the gap

How career technical education unites job training and academics

by Kimberly Sellery
vector illustration of technical jobs

In late August, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the Freedom to Succeed initiative, an executive order launching a new career education effort to prepare students and adults for the workforce of tomorrow and directing additional steps to reduce employment barriers for state jobs.

The Governor’s executive order directs state leaders in education, workforce development and economic development to work collaboratively with leaders of the state’s public education systems and employers to develop a Master Plan on Career Education. The plan will guide the state in its efforts to strengthen career pathways, prioritize hands-on learning and real-life skills, and advance universal access and affordability for all Californians through streamlined collaboration and partnerships across government and the private sector.


he master plan is the latest step in support of career technical education (CTE) in schools, and continues the evolution of the education model from vocational education to the robust programs that exist today. Other recent efforts include the establishment of California Golden State Pathways in 2022 “to provide local educational agencies (LEAs) with the resources to promote pathways in high-wage, high-skill, high-growth areas, including technology, health care, education, and climate-related fields;” and the March 2023 California State Plan for Career Technical Education, which “seeks to improve equity in access and outcomes across the state’s diverse geography, student and worker populations, and individual identities.” Through a series of targeted grants over the last few decades, California CTE programs have been growing and ensuring that students are college and career ready — and allowing students to choose the best path for themselves.

From vocational education to CTE

The evolution from traditional vocational education models into what is now known as CTE began in the 1980s. Vocational education singularly prepared students for entry into the world of work, and CTE classes started merging vocational learning with academic coursework. However, it was not until the 2006 reauthorization of the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Educational Act that college preparation became part of the underlying direction of CTE.

Sade Bonilla, assistant professor and senior research specialist at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, said that vocational ed was segregated by class, gender and race. “There were also many more vocational programs in lower resource schools compared to affluent schools that had higher historical rates of college going,” she said. “It really served as a way of closing off opportunities to students depending on your identity and where you lived. But when the pendulum swung the other way with a focus on college going for all, many students who didn’t continue on into college were left with very few skills in terms of what might be applicable in the job market.

“Then came CTE, which is the same in its underlying purpose — to train and prepare students for applied work — but looks quite different than vocational ed,” Bonilla continued. “The federal government has provided funding under Perkins legislation and required it to tie to the curriculum in these courses and include academics at a college preparatory level. The idea is that you’re combining this hands-on practical knowledge and using it as a tool for students to learn reading, writing and mathematics skills and to complement what they’re learning in their college preparatory courses.”

CTE programs can help LEAs meet goals in their Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP). Districts are responsible for identifying programs and approaches that correspond with eight key priorities, or 10 priorities for county offices of education. CTE programs are well suited to meet many of the state priorities such as student engagement, student achievement, school climate, implementation of Common Core and other student outcomes.

During the 2020–21 school year, the most recent year for which federal data is available, 8.3 million high school students participated in CTE programs. Students who completed at least two courses in a CTE pathway during that year were most likely to be enrolled in health science; agriculture, food and natural resources; business management, administration and arts; and A/V technology and communications programs, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Perkins Data Explorer.

California’s CTE pathways
  • Agriculture & Natural Resources
  • Arts, Media & Entertainment
  • Building & Construction Trades
  • Business & Finance
  • Education, Child Development & Family Services
  • Energy, Environment & Utilities
  • Engineering & Architecture
  • Fashion & Interior Design
  • Health Science & Medical Technology
  • Hospitality, Tourism & Recreation
  • Information & Communication Technologies
  • Manufacturing & Product Design
  • Marketing, Sales & Services
  • Public Services Transportation

Benefits of CTE

The experts in this story cited a lack of recent research on CTE and the need for more in the field. However, a 2010 evaluation and meta-analysis of career academies by UC Berkeley Career Academy Support Network that included “several studies in California [that] found that academy students performed better than similar students in the same high schools … students in grades 10 through 12 had better attendance, earned more credits, obtained higher grades, and were more likely to graduate than the comparison groups.”

The report also notes that there was no difference in standardized test scores between career academy students and traditional academic students. “It is important to recognize that the long-run benefit of career academies for participating students depends much more on reducing the dropout rate than on raising test scores.”

