-to-workforce ecosystem and often push forward a shared strategy for systems alignment. Without intermediary functions, we may not see impactful collaboration between the education-to-workforce continuum or state agencies and community partners critical to implementing the Big Blur.

The Delaware Office of Work-Based Learning (housed at Delaware Technical Community College) serves as an intermediary between employers, schools, and community-based organizations to support the economic advancement of students, a mechanism that did not exist before. The goals of Delaware Pathways guide this office and provide cohesive guidance for how partners should work together. As an intermediary for the state, the office is available to all public schools and postsecondary institutions and operates “like a concierge service,” delivering schools the ability to offer the career-connected learning experiences students need. The office’s intermediary function navigates traditional silos by facilitating partnerships and connecting students with all stakeholders, who come together to support their needs. The office is supported through multiple funding streams, including state and philanthropic dollars.

Delaware’s Work-Based Learning in Action

  • Delaware’s public schools and postsecondary institutions use the Department of Education’s Delaware Pathways as a curriculum guide; students earn nationally recognized industry credentials, leading them on the path toward career readiness.
  • Schools and community-based organizations help students build soft skills like conflict resolution, communications, and self-management.
  • Employers and postsecondary institutions offer student programs that develop workforce hard skills, ranging from mock interviews to immersive work-based learning experiences.
Source: Delaware Office of Work-Based Learning

Delaware has additional organizations, including Rodel and United Way of Delaware, that work to convene stakeholders across systems. These organizations are not state led but support state education-to-workforce connections. Rodel is ingrained in education and career success work throughout Delaware. As a nonstate agency that works closely with state agencies, Rodel identifies needs across systems, searches for funding that may fit those needs, and works with partners to deploy resources and strategize for successful implementation. Rodel also solidified itself as one of the state leaders by working with a diverse set of stakeholders to help launch Delaware Pathways and Tech School Career Pathways (discussed below). Rodel can independently resource and launch new programs to test strategies that begin to blur the lines between high schools, college, and careers. Similarly, United Way of Delaware is closely involved with most statewide education and workforce strategies. Its unique role is to connect students to Delaware’s pathway offerings to expand access to early college and workforce opportunities.

Toward the Blur

JFF is developing a state policy framework to outline the steps states can take toward fully adopting each of the Blur’s four key components and creating a more effective system for grades 11-14. The framework describes a continuum of four types of state policy environments that states currently have or will experience on the road toward a fully reimagined system of education-to-career pathways that work for all students.

Piloting Approaches That Blend High School, Postsecondary, and Work

Achieving the Big Blur would require radically restructuring today’s systems rather than tinkering around the edges. One way to achieve systemic transformation is to test new approaches and obtain proof-points that would support larger-scale policy shifts. Piloting smaller-scale or place-based programs that remove the boundaries between secondary, postsecondary, and career can help build the momentum to grow the Big Blur successfully in any state.

We see this type of piloting and ground-laying work happening in Delaware. Recently, the Delaware Department of Education and Rodel developed the Tech School Career Pathways Project, the first program to expand postsecondary offerings for high school students through apprenticeships and dual enrollment courses matched to the state’s career pathways industries. The goal is to provide these experiences to students before high school graduation so they can verify a career interest to pursue after high school and enter a postsecondary program with credits and/or work experience.

We see this project as a testing of Big Blur-like experiences since all students at the participating schools will get a head start on their postsecondary path and career preparation before high school graduation. Specifically, a young person at a Delaware vocational-technical school will be connected to a form of postsecondary attainment—academic coursework and/or apprenticeship experience—that matches their college and career passion. This project enables Big Blur experiences by creating a new structure where high school students participate in a blend of high school, postsecondary learning, and work experiences. Students will also save money since they’ll get a head start on postsecondary attainment in high school through this funded model. Up to this point, the project was in the development phase and will now move forward.

The project will also bring together the state’s three vocational-technical high schools, higher education institutions, and the Delaware Departments of Education and Labor. Many of these partners already share similar visions for economic development and education, and this project provides an opportunity to turn vision into action. Secondary and adult career and technical education programs are now extremely intertwined within the vocational-technical schools, utilizing the same instructors and infrastructure. The model will use the state’s strong pathways infrastructure and partnerships, as well as two opportunities for tuition-free college: Student Excellence Equals Degree (a free tuition program at Delaware Tech) and the Inspire Scholarship (four-year tuition coverage for qualifying in-state high school graduates who enroll at Delaware State University in the fall semester following graduation). Students may access those funds to support their engagement in the program. The project also complements other efforts across the state to expand youth enrollment in apprenticeships, including through the state’s Youth Apprenticeship Readiness Grant program.

