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Rigorous Work-Based Learning

STRATEGY: Offer rigorous work-based opportunities.

A wide variety of industries are facing increasingly complex workforce challenges, including a shortage of skilled workers and opportunities to help prepare the next generation of workers.

Twenty-first-century learning requires schools to prepare students for college and for the job market. Schools have the responsibility of teaching the state standards and ensuring that the students can show proficiency on assessments in subject matter. However, more college-going preparation and work-based learning opportunities are needed to strengthen alignment across the continuum of academics, career exploration, and authentic learning experiences throughout elementary, middle, and high school to postsecondary education and jobs.

The bar is set high for schools; yet principals and teachers are up for the challenge, and with adequate information, resources, and assistance from school districts, businesses, and the community, there are many opportunities for forward-thinking, innovative leaders to integrate when designing instructional experiences for students.


Rigorous work-based learning considers academic learning along with real-life work experiences that complement academic instruction aligned to the world of college and work. Successful completion of college preparatory course work and career technical pathways (e.g., the Linked Learning approach); completion and success in college-credit-bearing high school courses such as Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB), early college, and dual enrollment programs; passing scores on college-readiness or placement assessments (such as the SAT and ACT); attainment of industry certification, badges, or credentials; and completion of other work-based learning.

While these opportunities typically occur at an employer’s work site, where students participate in on-the-job learning, they can be made available to students in different ways using virtual, online, and direct in-person approaches. Examples of these are paid or unpaid internships, volunteer experiences, job shadowing, in- and out-of-school experiences with experts in various fields, workplace simulations, project-based learning that includes authentic and hands-on experiences, and high school–based apprenticeships.

First Steps to Consider

Rigorous work-based learning helps to ensure that students have opportunities to apply the kinds of deeper learning competencies and twenty-first-century learning skills that schools integrate in the curriculum.

Quick wins

  • Establish and communicate a vision for work-based learning as part of a high school program.
  • Communicate vision to teachers, students, and parents with tangible examples of the benefits.
  • Provide models with evidence of success to staff and parents; highlight successful cases.
  • Develop and highlight key business partners who are willing to provide work experience to students.
  • Start small with a program that shows quick benefits to students (e.g., career partners and business representatives visit schools once per week to showcase their professions in classrooms alongside teachers).
  • If funding allows, implement a consistent afterschool work experience program coordinated by the school for a select number of eleventh- or twelfth-grade students from all subgroups, with tangible job-related outcomes attached.

First steps

  • Identify gaps in the system around funding, policies, and infrastructure.
  • Expand the pool of work-based learning partners in businesses and community.
  • Increase awareness of the benefits of work-based learning opportunities for all students.
  • Increase awareness of work-based opportunities available in the geographic area.
  • Identify potential gaps in student readiness and teacher professional development and address them.
  • Have a plan to ensure equity for all groups of students.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Despite the clear advantages of work-based learning experiences, far too few of them are available for low-income young people, who typically lack the connections and formal support services to help them find the internship that will give them a leg up in the labor market. There are many promising trends in this area, but most work-based learning opportunities continue to face limitations, including

  • limited access to an integrated continuum of career exploration that leads to work-based experiences, particularly for students most in need;
  • difficulty for many organizations to identify available options that are a good fit for the student’s circumstances; and
  • inadequate engagement of employers in the conversation to systemically link education and workforce preparation.

Common pitfalls

  • Geography may limit many students to only the opportunities available in their immediate area.
  • Transportation issues can often prevent students from participating in an internship or other work-based learning opportunity that exists “across town” or farther away.
  • Inequalities may exist among students participating in work-based learning experiences due to funding challenges, especially in small or low-resourced school districts.

Guiding Questions

  • What is the school’s vision for a rigorous work-based learning program?
  • In what ways can you expand the school’s work-based learning program?
  • What are the gaps in student readiness and teacher professional development?
  • Are the work-based learning opportunities a good fit for the student’s circumstances?
  • What employees are you currently partnering with, and which ones do you still need to tap?
  • Who will lead this effort to ensure a robust program with tangible student outcomes?
  • Are there issues (e.g., transportation) that prevent students from participating in work-based learning opportunities? If so, how will they be addressed?