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Gaining real-world experience: Strengthening career pathways through work-based learning

Midwest | February 16, 2023

A teacher and student observing a machine

For high school students, choosing a career path can be difficult amidst the dizzying array of options available and a rapidly changing economic landscape. Work-based learning offers students a way to explore potential career paths in real-world settings. Nationwide, a growing number of high schools are providing immersive work-based learning opportunities as a way to strengthen career pathways, particularly as part of career and technical education (CTE).1

Leaders in Indiana's state agencies have identified CTE and work-based learning as education priorities. The state's current high school graduation requirements emphasize CTE, and starting with the class of 2023, work-based learning will be one of three types of sustained learning experiences that all high school seniors must complete to graduate.2 In line with these priorities, REL Midwest is partnering with leaders at Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) to better understand the characteristics of high-quality work-based learning and the barriers to student participation. This project is the first of several that REL Midwest plans to launch with partners in Indiana focused on employability skills and work-based learning.

Benefits of work-based learning

Work-based learning encompasses various collaborative activities that are designed to reinforce the academic, technical, and social skills learned in the classroom by providing real-world, hands-on experiences, often through connections with employer partners. These activities enable students to apply classroom theories to practical problems and explore careers in fields such as health care, business, engineering, information technology, and manufacturing.

Work-based learning includes paid or unpaid internships and pre-apprenticeships that are set up by a school and then carried out by a student at an employer's work site. Other work-based learning opportunities, such as capstone classes, semester-long research projects, and real or simulated school-based businesses, connect students to work skills in the classroom.

Increasing student participation in work-based learning

Indiana has set a goal that 22.5 percent of high school students will participate in high-quality CTE experiences, such as work-based learning, by 2023/24. IPS district and school leaders are committed to supporting this goal by increasing student participation in work-based learning. A large urban district, IPS serves some 22,000 students, of which about two thirds are students of color, 68 percent are from economically disadvantaged households, and 22 percent are English learner students.3 Four of the district's 11 high schools offer CTE programs of study,4 and at each of these schools, a work-based learning coordinator assists with matching students to work-based learning opportunities.

Many factors may limit students' capacity to participate in work-based learning opportunities, however. Students may already work outside of school to contribute to their family income or have other family responsibilities. Transportation options may be logistically difficult, and scheduling work-based learning within the school day or after school may pose challenges.

To better understand these and other challenges, a REL Midwest team will collaborate with district and school staff at IPS to carry out the following set of coordinated activities:

  • Surveys: REL Midwest will build IPS capacity to use surveys to collect information from educators, students, and families about their familiarity with work-based learning and the barriers to student participation.
  • Process mapping: REL Midwest will support IPS staff in using systematic process mapping to better understand how the district identifies industry work-based learning opportunities, communicates them to students and families, and helps students take advantage of them.
  • Action planning: REL Midwest also will support IPS staff in using the information to develop action plans for each career pathway to increase work-based learning offerings and student participation in those offerings.

The work will proceed in phases across the coming years. Stay tuned to our website for more information as the work unfolds.


1 Advance CTE. (2020). The state of career technical education: An analysis of states' Perkins V priorities.

2 Indiana State Board of Education. (2018). Graduation Pathways Panel.

3 Indiana Department of Education. (2022). INview: Attendance & enrollment.

4 Indianapolis Public Schools. (n.d.). Tour our high school options.


Joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

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