Delaware’s pilot to ingrain apprenticeships and early college courses in secondary education structures is an important step toward the Big Blur’s call for seamless transitions from grades 11-14. The project is a chance to test an integrative secondary-to-postsecondary model and troubleshoot on a smaller scale. Based on lessons learned, the project partners will make intentional course corrections with the existing high school partnerships. They will also take lessons learned to develop a model blueprint that can support the scaling and translation of the work beyond Delaware to think about statewide scalability and applications in other states.

Toward the Big Blur

Learn more about a new kind of state governance model that lays the groundwork needed to achieve our vision for the Big Blur.

Strengthening Cross-System Partnerships to Connect Governance Structures

As noted in JFF’s Big Blur policy brief focused on state governance structures for a unified education-to-workforce system, momentum toward the Big Blur needs to go far beyond joint advisory meetings, just-in-time problem solving, and vision and goal setting on improving college access and postsecondary completion. Deeper forms of stakeholder partnerships are needed where partners intentionally collaborate, share resources, make collective decisions, and take action.

In Delaware, we see cross-system relationships go beyond providing a seat at the table. They result in impactful collaboration among stakeholders. Delaware’s small size and strong statewide efforts (such as Delaware Pathways) create an environment where stakeholders view cross-system connections as a staple for breaking down barriers between K-12, postsecondary education, and the workforce. Cross-system conversations often happen naturally due to a statewide culture of keeping relevant partners apprised of projects. The state builds on this through formalized groups with joint authority on visioning, implementation, budgeting, and more. Two recent examples include Delaware’s Dual Enrollment Task Force and Credit for Prior Learning Task Force.

The Delaware Dual Enrollment Task Force was launched for spring 2022 to gain an in-depth understanding of the state’s college in high school offerings, enrollment, and completion. The goal was to use these findings to expand all students’ access to high-quality dual enrollment. Led by representatives from multiple offices in the Delaware Department of Education, the task force also included representation from all of Delaware’s institutions of higher education (Delaware State University, Delaware Technical and Community College, Goldey-Beacom College, University of Delaware, and Wilmington University). Each provided their unique perspective on how high school students engage in dual enrollment with their institutions as well as successes and challenges. As a result, the group developed a shared understanding of barriers and successes to program development and enrollment. From this, the Delaware Department of Education can plan an effective statewide campaign so that more high schoolers can successfully participate in early postsecondary offerings.

The Credit for Prior Learning Task Force comprises state colleges and universities, the state’s three vocational school districts, and the Delaware Departments of Labor and Education. All stakeholders chose to come together with the shared commitment to better understanding and valuing the learning and experiences that students obtain in multiple settings, including the workforce. With the Delaware Department of Education convening the task force, the partnership resulted in a Credit for Prior Learning Framework that considers different facets of the state’s education and workforce landscape and can meet the unique backgrounds of different learners. Because of this, the framework is now the central resource for determining how to qualify for credit for prior learning at Delaware institutions of higher education. Moving forward, we believe the Task Force’s efforts can also serve as a strong foundation for joint decision-making on validating and awarding postsecondary credits for high school students’ experience before entering college. This may include recognizing students’ dual enrollment credits, industry-recognized credentials, and prior work-based learning experiences, which are all key to supporting students’ career preparation and success.

Both task forces present steps toward the Big Blur’s call for a unified grade 11-14 governance structure because they bring together key partners to identify challenges in students’ ability to obtain postsecondary experiences, progress on their pathway, and ultimately attain a credential of value. The two groups’ processes build the muscles needed for shared decision-making, action planning, and resource sharing across key stakeholders, which helps break down silos across systems.

Toward the Big Blur

Check out our legislative tracker for 2022 and 2023 sessions.

Legislation contained in the tracker does not constitute endorsement by JFF. JFF is monitoring these bills because they correspond to core components of the Big Blur. However, these legislative measures do not necessarily reflect the scope and magnitude of transformational change envisioned in the Big Blur.

