What Is Career Connected Learning?

Career Connected Learning (CCL) is a common-sense notion with huge implications.

Historically, our approach to education has been fragmented. In the real world, subjects like science, social studies and literature are deeply interwoven, but in the classroom we break them apart, ensuring that these connections are hard to uncover. We cover academic content while rarely highlighting connections to students’ experiences or to their futures. And in a larger sense, systems that should be working together on shared goals, including the K-12 education system, postsecondary system, and industry, instead operate in silos, again missing the impact that collaboration would bring.

Career Connected Learning is an effective counter to those issues. While it is done in many different ways (more on that below), its focus, in all its forms, is to connect learning to the real world, ensuring students can understand academic content in terms that are relevant to them, and providing them with a platform to develop the knowledge, skills, and experiences to help them enter the world after school.

In Career Connected Learning, students are exposed to some aspect of the world of work during the learning process. It might be as a bridge to academic content, such as teaching math skills using examples from the construction industry, or having students research the development of the railroads and how they impacted the settling of the old west. It might involve teaching essential work (and life) skills such as teamwork and planning by having students participate in a group project using project management tools. Very often it involves collaboration with partners from the business community, such as local employers hosting site visits or serving as project mentors. The relevance, and the community engagement, makes learning relevant and improves both academic and life outcomes.

It is also important to state what it is not: Specifically, it is not work training. Students participating in Career Connected Learning are more likely to pursue – and complete – postsecondary education. Connecting instruction to the real world does not mean students are being prepared for a specific job. Though of course, it does allow them to be exposed to different roles and industries, giving them a chance to find and pursue opportunities that line up with their strengths and passions.

Career Connected Learning can happen in many forms, from one-time guest speakers to fully integrated instructional programs. For the greatest impact, we encourage people to pursue a Pathway System.

What Is a College-Career Pathway and a Pathway System?

While there is no universally accepted definition of a College-Career Pathway (CCP), NC3T defines it as “an educational program in school – a sequence of inter-connected academic and elective classes (not just CTE classes) — that helps students make a clear connection to college and career opportunities.” (Note: In some settings, this educational program might be called a “career academy,” ”Linked Learning,” or something else.)

Critical elements of the College-Career Pathway include:

Teacher helping her students

  • An academic component that prepares students to pursue college or university studies as well as two year and certification programs.
  • A foundation built on a common theme of learning (either a career or academic area of emphasis) over three to four years of high school.
  • Solid integration of approved CTE programs. Pathways are not limited to traditional CTE focus areas; they can emphasize other areas such as liberal arts, science, math, or fine and performing arts.
  • An emphasis on applying the knowledge of each theme and exploring careers and industries related to each theme.
  • Cross-curricular strategies to embed state adopted English and math standards throughout. They also bring more real-world applications into core academic classes.
  • A technology strategy to maximize delivery of content and connect to real-world applications.Opportunities for customization, if local program offerings do not meet the interests of some students.

NC3T defines a Pathways System as a coordinated collection of College-Career Pathways, connected with meaningful learning opportunities outside of the school walls and with substantive employer involvement. A successful system touches every student, helping them learn about career opportunities and participate in a pathway plan of study during their high school years.

Many communities are now coming together to create innovative approaches to education, particularly at the high school level, to engage students in learning through college-career pathways. These pathways help students make a clear connection between college and career opportunities.

Similar models have been showing very positive results throughout the U.S.:

Pathways Systems, often implemented as Career Academies, have been growing in thousands of high schools since the 1990s. These “schools within a school” help students prepare for college by engaging in a rigorous academic classes and career exploration classes and work-based learning.

  • Career Academies have been implemented in all high schools in Nashville, Tennessee, a high poverty district. Over the last five years, graduation rates in Nashville have grown from 68 percent to 83 percent.
  • In Pensacola, Florida, another district with extensive use of career academies, the average graduation rate is 71.2 percent, while students enrolled in career academies have an 84.1 percent graduation rate.
  • California Partnership Academies, an initiative focused on high poverty students in California, show similar results with high graduation rates and high rates of college readiness.

In terms of education reform, pathways initiatives are one of a very few that have “moved the needle,” improving the education experience and measured outcomes for students across the country.

For more on this subject, see this video, in which Hans Meeder, president of NC3T, introduces the pathways concept and points to evidence showing its impact.

Contact us to learn more