Success Through Career-Connected Learning

As a country, the United States has failed to prepare its students for postsecondary education and careers. This disconnect is failing students and impacting their local communities and economies. Bridging the gap between education and industry needs to be a top focus in the education industry, and studies show the way to achieve this is through career-connected learning.

Career-connected learning is an all-immersive experience that prepares students for careers and connects employers to potential – and capable – students. This experience involves various methods, including career and technical education (CTE), work-based learning (WBL), and career exploration. Hinting at the future and acknowledging what students’ skills and interests are can provide purpose and motivation for students that is both personal and attainable. The merging of education, career preparation, and skills training into a new ecosystem becomes fundamental to nourishing the talent and economies of the future. 

Teachers and researchers say that teaching through relevance and individualized learning will yield a cumulative effect on students’ experience and interest in schools and their futures.

There is almost no relationship between high school curricula and today’s occupations. There is a huge disconnect that we’ve created in the process of trying to do a good thing [in which] all of the career-related learning is being pushed on the postsecondary system” instead of in K-12 systems.

WHY: In a study on students who dropped out of high school, over 80% of students said schools should improve their curricula and include more opportunities for real-world and experiential learning, citing that they needed to see the connection between school and getting a good job (Bridgeland et al., 2006). Research shows that CTE is associated with lower dropout rates and higher rates of on-time graduation. In 2018, the average high school graduation rate for CTE concentrators was 94% compared to the overall national graduation rate of 85% (ACTE, 2021). Studies also show students who participate in career guidance and career courses exhibit greater knowledge of jobs, higher self-esteem, and better grades and are more engaged in academic and career planning (ACTE, 2018a).

HOW: Schools and districts are taking different approaches to career-connected learning to better prepare their students for the future. Some of the efforts include the following:

  • Promote career centers and technical education as well as college
  • Integrate career exploration and pathways into CTE and WBL
  • Focus on learner agency, including individual skills and values
  • Implement workforce partnerships with local businesses
  • Host guest speakers from private and public sectors, skilled trades, etc.
  • Support skills development through job shadowing, flexible scheduling, internships, apprenticeships, etc.
  • Utilize assessment tools to identify student strengths, followed by careers that utilize these strengths
  • Identify CTE partners and advise students who want to pursue training programs in skilled trades, applied sciences, modern technology, etc.

Benefits of Career-Connected Learning

1. Bridgeland et al., 2006,    2. Hughes & Karp, 2014,    3. Woolley et al., 2013,     4. ACTE, 2021,     5. Meeder & Pawlowski, 2020.

WHEN: Though there is no standard time to implement career-focused learning, most schools and districts focus on middle school and higher, with more in-depth career applications in high school. If it is implemented at all, middle school career implementation typically includes career exploration and options, aptitude testing, guest speakers, and opportunities to learn about high school and postsecondary courses of study related to their chosen careers. High school implementation would include WBL, CTE, work-study programs (including apprenticeships, internships, etc.), career classes (resume building, job search navigations, etc.), and community connections, in addition to middle school topics if they were not implemented. Some teachers and researchers claim that this process can start as early as PreK. Proposed models of this implementation follow this general order:

SUMMARY: Career-connected learning helps students understand the why behind the what. When students are provided with tools to make learning relevant and applicable to themselves, performance and interest increase. The career connection not only aids student learning but also prepares students for the job market, ultimately providing postsecondary educators and employers with better prepared, more well-rounded students and employees. Research shows that career-connected learning can begin at any point in a student’s education, so long as it is included in high school. Incorporation of this learning may consist of field trips, classroom guest speakers, career exploration through pathways, aptitude evaluations, internships & mentorships, CTE classes, and individual career planning, among other methods. When schools begin preparing students for their futures by preparing them for college, trade school, or the workforce, instead of pushing postsecondary education as the only path to success, students will begin to invest the time and efforts into themselves and their education.

Explore Pathway2Careers, career-connected learning that connects education to high-value careers. 

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ACTE. (2018a). Career and technical education improves student achievement in high school, college and career [Infographic].

ACTE. (2021). CTE works for high school students [Infographic].

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Woolley, M. E., Rose, R. A., Orthner, D. K., Akos, P. T., & Jones-Sanpei, H. (2013). Advancing academic achievement through career relevance in the middle grades. American Educational Research Journal, 50(6), 1309–1335.

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