So What Exactly is a Pathway?

The term “pathways” seems to be everywhere in today’s parlance.  It’s almost as ubiquitous a term as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) or Common Core when people are discussing education.  Why is this?

The current fascination with pathway-related reforms has roots that go back several decades to the first career academies created in Philadelphia in 1969.[1] In some ways, the underlying debates between academic and vocational preparation go back even further, to the dawning years of public education when there was a continuous tug and pull between academic education and practical, or vocational, education.

But the term “pathways” as it is used today is still relatively new, and interest in them and the sense of their importance has grown exponentially in the years following the 2007-2009 Great Recession, as concerns over the viability of the U.S. workforce have become fierce.

This call to action builds on the work of numerous organizations, schools, and educational movements that have been toiling for decades in the shadow of the university-for-all monolith, waiting for the cracks in its foundation to become apparent.

What is a career pathway?

There is now a federally-legislated definition for “career pathway” found in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act[2] (and will mostly likely also be in the next version of the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act).  Individuals often attribute different meanings to the term career pathways, sometimes with a programmatic focus and sometimes with more of a focus on the individual’s career choice and how an individual can advance from one job to another within a career cluster.  Most of the time, I observe that people are thinking about career pathways as an education/workforce experience.  Here is a straightforward definition that we use at NC3T for the term “Pathways Program.”  You’ll notice we drop the word “career,” so it is not limited to specific jobs and careers, but can also be more thematic.  We simply use the term Pathways Program.

A Pathways Program is a program of interconnected academic and elective classes revolving around a career or subject theme.  It is integrated with experiential learning and close connections between secondary and postsecondary education, training, and apprenticeship.  The program is designed to support the development of Career and Life Readiness for the learner, so that the individual can successfully enter and advance in a career path.

This definition contains a lot of information, but it captures the important essence of a pathway program.  Implementing a high quality pathway program, however, involves more detailed design work.  That’s why we’ve developed a more fine-tuned set of design specifications for the components of an individual Pathway Program.  There are 12 components, organized into four themes: I) Program Structure, II) Program Leadership, III) Program Alignment and IV) Program Connections.

Theme I. Program Structure

  1. Pathway Program Interconnected Structure. The Pathway Program is organized and presented to students as a well-defined, multi-year program of themed courses interconnected with academic core courses and experiential learning activities.
  2. Student Access. The Pathway Program is accessible and marketed to students of varying achievement levels, including students who have Individualized Education Programs or limited English language proficiency.
  3. Cohort Scheduling. Students in the Pathway Program are scheduled as a cohort and enrolled in as many classes together as possible.

Theme II. Program Leadership

  1. Pathway Program Advisory Committee. The Pathway Program has an active employer-led Advisory Committee comprised of experts from the field; this committee reviews curriculum, expected skills and knowledge, and equipment, and it coordinates employer involvement in the program.
  2. Pathway Program Instructional Team. The Pathway Program Instructional Team consists of teachers of career- or themed-classes, teachers for academic subjects, and staff from the counseling department, collaborating to develop cross-curricular projects and lessons and to track and address the progress of students within their Pathway Program cohort.

Theme III. Program Alignment

  1. Alignment with Workforce Needs and Opportunities. The Pathway Program is developed in alignment with in-demand careers that lead to family-sustaining earnings.
  2. Alignment with Standards. The Pathway Program is aligned to applicable standards for Career, and Life Readiness, including relevant standards established by the state for academic knowledge and skills and technical skills.
  3. Alignment with Cross-Curricular Connections. The Pathway Program Instructional Team identifies cross-curricular connections between required academic courses and career-themed elective courses, and it creates resources for cross-curricular and integrated instruction.
  4. Alignment with Industry-Based Credentials, Certifications, and Technical Skills. The Pathway Program leads to clearly identified college credit, technical skill assessments, and/or industry-recognized certifications, delivered with support for students to know about these options and access them.

Theme IV. Program Connections

  1. Experiential Learning, Community-based Experience, and Student Leadership. Pathway Program students participate in organized and relevant job shadows, mentorships, field trips, career-related clubs, and skill competitions, as well as in classroom based interactions with guest speakers and individuals coaching student projects. Students develop leadership skills through school- and community-based leadership experiences, volunteerism, and competitions.
  2. Seamless Connections with Postsecondary Institutions and Regional Career and Technical Centers. The Pathway Program at a high school is aligned with and coordinated with Pathway Programs offered by postsecondary education partners and/or regional career and technical education centers. The high school-based Pathway Program is designed in collaboration with postsecondary partners to allow for a smooth transition of the student from secondary to postsecondary education and training, while minimizing duplication of content among programs.
  3. Postsecondary Dual Enrollment and Articulation Agreements. The Pathway Program is supported by articulation agreements among high schools and postsecondary education partners, enabling students to earn dual, concurrent, and articulated credits and skills credentials at reduced or no-cost tuition rates for the secondary student.

What to do about Your Pathway Programs

Many high schools have at least one or two programs that could be developed into a robust Pathway Program.  Or you may need to develop a new program from scratch. You can get started by using these 12 components and rating your programs on each element.  Use a simple rating scoring system like this for each of the components.

  • Not existent
  • Planning
  • Partial Implementation
  • Full implementation

Then add up your totals.  If you achieved full implementation of all 12 components that would give you a score of 36!  That’s impressive, but very rare.

If your total score is in the 0-12 total range, then you’re mostly doing planning for your pathway program. If you’re from 13-24, then some of the components are in planning and some are in partial implementation.  And if you’re from 25-36, then you’re in serious implementation phase.

You may be pleasantly surprised to see how well developed some of the components are.  You may also realize that other components are seriously underdeveloped.  That’s ok.  Giving an honest rating and evaluation of your Pathway Program is the right place to start.  You can begin to prioritize which components need attention next and start working your plan, day by day and step by step.  I’ll share the general one-year start up plan in an upcoming post.

Your feedback:  In your experience, which of these components are most important to attend to in the beginning of design and start-up?  Let me know by emailing me at [email protected].

Adapted from The Power and Promise of Pathways, by Hans Meeder.

[1] Philadelphia Academies, Inc. (nd), Our Story. Retrieved from

[2] WIOA.  H.R. 803; Pub.L. 113–128

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