Career and Technical Education: Key Terms to Know

May 22, 2024
Cte terms to know Edmentum article

As is true of all niches within education, there’s no shortage of buzzwords, acronyms, and definitions related to Career and Technical Education (CTE) for administrators and instructors to keep straight. We’ve rounded up the most important terms in the field today to help you stay on top of the latest trends.

Career Connected Learning

Career-connected learning refers to educational approaches that integrate academic instruction with career exploration, technical skill development, and real-world work experiences. It aims to make learning more relevant and engaging for students by connecting classroom content to potential career pathways.

Key elements of career-connected learning include:

  • Early career exploration starting in middle school
  • Multi-year programs of study aligned to high-demand career fields
  • Work-based learning opportunities like internships and apprenticeships
  • Earning industry-recognized credentials and postsecondary credits
  • Development of technical skills as well as employability skills

The goal is to provide students with a clear pathway from secondary to postsecondary education and careers, while also developing the knowledge and skills valued by employers. Career-connected learning helps bridge the gap between education and the workforce needs.

Effective career-connected learning programs involve close partnerships between schools, employers, and community stakeholders to ensure alignment with labor market demands and provide authentic work-based experiences for students.

Career Clusters and Career Pathways

Advance CTE’s National Career Clusters® Framework is intended to serve as means of organizing knowledge and skills into different career pathways to help educators design and deliver high-quality programming that leads students to career success. The Framework identifies 16 different Career Clusters, representing 79 unique Career Pathways.

Advance CTE states that the Career Clusters Framework is meant to serve “…as a useful guide in developing programs of study bridging secondary and postsecondary curriculum and for creating individual student plans of study for a complete range of career options. As such, it helps students discover their interests and their passions, and empowers them to choose the educational pathway that can lead to success in high school, college and career.”

Career pathways provide a clear roadmap for students to follow from secondary education through postsecondary training and into the workforce. Some key benefits of following a defined career pathway include:

Focused Preparation:
Career pathways align curriculum and training to the specific knowledge, skills, and credentials required for in-demand occupations. This focused preparation helps ensure students develop the competencies valued by employers.

Industry Certification:
Many career pathways culminate in students earning industry-recognized certifications or licenses. These portable credentials demonstrate technical proficiency and increase employability upon completion of the pathway.

Seamless Transitions:
Well-designed pathways create seamless transitions and credit transfer between secondary and postsecondary programs. This streamlines the process for students to earn degrees, certificates, or other advanced credentials.

4- and 6-Year Plans

These plans lay out an individual students’ course sequence for core academic subjects (math, ELA, social studies, science, etc.) and electives (including CTE). This ensures that counselors and support teams can put the students in the classes that they are either excited about taking, need to graduate, or are required to take to attain a career certification or experience. Student plans are also used by school and district administrators for program goal setting, staffing, budgeting, and other planning tasks. Here’s a breakdown of what these plans include:

  • 4-year plans are developed, preferably in the 8th or 9th grade to lay out a sequence of academics for individual students. The sooner the pathways are developed, the sooner the students can embark on them and support networks can monitor student progress.
  • 6-year plans can either precede the four years of high school or succeed them. Most commonly 6-year plans include four years of high school and two years of postsecondary education. Sometimes, schools will extend a student’s existing four-year plan in 10th grade to make it a 6-year plan.

Dual Credit / Dual Enrollment

Dual credit programs allow high school students to work on post-secondary curriculum, aligned to relevant state standards and taught by a district employee with adjunct status or a representative of the college. These courses can be taught face-to-face, blended or virtually, with the student earning college credit concurrent to high school credit.

Work-Based Learning (WBL)

This is a method of incubating students to prepare them for college and career experiences. This approach places students in an immersive learning environment that fosters quick analysis and application of knowledge and skills. Examples include job shadowing, internships, and project-based activities connected to actual industry work. These kinds of opportunities provide particularly robust and dynamic learning experiences for students.

Internships and Practicums

Often an internship or practicum is the culminating experience in a student’s CTE pathway, and can be incorporated in a capstone course. In these learning environments, students communicate with their CTE teacher and work supervisor for feedback, grades, and selected areas for improvement. It is of great value for students to journal, develop portfolios, and communicate their experiences with class peers in order to create a learning community and foster improvement.

Industry-Recognized Credential

An industry-recognized credential is a certification or license awarded by a third-party industry association or occupational body, not an educational institution itself. It validates an individual's competencies that are valued by employers in a particular field or occupation.

Key points:

  • Issued by credible industry organizations through exams or performance assessments
  • Recognized and preferred by employers for hiring and advancement purposes
  • Examples: Certified Welder, Nursing Assistant, IT certifications, etc.
  • Signals job readiness and technical skills to potential employers
  • Increases employability, especially for "middle-skill" jobs not requiring a 4-year degree
  • Can qualify for college credit or advanced standing in related programs
  • Provides portable, industry-valued credentials across companies/regions

For students, earning these credentials demonstrates career preparedness. For schools, credential attainment indicates alignment between education and workforce needs. Many states incorporate these industry certifications into accountability systems.


A CTE concentrator refers to a student who has completed at least two course credits in a single career pathway or program of study, such as Health Science or Business Management and Administration. This allows students to gain in-depth knowledge and skills within a specific career area of interest.

The definition of a CTE concentrator is important for data reporting and accountability purposes under the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V). States are required to report on performance indicators for CTE concentrators, such as graduation rates, academic proficiency, and attainment of postsecondary credits or industry-recognized credentials.

Concentrating in a CTE pathway provides students with focused career preparation and can lead to better outcomes, such as increased engagement, higher graduation rates, and improved college and career readiness.


A CTE completer is a student who has successfully completed all the required courses and earned a credential in a specific career and technical education program or pathway. The definition and criteria for a CTE completer can vary across states, but generally involves:

  • Completing a sequence of 2-4 CTE courses within a single program area
  • Earning a minimum grade (often C or higher) in those courses
  • Obtaining an industry certification, license, or degree associated with the program

Completing a full CTE program provides students with extensive preparation for careers through a combination of academic knowledge, technical skills, and work-based learning experiences. CTE completers tend to have higher rates of graduation, postsecondary credential attainment, and entry into high-skill, high-wage employment compared to non-CTE students.

Perkins Act

The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, commonly known as the Perkins Act, is the primary federal legislation that provides funding and establishes requirements for career and technical education (CTE) programs across the United States.

Some key points about the Perkins Act:

  • It was first authorized in 1984 and has been reauthorized several times, most recently as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act (Perkins V) in 2018.
  • Perkins provides around $1.4 billion annually in formula grants to states for supporting CTE programs at the secondary and postsecondary levels.
  • Funding is distributed to states based on population and poverty data, with states then allocating funds to local education agencies and colleges.
  • The Act sets accountability requirements for states, including performance indicators around academic achievement, skill attainment, credential earning, and placement in employment or further education.
  • Perkins V emphasizes stronger alignment between CTE programs and labor market needs, increased work-based learning opportunities, attaining recognized postsecondary credentials, and serving special populations.

The goal of the Perkins Act is to develop more fully the academic knowledge, technical skills, and employability of secondary and postsecondary education students enrolled in CTE programs in order to keep the United States competitive in the global economy.

Looking for additional info on all things Career and Technical Education? Check out Edmentum’s CTE Workbook for helpful resources on the different career pathways, an overview of implementation models, interactive program planning worksheets, and more to help you design a program that will truly impact student outcomes.

Get the latest education insights sent directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our Knowledge Articles