According to a 2012 Pew Research Center analysis of census data, for the first time, a third of American 25- to 29-year-olds have earned at least a bachelor’s degree. That share has been slowly edging up from fewer than one-fifth of young adults in the early 1970s to 33% this year. What happens to the other two-thirds of young adults? In Germany, they typically hold an occupational certification by the age of 20, but in the United States, non-college grads are often left without marketable skills or qualifications.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama said, “Tonight, I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for the demands of a high-tech economy. And we’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering and math -- the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.”

There are already a number of innovative high schools across the country that are pioneering a model for career and technical education that has little to do with the narrow vocational classes of yesteryear, like wood shop and auto shop. Instead, at Linked Learning schools in California, at the MET schools in Rhode Island, and at Tech Valley High outside Albany, high school students complete internships in real workplaces, exploring fields as diverse as baking, engineering and biotechnology. Students have the opportunity to check out more than one profession so they can see how adults use their education in the workplace. This helps students stay motivated to earn a degree and introduces them to the behaviors and practices specific to the working world.

California is one of the states that put vocational training back into the curriculum at high schools and community colleges. During his terms as California’s governor from 2003-2010, Arnold Schwarzenegger identified workforce skills, referred to as Career Technical Education(CTE), as a priority for California. The state plan specifies learning goals in 58 career pathways organized around 15 industry sectors.The CTE is delivered primarily through K-12/adult education programs and community college programs and includes the following:

K-12/Adult Programs:

  • Elementary school awareness and middle school introductory CTE programs
  • High school CTE, offered through 1,165 high schools in single courses, in course sequences or through over 300 integrated “learning communities”
  • ROCPs offering career pathways and programs through 74 ROCPs
  • Adult education offered through 361 adult schools and over 1,000 sites
  • Apprenticeship offered through over 200 apprenticeship program and adult schools

Community College

  • Occupational programs offered at all 109 colleges, leading to certificates, associate degrees and transfer to four-year universities
  • Noncredit instruction for short-term CTE programs offered by 58 colleges
  • Apprenticeship offered in more than 160 apprenticeship programs at 39 colleges
  • Middle College High Schools (13) and Early College High Schools (19)
  • Tech Prep programs delivered through 80 Tech Prep “consortia,” comprising 109 colleges and their feeder high schools

As a result, California developed “Linked Learning,” which is an approach that is transforming education for California students by integrating rigorous academics with career-based learning and real world workplace experiences. Linked Learning ignites high school students’ passions by creating meaningful learning experiences through career-oriented pathways in fields such as engineering, health care, performing arts, and law.

The Linked Learning pathway is defined as: A multiyear, comprehensive high school program of integrated academic and career technical study that is organized around a broad theme, interest area, or industry sector. Pathways connect learning with students’ interests and career aspirations, preparing them for the full range of post-graduation options including two- and four-year colleges and universities, apprenticeships, formal employment training, and military service.

In 2012, 63 districts and county offices of education in California committed to making Linked Learning a district-wide improvement strategy and participate in the state Linked Learning Pilot Program, authorized by Assembly Bill 790. The scale of the state Linked Learning Pilot Program will give many more students in more regions around the state access to Linked Learning. When the pilot is fully implemented, Linked Learning will be available to more than one-third of the state’s high school students – that’s approximately 700,000 students.

Linked Learning can be implemented through various models such as the California Linked Learning District initiative, which includes nine districts that have already implemented the Linked Learning approach:

  • Antioch USD
  • Long Beach USD
  • Los Angeles USD, Local District 4
  • Montebello USD
  • Oakland USD
  • Pasadena USD
  • Porterville USD
  • Sacramento City USD
  • West Contra Costa USD

Additional models include California Partnership Academies, career academies, National Academy Foundation academies, charter schools, and small-themed schools to name just a few. Today in California, 500 California Partnership Academies are organized around one of the state’s 15 leading industry sectors, and another approximately 300 career academies are in operation. Regional Occupational Centers and Programs (ROCPs) play an important part in many of these academies. In many other high schools, ROCPs are experimenting with innovative approaches to integrate academic and technical education.

While my hometown of San Diego hasn’t implemented the Linked Learning approach, Clairemont High School has an Academy of Business & Technology (AOBT), which is a “school within a school” that focuses on business, computer and communication skills. The three-year program provides college-prep core classes and business career-technical electives to provide students the technological, financial and communicative skills necessary to succeed in a college and career environment.

The academy program is committed to providing students with an array of unique educational activities and opportunities that are not typically incorporated into general education courses such as: Internships in the business field; mentorships with community partners; entrepreneurship training; instruction in finance and economics; online business simulations; field trips to businesses and colleges; guest speakers on various careers; job interview & resume guidance; computer skills in Microsoft applications; public speaking preparation; project-based group assignment; team-building and leadership exercises; problem-based learning projects; and group simulations.