Redesigning High Schools

Career Academies and Similar Career- and Interest-themed Programs

In the 20th century model of American high schools, there was a stark distinction between college preparatory courses and career and technical education courses (also known as vocational education). Some students were on a track preparing for college (meaning, a four-year bachelor’s degree), and other students were on a vocational track, preparing for direct entry into the workplace.

However, as the world of work has shifted, most skilled employment now requires a foundation of academic and 21st century knowledge and skills that must be mastered in high school, as well as additional education beyond high school, with community college technical programs emerging to fill an important part of the employment preparation spectrum. K–12 schools now constitute an essential foundation for a community’s workforce development system. Additionally, many students with four-year liberal arts degrees have come back to community college or other training programs to earn skills that are marketable and career specific. For today’s economy, the lines between career-related and college preparation have blurred significantly—and high school programs need to adapt accordingly.

We believe that the most successful approach for high schools is one that infuses the high expectations and academic rigor of college preparatory academic programs with the real-world relevance and rigor of career and technical education. This fusion of approaches can be carried out through career- and interest-based programs.

Such programs come in several varieties, such as multiple career academies and other themed programs within a larger high school, single-themed small schools, or “early college high schools.” Regardless of their specific structure, all effective programs share key characteristics:

  • The program of study selected by the student leverages an area of personal interest and integrates it with core academic knowledge. This integrated program of study is offered within a small learning community.
  • The programs are not stand-alone “boutique” programs but are part of a district strategy to offer a portfolio of approaches (“multiple pathways”) so that every student has the opportunity to choose a program that fits a personal interest.
  • The programs offer extensive real-world contact with adults currently working in the field or area of interest, and they typically provide an opportunity for students to earn college-level credits while still in high school. In order for college credit to be available to high school students, schools and colleges must develop effective partnerships that allow for smooth transitions into postsecondary education.

Ford PAS Next Generation Learning continues to advocate strongly on behalf of high-quality career academies, and also encourages any high school design that incorporates these key characteristics.