Using Federal Policies and Resources to Support Financial and Accountability Incentives

States transforming their education-to-career systems are putting into place statewide policies and resources that support integrated systems. The reality, however, is that states that want to make progress toward connecting high school, college, and careers will have to do so while navigating the confines of federal education and workforce policy and using its power. Although federal silos exist between secondary, postsecondary, and the workforce, federal legislation often provides optional points of flexibility for how states utilize their federal resources (whether through partnerships, braided funding, or accountability metrics). Delaware stands out because it is making the most use of underutilized federal levers and resources in addition to tapping state and private funding supports. States will go further and faster toward achieving the Big Blur’s aims if they use existing federal entry points.

For example, we’ve witnessed Delaware take advantage of available, but optional, federal levers that support its coordinated education and workforce efforts. Delaware is one of only nine states that has a combined Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act and Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) plan that builds in continued cross-agency collaboration and reinforces intertwined accountability metrics. Delaware takes this a step further by embracing the flexibility Perkins V provides states in choosing at least one secondary program quality indicator and determining how to measure “quality.”

In its combined state plan, Delaware did more than the minimum requirement and chose multiple indicators reiterating secondary and postsecondary education should not operate in silos. The cross-cutting reporting metrics include postsecondary credit attainment, work-based learning participation, and attainment of a recognized postsecondary credential. Multiple Delaware governors have viewed combining these plans as essential to coordinating statewide education and economic endeavors. This has helped reinforce collaboration from middle grades through the workforce and moved the state from parallel goals to integrated quality indicators across programs.

Shared accountability metrics across education and workforce systems can help coordinate the state’s efforts, thus increasing the probability the outcomes data will uncover equity gaps and tell a broader story about the successes or roadblocks learners experience while preparing for careers and obtaining good jobs. Coordinating federal resources and accountability metrics builds the education-to-career accountability structure the Big Blur requires.

Additionally, when one-time federal pandemic relief funds became available, Delaware made the most of those resources by braiding Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, Governor’s Emergency Education Relief funds, and philanthropic dollars to make Delaware Pathways accessible to an additional 12,000 secondary students and 6,000 middle schoolers. The one-time funding was used for structural costs needed for Delaware Pathways expansion to younger students. Now, the focus is on sustainability, perhaps through a combination of philanthropic and federal funds.

With Perkins newly accessible to middle grades, the scope of federal resources increased. Again, states may define what years count as middle grades. Unlike most states, Delaware took full advantage by starting in grade five, the earliest option possible in Perkins V.

The ability to employ federal policies and funding opportunities to start career pathways earlier and integrate shared accountability measures across systems means that Delaware is continuing to lay the foundation needed for the radical restructuring required of today’s systems for the Big Blur. All states need to navigate federal dynamics, and Delaware’s ability to do so strategically and effectively allows it to meet the immediate needs of Delawareans and start a precedent that the state will make the most of any optional federal opportunities.

The Road Ahead

Even while sitting atop the pack among states expanding college and career pathways for young students, Delaware continues to iterate on its approaches and progress toward blurring the lines between education and careers. Looking ahead, the state also plans to 1) start career preparation earlier by launching a career exploration pilot in the middle grades, 2) help students move faster on their pathways by expanding apprenticeships into high school settings and across new fields like education and IT, 3) integrate systems better by expanding its statewide data systems, strengthening coordination across agencies and public-private partnerships sectors, and increasing its labor market alignment and deepening employer engagement. Through each, Delaware will implement pieces of the Big Blur so students can access innovative and new education-to-career models. Until the full Big Blur vision is realized through systemic transformation, a piecemeal approach means putting the building blocks for seamless transitions in place.

The reality is that all states must do more and quickly to support young people on their pathways to good jobs. We believe the Big Blur is the answer. We’re pleased to see states like Delaware and Colorado making promising moves that lay the foundation toward the Big Blur’s aims.

Toward the Big Blur

Learn what the state of Colorado is doing to build the policies and systems needed to move the needle toward our vision for the Big Blur.
The Big Blur
JFF’s "Big Blur" proposal calls for breaking down the boundaries between education and employment, and preparing young students for stable, sustainable careers. In 2021, JFF developed the concept of the Big Blur as a strategy to remove arbitrary barriers between high school, college, and careers to create one collaborative system to support today’s learners. In particular, the Big Blur proposes restructuring grades 11-14 to meet learners’ needs and prepare them for success in the workforce.
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