What Does a Vocational High School Pathway Look Like?

magazine article

My first published article, entitled “Rethinking High School Pathways.” just came out in Educational Leadership magazine this week. There is a digital edition, but only the first two paragraphs are available without a subscription. I’ve signed a copyright agreement, so can’t reproduce the article here, but have some concerns that the first two paragraphs, which you can read here, might be misleading to those who know me and my students.

mag cover

I think it’s important to note that in the third paragraph, which you can’t read, I write that I’ve never met a student without aspirations. My students are motivated – just not necessarily motivated to achieve the goals we set for them in school.  I also write about the vocational pathways I saw in England last year, as well as those I briefly visited in Finland and Germany, and the ones I learned about from my fellow Fulbright teachers around the world. In many of those countries, young people pursue technical and vocational pathways in school-based and work-based programs that center around the students’ career interests.  My overall point in the article is that the pathways we offer in US public schools are too limited, and that many of my students would be motivated to excel in school if they were offered clear pathways and guidance into careers they are interested in pursuing. I’ve written my thoughts on this issue here before.

Many educators in the US  believe that we already provide technical and vocational pathways in our high schools, and point to Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs where students take coursework and may even earn limited vocational certifications while still in high school. I think these programs are a great start, but fall far short of the definition of a pathway that students are able to follow to a future career. So how can you tell the difference between a program that offers vocational electives for career exploration vs. a true vocational or technical pathway? Most importantly, how do you identify one that leads to post-secondary training that earns qualifications and offers a chance at an upward trajectory within a career?

We can begin by asking whether the program…

  • provides prerequisite coursework, required or accepted by post-secondary training programs, for entry into degree-earning or certification training programs.
  • allows students to earn industry recognized certifications or qualifications while still in high school.
  • provides opportunities for, or leads toward, dual credits in both high school and technical/vocational school.
  • offers work-based learning leading directly to a Registered Apprenticeship training route.
  • provides comprehensive information about, and a direct, guided route into future, post-secondary coursework that continues from the high school level into career certifications or degrees.

If the course cannot offer at least one of these opportunities at a meaningful level, it represents a simple elective high school credit, and is an example of the typical US vocational education, which the OECD, in the report “Learning for Jobs”, characterizes, in contrast with international vocational education, as career exploration. From the OECD report, for example:

“At the opposite extreme to Austria, in the United States, although many high school students pursue some vocational programmes, they are very often modest programmes designed to explore career options, and occupational specialisation tends only to take place in postsecondary programmes (if then).”

Career exploration is necessary, and fine for middle school and early high school students, but upper secondary students who are not interested in pursuing a 4 year university pathway need real and viable vocational pathways. We have many international models to follow – from England to Singapore to Germany, and more. “College and Career Readiness” that offers only a generic diploma is no longer enough to meet the needs of today’s graduates.


Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. (2010). Learning for jobs: Synthesis report of the OECD reviews of vocational education and training. Paris: OECD.


4 thoughts on “What Does a Vocational High School Pathway Look Like?

    • Absolutely – our CTE programs are often the only part of high school that keep many kids engaged – and I have also seen CTE teachers literally save lives (and you and I both know that isn’t an exaggeration.) But they need to be empowered to do more. In the US, they are often considered invisible or irrelevant in our schools – when they should be playing a powerful and respected role.


  1. In Australia our Vocational Education and Training system is built into the school system, students can work towards entry into university or to a trade or other vocational skill or both and as part of graduated systems of learning and qualifications (Australian Qualifications Framework) that represents post secondary education in this country it allows high school students to gain actual experience not just an exploration of what is out there.

    You are incredibly right when you say that vocational education for high school students needs to be embraced and empowered, unfortunately it is quite a long road to get to a system that supports kind of choice and empowerment, particularly for students with one or more challenges in relation to their learning.


    • Thank you for the comment. I have read that the Australian system differs from both the US and the British schools I’ve seen, but have not known the specifics. It sounds like something of a hybrid of the two systems. And yes, it’s clear from reading the international education literature that students with learning challenges are simply difficult to serve, no matter where you may be, but it seems we agree that quality (and respected) vocational education is one of the keys.


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