Voices From the Field: Career Pathways—Creating Relevant Learning Experiences

This blog series shares lessons from national organizations working to build career pathways with support from state leadership. Each post will highlight one provider and share a cornerstone element to their strategy for others to consider in their own development of career pathways.

One of the biggest challenges facing schools and educators is providing students with curricula that reflect the ever-evolving demands of the workplace. In order to offer students an education with a clear road map to a successful career, schools must provide rigorous technical coursework and hands-on learning experiences and ensure that students master skills that are applicable and relevant to students’ future careers.

Linked Learning schools, developed by California–based ConnectEd, are one approach to education that blends traditional academics with workforce-centered skills. The Linked Learning model incorporates career pathways that center on state-specific industry needs and technical skills, such as health care, engineering, or the arts.

For example, at Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School in Sacramento, California, every college preparatory course is viewed through the lens of the health care industry. For mathematics courses, students learn dosage calculations. In English class, students read biographies of notable doctors and write technical case studies. Work-based learning is also integrated with everyday studies—coursework is paired with real-world professional experience.

Beyond California

The Linked Learning approach is expanding beyond its California roots. The high graduation rate, emphasis on personalized learning, and career-centered instruction have led other states looking to develop clear career pathways systems similar to the Linked Learning approach.

Detroit launched a pilot program in 10 high schools with the same emphasis on hands-on learning and industry-specific coursework. Led by Linked Learning Detroit Chief Executive Officer Tanya Heidelberg-Yopp, the initiative spans school districts and works at an individual school level. “One of the key things that’s worked in Detroit is the fact that we were able to work with a small group of schools with focused and committed leadership to come up with a proof of concept that could get us to an aggressive implementation process,” said Heidelberg-Yopp. “We’ve seen both structural successes as well as academic successes.” Similar career pathways efforts are also under way in Madison, Wisconsin; Illinois; Ohio; and Rochester, New York.

Lessons Learned

How can other states or school districts develop similar career pathways that link academics, industry needs, and workforce-centered skills?

  • Develop close relationships with industry partners. Workforce stakeholders can act as advisors, provide opportunities for mentorships, and allow for job shadowing and internships. Industry partners can also help provide input on curricula and help develop specialized courses for students in certain fields.
  • Think long term. Schools, cities, or districts should plan to commit and invest for five to 10 years in terms of adopting a career pathways model because it takes dedicated teachers and robust infrastructure to build successful systems. “Coordination and collaboration doesn’t happen by magic,” said Brad Stam, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of ConnectEd. “California provides a successful example in which the state made a decision to invest funding after they saw the emerging success that private philanthropy was beginning to achieve from it’s substantial investment in the work,” said Stam.
  • Look at state-specific workforce needs, and develop schools and curricula accordingly. California Linked Learning looked 15 or 20 years into the future and developed pathways schools depending on which industry demonstrated the greatest need for qualified job candidates.
  • Find diverse funding sources outside of the district. Implementing and running a career pathways system can be expensive, and the local school district may not have all of the resources available.

George Knowles is the Digital Communication Associate at the American Youth Policy Forum. 

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