Career Clusters and Pathways Framework

Part of CTE’s strength is its explicit attention to the connection between college readiness and career readiness; another part is its focus not just on “job readiness” but on preparation for careers.  Based on a national model developed in the early 2000s, most states have adopted, with some modifications, the national definitions for career clusters, career pathways and programs of study.  Some states also group the clusters in six career fields.  The following definitions are used:


Within the realm of CTE, the most sophisticated models are programs of study that provide a tight integration of rigorous academic classes with career themed classes in a small learning community structure. Variations of this model are called “career academies” and “linked learning pathways.” In the college and career readiness parlance, they could be called “college and career pathway academies.”

One model of this approach that is articulated through policy and special funding in California, the California Partnership Academy, has received extensive analysis. California Partnership Academies offer a high school curriculum that combine academic and technical lessons to real-world applications. The academies partner with local industry to offer students internships, field trips, and other work-based opportunities that connect real-world to classroom learning. At least half of each academy’s incoming class students must be at risk by meeting three of four criteria (disadvantaged economic status, irregular attendance, low motivation or low achievement levels). A study conducted collaboratively by ConnectEd: The California Center for College and Career, and the Career Academy Support Network at the University of California-Berkeley, found students in California's partnership academies were more likely to pass the California high school exit exam as sophomores, more likely to complete the college prep requirements needed for admission eligibility to California's public universities; and more likely to graduate from high school.[1]

The approach to organizing learning in career clusters clearly is working for many students. As noted above, these programs help more students attain college and career readiness and the resources associated with the programs can be adapted to help students who are not participating in CTE coursework. Because most states already have adopted some kind of a career cluster strategy, it would behoove reformers to incorporate that strategy into a state’s plan for improving college and career readiness.

Hans K. Meeder is President of the Meeder Consulting Group, LLC, and has previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Education in the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education. Matt Fleck is a consultant with Meeder Consulting Group and former Director of Indiana State CTE.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.

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