Bonilla’s research focuses on just that — how did students participating in one of California’s former CTE avenues, California Career Pathways Trust (CCPT), affect dropout rates? As part of the 2013–14 and 2014–15 state budgets, the Legislature authorized and funded the $500 million CCPT. Through a competitive application process, the CDE awarded grants to regional and local partnerships that included LEAs, community colleges and employers to establish or expand career pathways in grades 9-14. Those pathways required integrated, standards-based academics with a sequenced, career-relevant curriculum following industry-themed pathways aligned with high-need, high-growth or emerging regional economic sectors.

“I think what the California Career Pathways Trust did was to try and formalize those structures and make it really easy for not only students and their families to understand how courses were aligned and sequenced, but also to help schools,” Bonilla said. “The idea was to formalize that guidance and to incentivize schools to sit down and say, ‘Where is the growth in our region and what are those occupations? How can we partner with local colleges to create this sequential alignment from our high school to a local community college so that a student can get on the train and then decide what stop they’re going to get off?’

“What my research found was specifically in high schools, there was a reduction in dropout rates for the schools that implemented career pathways, and it didn’t matter what type. I suspect that a lot of this had to do with the more hands-on nature of the learning that happens in CTE,” she continued. “I think that that can foster increased engagement with schooling to engage your mind and body in a different type of learning than pencil-and-paper learning. Most of the effect was for females and I hypothesized that was because most of the pathways that opened up were in health care, and we know that those are traditionally dominated by females.”

Program highlights

Coachella Valley Unified School District is a leader in providing CTE to its students using funding from California Partnership Academy (CPA) grants — which support partnerships between schools, districts and businesses — to provide integrated academic and career technical instruction to students in grades 10-12. The CPA school-within-a-school model focuses on student achievement, attendance and program accountability, according to the CDE. Coachella Valley High School was one of the first-round grantees awarded in the early 1990s in the areas of health and hospitality. In 2007, the high school expanded its offerings to include digital design and production and public safety, and has now expanded with engineering, CISCO networking, mental and behavioral health, and agriculture. These dynamic career academies earned the district a 2023 CSBA Golden Bell Award.

The district uses the same program model, with different funding sources, to provide a total of 20 CTE pathways within Coachella Valley USD, including programs in building and construction, green technology and entrepreneurship.

Coachella Valley USD CTE Coordinator Marie Perotti said the district works hard to align pathways with the local regional and labor markets. “We are a hospitality valley, so that’s why that came first. Healthcare is always a high need and that’s why we expanded health — it used to just be patient care, but we expanded it to include mental and behavioral health,” she said. It’s also important to the district that this type of thinking start earlier than 10th grade, which is why Perotti has established 20 middle school feeder programs and is currently working to push STEAM learning into elementary schools to support pathways like coding and renewable energy.

Superintendent Luis Valentino said the pathways really help to make learning more relevant for students — and it shows through improved outcomes. “Students having access to various ways of learning and aligning it with the industry sectors is one way of making it relevant and authentic to them,” he said. “One of the reasons CTE programs are so important is because there are markers that speak to how successful it’s been — including graduation data and A-G completion, which is high compared to the general population. Belonging to something helps you feel that you really can do more and be stronger.”

Coachella Valley USD Board President Adonis Galarza agreed, sharing the importance of supporting CTE pathways. “We understand that not all of our students want to go to college, and we have a responsibility of making sure that we are meeting the needs of every single student, including those that do not want to pursue a degree,” he said.

Another CSBA 2023 Golden Bell winner was California Advancing Pathways for Students (CalAPS), a model in East Los Angeles County that illustrates the benefits of combining resources and funding to achieve program goals a district could not accomplish alone. CalAPS is a Regional Occupational Center and Program (ROC/P) and joint powers authority partnership between Bellflower and Lynwood USDs, and recently expanded to include Paramount USD.

