College and Career Ready: How research-practice partnerships can help prepare students for tomorrow’s workforce

By Catherine Rauseo

If Amazon chooses to make Massachusetts the home of its second headquarters, will our workforce be ready? One Boston Globe article says no—local employers already have enough trouble finding qualified candidates for tech jobs. What will happen if we add 50,000 more?

It’s not just the tech sector that is a concern. A survey of business leaders from a range of industries found that 75 percent of employers have trouble finding qualified job applicants. The lure of Massachusetts is its nation-leading education system. Yet we’re not cultivating a nation-leading workforce.

More must be done to prepare students for success after graduation. The education field knows how to do this. There’s no shortage of promising practices to choose from, like early college programs—which allow students to take college courses while still in high school and earn credit for both—or individualized learning plans (ILPs)—which help students identify interests and set goals to guide a plan for after graduation. The problem is that many schools and districts don’t have the time, resources, or expertise in data use and analysis to make programs like this a reality.

Three years ago, we set out to change that. We teamed up with Boston University and MassINC to launch the Massachusetts Institute of College and Career Readiness (MICCR), an initiative to help Gateway Cities prepare students for success after high school.

Gateway Cities, which are former industrial centers that have struggled as the state shifted toward a knowledge economy, are ground zero when it comes to preparing the next generation for tomorrow’s jobs. Graduates from these small-to-midsize urban districts are projected to make up nearly a third of the state’s future workforce.  Though significant progress has been made to improve high school graduation rates in these districts, only about 20 percent of Gateway City students complete a 2- or 4-year degree.

Educators in these cities are stretched too thin to implement new college and career readiness approaches. So, the MICCR paired 14 Gateway City school districts with volunteer senior academic researchers selected from universities across the nation. The districts worked with their researchers to design, implement, and evaluate a variety of college and career readiness programs. These researcher-practitioner partnerships help districts overcome some of the barriers to preparing students for success while giving researchers exposure to classroom learning, enabling them to produce studies with actionable findings.


Barnstable Public Schools, for example, wanted to explore how ILPs could be used effectively in their schools. MICCR assigned Dr. Bianca L. Guzmán, a professor at California State University who specializes in research examining the socio-behavioral determinants of health in youth. Together, they worked to measure workforce readiness skills and piloted a career readiness curriculum using ILPs that is now being expanded throughout the high school.


For partnerships like this to work, teams need to build trust and a common language for communicating. Our role was to help foster these relationships and troubleshoot challenges. Our experience working in both local education and research allowed us to play the role of “culture broker” while these relationships developed. We also acted as project manager, creating the structures needed to allow these partnerships to prosper.


Three years later, we’ve learned a lot about the power of research-practice partnerships. The presence of the researcher brought districts the expertise and capacity to help implement new projects with fidelity; educators were eager to innovate in partnership with academic researchers; and the partnerships helped increase the districts’ commitment to implementation and continuous improvement. Perhaps most importantly, we learned that research-practice partnerships are an effective and low-cost approach to growing innovative practices in schools and districts.


As we work to move our education system to one that truly prepares students for the 21st century workforce, we should consider the role of research-practice partnerships as a key next step. We hope the MICCR project will serve as a model for how this type of partnership can help address some of the biggest challenges we face in education.