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Lesson 6.11

Career Technical Education:
New Thinking

Buzzword alert! What is Linked Learning?

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

Many teachers and school leaders regard this as a false choice; school should prepare you for either, right? Certainly, the Common Core State Standards were developed with the idea that all students should graduate from high school prepared for both college and career, so that the course of their high school education would not limit their life options.

California's high schools once had a strong emphasis on career. For example, in 1987 nearly three-quarters of high school students were enrolled in courses explicitly designed to prepare them for a career. By 2014-15 that share had shrunk: somewhat less than half of California high school students were participating in courses deemed to have a career-oriented purpose, according to US Department of Education data from the Perkins Collaborative Resource Network. These courses, once known as "vocational education", are now generally known as Career and Technical Education (CTE).

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

California has had several systems for the delivery of CTE: middle school and high school courses, as well as community colleges, private universities and colleges. Historically, career-oriented programs received a combination of state and federal funding for career centers in high schools, which in most cases included a physical location. When those centers were cut, career support was turned into a program under the name Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs). Today, if a career program exists in your school district it has probably jettisoned the name "ROC" and rebranded with a name like "linked learning program" rather than ROC. Here's why: with the shift to the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) during the Great Recession, dedicated funds for most categorical programs, were combined to give school districts increased control over their (smaller) budgets. Some districts eliminated ROC programs in high schools, relying on community colleges to pick up the slack.

At the same time, another consensus emerged that the success of a high school or a district should not be defined only by its ability to produce graduates ready for college. Career readiness should be a goal, too — all students should have access to many pathways to success.

As the Great Recession eased, the California legislature recommitted funds to career education in the form of grants through the California Career Pathways Trust (CCPT). K-12 school districts and county offices of education can compete for these grants along with community colleges and other programs.

Differing Views on CTE

Vocationally-oriented programs, when effective, can provide 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 courses 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 that "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.

Linked Learning

A high school reform strategy called Linked Learning attempts to put the idea of preparing all students for both college and career into practice. The idea is to develop programs that, according to advocates, can provide all students with access to a different kind of high school education, integrating rigorous academic instruction with a demanding technical curriculum and work-based learning. This approach, when well implemented, gives students opportunities to "learn by doing" in a work setting, sometimes including formal internships. Precedents exist in California and nationally in the form of career or partnership academies. Research on the effectiveness of Linked Learning programs has shown particularly positive results for Latino students.

College is not for me.
I want to work and earn.
Teach me what I need to know
so I can work and learn!

Career Pathways

California has been taking a long, winding road toward career readiness as a goal for students, partly because definitions can be slippery. What does "career ready" mean? In 2005, the California State Board of Education(SBE) took a step toward concreteness by adopted a comprehensive set of CTE model curriculum standards designed for grades 7-12. The standards specified research-based learning goals in 58 career pathways in 15 industry sectors. The standards reflected both general knowledge and specific career-related skills. In 2013, the State Board adopted model curriculum standards for Career Technical Education aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

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 document extensive mismatches in which courses students take vs. what 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

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. Are there important patterns in which students have access to CTE courses? When students are 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.”

The California School Dashboard evaluates completion of a CTE pathway as an indicator of College and Career Success. (More about the California School Dashboard in Lesson 9.7)

The study found that with few exceptions (most of them in charter schools) students in California high schools have access to career courses. However, only a small proportion of high school students complete a career pathway. In about 150 high schools in California, more than 50% of the 2015-2016 graduating class completed CTE pathways. In 22 schools, all graduates completed CTE pathways. The study found that students' academic performance on the California School Dashboard varies with the pathway completed.


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 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

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.
Updated November 2018.


Which of the following terms is not like the others?

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Questions & Comments

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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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