Another unique aspect of the program is that it provides CTE courses during the regular school day as well as after school — and it provides transportation for students. CalAPS CEO Lisa Azevedo explained the benefits of pooled resources and more course availability. “The intention is to share resources between districts. For example, if a district wanted to have a culinary program, you don’t want to open a culinary facility in every single one of your high schools because it’s extremely expensive,” she said. “Sharing those resources really opens up opportunities for all of the students in all of the districts to be able to participate in any of these different pathways. They’re not limited by what’s offered at their home school.”

vector illustration of 4 technical jobs

Funding Sources


  • Career Technical Education Incentive Grant (CTEIG): The purpose of this program is to encourage the development of new CTE programs and enhance and maintain current CTE programs; has dollar matching requirement
  • K12 Strong Workforce Program (SWP K12): Designed to support K–12 LEAs in creating, improving and expanding CTE courses, course sequences, programs of study and pathways for students transitioning from secondary education to postsecondary education to living-wage employment; has dollar matching requirement


  • Perkins V: Funding to expand opportunities for every student to explore, choose and follow CTE programs of study and career pathways
CalAPS CTE pathways include arts, media and entertainment; building and construction; education, child development and family services; fashion and interior design; information and computer technologies, public services and more. Pathways are created by school or student request and analysis of alignment with regional and labor market trends and include innovative programs like the bioanimaker lab, drone/avaiation program and a virtual reality lab.

Partnerships play a large role in keeping pathways up to date and relevant. “Those partnerships bring you the industry information, what is currently going on in that particular career area,” Azevedo said. “They are the experts and so it has always been my goal to have at least one partner for each one of our pathways.” Community college partnerships are also in place with Cerritos Community College, Long Beach City College and Cypress Community College.

CalAPS Board President Alfonso Morales pulls double duties while simultaneously serving as the Lynwood USD board president. “It’s a lot of work but at the end of the day, it benefits our children and I am happy to do it,” he said. “We have these opportunities for our students to go into these fields that seemed to be exclusively for people who had some kind of legacy before. And it’s opened up to everyone. Even though we know college might not be for everyone, we want them to have the option to either go to college, be prepared for it, or to go into a career path straight out of high school and be prepared for it.”

Rural challenges
Rural LEAs face specific challenges in implementing CTE pathways, especially in the realm of work-based learning and transportation, according to Amanda Bastoni, director of Career, Technical & Adult Education at CAST, a nonprofit organization with a mission of transforming education design and practice.

Bastoni said that rural districts need to be more flexible and creative with how they implement CTE courses. She used the example of a construction pathway in an area where construction companies are not prevalent. “Students could build and sell cutting boards at a local craft fair. They could source the materials, set the prices and collect the money from the community members,” she said. “Or they could partner with the local recreation department and make new benches for the park that are wheelchair accessible — it’s all about being more flexible in the pathways.”

Another example Bastoni gave was in the automotive pathway and how it could be related to small engine repair, which opens up skills that are transferable to motorcycle or snowmobile repair.

Automotive repair is a new pathway program in Butte County, where Oroville High School has partnered with the Honda Professional Automotive Career Training (PACT) program, the first such partnership on the West Coast. The program is designed to meet the growing needs of car dealers by recruiting, educating and training students to become entry-level automotive technicians at Honda and Acura dealerships. The high school will collaborate with Butte-Glenn Community College, which also has a PACT program, to help transition students who want to continue. The district has used voter-approved bond funding to build state-of-the-art automotive and welding facilities.

“Offering quality CTE programs is challenging in all school districts, not just rural districts,” said Oroville Union High School District Superintendent on Assignment Corey Willenburg. “Qualified teachers, consistent funding and having tools and facilities that mirror those used in industry are all challenges.”

The district also partners with California State University, Chico, to offer the Careers with Kids course, which is designed to prepare students for entry into college or university teacher training programs. Career preparation standards like basic academics, safety, communication, interpersonal and problem-solving skills are integrated throughout the course. Active class participation is enhanced by fieldwork at school sites under the teacher’s guidance.

“All of the quality CTE programs in the Oroville Union High School District are a testament to leveraging funding, developing partnerships and offering programs that will train kids for high-wage or high-skill jobs,” said Willenburg.

Kimberly Sellery is the managing editor for California Schools.