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Lesson 6.11

Career Technical Education:
Education for career opportunities

Buzzword alert! What is Linked Learning?

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Should high school prepare you for college, or for work?

The dominant answer to this question has changed over time.

California's high schools once were designed with a strong emphasis on career. As recently as 1987, nearly three-quarters of high school students were enrolled in courses explicitly designed to prepare them for a career — or at least for a job.

At the time, career-oriented education was widely known as vocational education. Vocational-track courses were offered in high schools, sometimes with funding through regional partnerships with local employers. Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs) received dedicated funding and served many thousands of students in the state.

The nature of the economy changed dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s as intangible assets associated with knowledge work grew in value and overtook the economy of tangible assets. (See Ed100 Lesson 1.3) High schools, under terrible budget pressure after the passage of Proposition 13, had to make tough choices. Big employers were making tough choices, too, and many jobs were disappearing. The future seemed clear: college was becoming the pathway to a middle-class life.

To give as many students as possible access to that pathway, schools focused on academics. In 2000, the leaders of California’s four-year public college systems (UC and CSU) jointly defined a rigorous set of course requirements for college admission, which would become known as the a-g requirements. (See Lesson 6.2 for more.) A bipartisan consensus in Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, reinforcing the growing emphasis on testable progress in reading, writing and math.

NCLB had many problems, but it played a transformative role in the evolution of education policy in America. It compelled districts to measure success on the basis of students’ individual academic performance, which exposed race-based patterns of low academic expectations. It was no longer legally acceptable for high schools to track “those kids” to vocational classes and “these kids” to academic ones. Vocational education was firmly out of fashion.

Funding for ROCP programs dwindled, and the programs shrank, never to recover. (As of 2021, the remaining ROCP programs in California, sustained by Federal workforce grants, served fewer than 1,800 students.)

Career Technical Education makes a comeback, of sorts

The systemic emphasis on college readiness had an obvious dark side: only a third of students go on to earn a college degree. What about the rest? What was the education system’s vision for successful career readiness independent of college readiness? The legislature handed the question to the California State Board of Education (SBE), which in 2005 adopted a comprehensive set of model curriculum standards designed for grades 7-12. It was a huge undertaking. The standards specified general knowledge and specific career-related skills necessary to achieve learning goals in 58 career pathways in 15 industry sectors.

These standards were updated in 2013, the same year that California and most other states adopted the Common Core State Standards. As explained in Lesson 6.1, these standards aimed to define the skills necessary to be ready for success in both college and career.

In 2016, Education Trust-West examined the role of career-oriented courses in students' "pathways" after high school. In a study titled Meandering toward Graduation: Transcript Outcomes of High School Graduates, the authors documented extensive mismatches between the courses students take and the courses they ought to take in order to be ready for college or career.

Over a fifth of career-oriented high school courses taken in California in 2014-15 were in "arts, audio-visual and communications" subjects

Did these career pathways actually work, or were they just a fancy way of lowering expectations and avoiding real equity in education access? Researchers pounced on the question.

In 2018, as part of the Getting Down to Facts II project, researchers from UC Davis and elsewhere examined the success of CTE Pathways in A Portrait of California Career Technical Education Pathway Completers. A key motivating question of this study was to look for evidence of academic harm. Were there important patterns in which students had access to CTE courses? When students were offered career-oriented courses, do they lose interest in math and reading?

On average, the study found little difference:

“Collectively, this evidence dispels any myths that CTE programs serve students with lower academic ability. In fact in a number of the more technical fields, CTE students outperform their non-CTE peers. Yet, even in those fields where academic performance is lower than the cohort average, this descriptive evidence only illuminates differences most likely driven by student selection rather than program quality.”

At the same time as the Common Core was being adopted, school districts in California were given new flexibility to allocate their budgets. (See Lesson 8.5.) A period of experimentation ensued, spurred by a succession of modest state grant programs under terms like Partnership Academies and Career Pathways. Perhaps the most successful buzzword associated with this general idea became Linked Learning.

Listen to Carol's interview with Eric Rice, Director of College & Career Pathways in the San Francisco Unified School District

Differing views about CTE and Linked Learning

Vocationally-oriented programs, when effective, can serve as a pipeline connection between high schools and employers. On one hand, this type of program is great, right? Participating students graduate directly to jobs in their community, and local employers build a deep connection with local schools. For some students, CTE helps increase their motivation and engagement with school by connecting schoolwork with the real world.

On the other hand, such pipelines raise civil rights concerns. A long-term study of economic microdata in the United States and other countries shows that over the course of time, students that pursue a career-oriented track in school tend to have "less adaptability and diminished employment later in life." If schools direct low-income students and students of color into career-oriented programs rather than college-oriented ones, they perpetuate economic divisions.

According to a 2016 poll by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), Californians broadly agree with the statement “a college education is necessary for a person to be successful in today's work world.” The poll found particular agreement with the statement among respondents who were nonwhite or who had lower household incomes. Only respondents who were white or who had higher incomes were more likely to agree with the statement “there are many ways to succeed in today's work world without a college education.”

Californians & Higher Education Source: PPIC statewide survey "Californians & Higher Education", Dec 2016.

What is Dual Enrollment?

Career Technical Education and Linked Learning began as education reform strategies for high schools, but in 2016 California followed other states by evolving toward a strategy that includes community colleges.

California’s public community colleges are located all over the state. These colleges have become the heart of career-oriented education in California. Anyone can enroll for credit, including high school students, who can dual-enroll to earn both high school credit and college credit. In 2022, the Office of the California Legislative Analyst (LAO) studied plans to expand dual enrollment in California. The timing of the proposal was important: enrollment in community colleges had dipped in the pandemic, and the state was enjoying a boom in tax receipts.


Internships for high school students are rare. High school students fortunate enough to land an internship gain experiences that can help them see their own future in a way that classroom experiences alone cannot deliver. An internship can also assist a student with determining whether or not they are on the right career path. And it’s often the first time that they must prepare a resume and practice job-interviewing skills.

Setting up effective internships is challenging. Schools must include local employers in planning and developing educational programs. Crossing organizational boundaries to create public-private partnerships has proved difficult. School districts have the authority to invest in such programs, but tradeoffs are always difficult to make.

Unsurprisingly, the internet has sprouted solutions that savvy students can use to search for internships and other opportunities, such as

Buzzword Summary

All of the following buzzwords relate to efforts to combine learning and career. Pay attention, now - there could be a test. Just sayin'.

  • Linked Learning
  • Vocational Education
  • Career Technical Education (CTE)
  • Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs)
  • Internships
  • Dual enrollment

Notice that "blended learning" is not on this list? That's because blended learning refers to the use of technology for learning in classrooms. Ah, the joys of education jargon...

Divided opinion

No, there is not universal agreement that all high schools should emphasize CTE, or support internships, or use the Linked Learning approach. CTE has opponents as well as advocates. Some college advocates view CTE as a distraction from the hard work of creating and executing successful college-preparatory programs.

Realistically, not all students (or parents) want the same things out of their high school education, but nearly all see some college or other postsecondary education in their future. School districts need to be equipped to deliver both types of instruction at a high level of quality and in a way that no student is shut out from the classes they need.

Updated July 2017
November 2018
November 2022


Which of the following terms is not like the others?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 5:11 pm

From the Hechinger Report--Trade programs — unlike other areas of higher education — are in hot demand.
Many young people choose to pursue short-term credentials over traditional college because they see them as a quicker and a more affordable path to a good job.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 4, 2022 at 1:08 pm
The 2022-23 state budget promotes pathways in technology, healthcare, education, and climate-related fields allow students to advance from high school to college and career.

$500 million one-time over seven years to support the development of pathway programs focused on technology (including computer science, green technology, and engineering), health care, education (including early education), and climate-related fields. These programs are predicated on developing local partnerships that bring together school systems, higher education institutions, employers, and other relevant community stakeholders.

• $200 million one-time, available over five years, to strengthen and expand student access and participation in dual enrollment opportunities. Dual enrollment allows high school students to take classes that both count towards high school graduation and earning college credit, with some students able to graduate high school with an associate’s degree.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 15, 2019 at 8:14 pm
In today’s difficult job market, with parents worrying that their children will earn less than they did, it seems very smart to consider linked learning. Imagine the relief of knowing that the local movie studios were expecting applications from your well prepared kids.
user avatar
Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh November 15, 2019 at 9:18 am
You have a typo:
“took a step toward concreteness by adopted”
It should say “adopting.”
user avatar
Jeff Camp March 10, 2017 at 10:50 am
In 2017, a multi-year study of Linked Learning efforts provided some encouraging evidence of impact, particularly in graduation rates and college credits earned. In an effort to boost quality and impact of programs, the Linked Learning Alliance has developed some standards worth attention.
user avatar
Albert Stroberg May 1, 2016 at 8:31 pm
College is just not for everybody. But learning is- and Voc Training But ls a great opening to many- especially boys. All our HS "shop" classes are gone, they sold off the wood shop machines, the "metal" class is art only. The "...often systematically tracked..." argument does not hold water- as there is no "tracking" here just letting a kid find what works for them. I am a product of the California ed system since 1956- & I have no recognition of a Tracking System that trapped some kids. The reaction to that myth has hurt us.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder April 22, 2016 at 10:43 am
In 2016 the Fordham Foundation presented evidence that career tech in high school (CTE) improves the likelihood of graduation by 21 percentage points, with particular benefit for boys and students from low-income families. . Their research also suggests that career tech may not be a path away from college.
user avatar
Stacey W April 27, 2015 at 10:55 pm
My son's high school has a Technology Program, in which one of the requirements is for students to complete a 150-hour internship. This is an invaluable opportunity for students to gain real world work experience, as well as to give them the chance to explore an area of interest that they may be considering pursuing in college.
user avatar
g4joer6 April 19, 2015 at 12:38 pm
Just checked out, pretty cool. thanks
user avatar
CM January 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm
I don't see why high schools should not be working with local employers to create work-based learning opportunities. Cost of college is prohibitive. Not every child will have the means to go to college. If children can already learn tools of the trade, it opens up doors for economic well being.
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