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What Is Work-Based Learning?

July 1st, 2019 | 12 min. read

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Work-based learning is a federally-supported program in career and technical education (CTE) that connects workplaces to the classroom to prepare students for real-world careers.

While every state has its own variations of work-based learning and what it entails, the goal of every program is the same — to prepare the next generation of the American workforce.

It’s an ambitious project, and it’s one that gets its momentum, power, and energy from its alliance of teachers, administrators, and business owners.

These three groups of professionals work together to create systems and scenarios that help students thrive in terms of professional development.

Nationwide, states are prepping their CTE students to enter the workforce with actual career experience under their belts! This is especially true for younger students like middle schoolers in career readiness courses

While the results have yet to be seen, the US Department of Education has plenty of data on student success, communications, participation, and more.

So how can you define a federal program that has so much participation and variation throughout the United States?

It’s a challenge — but we’re going to do it here!

Defining Work-Based Learning


On paper, work-based learning is any program that places students both in the classroom and the workplace.

But because it’s a government-run program, it has stringent requirements.


These requirements place a strong emphasis on activities, among other concepts.

A successful work-based learning program has to include activities that meet individual states’ definitions of appropriate instruction.

The DOE uses Virginia as an example. Virginia has seven “types” of work-based learning strategies that are grouped into career exploration, pre-professional development, and career preparation.

Your state may use a similar model. It could also be completely different!


In addition to activities, work-based learning requires states to develop a unique framework that comes with an implementation guide.

The DOE uses Tennessee as an example for this quality. Tennessee goes above and beyond in this area by providing resources that tell educators what they need to know before, during, and after students get placed in work-based learning programs.


Third, all work-based programs must receive input from local employers.

That means the state is responsible for coordinating meetings with local employers and educators to verify the quality of work-based learning.

These meetings are run by separate organizations, like Colorado’s Workforce Development Council.

Meetings can cover student experiences in a work-based learning program, employer ideas for future changes, and even credentials that participants may earn for their time!

Professional Development

Finally, all states must provide professional development to teachers, administrators, and other participants involved in work-based learning.

Essentially, that means states have to give educators the tools and knowledge they need to make work-based learning programs successful.

States accomplish this in different ways.

Once again, the DOE uses Tennessee as an example because it offers credits and certifications for its educators. 

Virginia, on the other hand, makes it possible for teachers to visit specific employers throughout the state.

Your state may have an entirely different system in place.

But at the end of the day, they all ensure teachers, administrators, and employers are all on the same page for work-based learning! 

All of that information leads us to another big question, though. If work-based learning is a federally-sanctioned activity, but every state can customize its own programs, then what types of work-based learning systems exist? 

Qualities of Work-Based Learning

02-qualities-work-based-learningThe type, scope, and funding of work-based learning programs varies throughout the United States.

Work-based learning is supported at the federal level through Perkins funding, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

However, that support from the federal level doesn’t make every single state’s work-based learning programs the same.

Different states have different economies and occupational needs. As a result, the work-based learning program in Georgia will look different from the one in Alaska.

Still, you’ll find three primary qualities in all work-based learning programs, regardless of the state. 

According to the US Department of Education, any work-based learning program must exhibit these three qualities to be successful:

  • Alignment between classroom and the workplace
  • Application of academic, technical, and employability skills
  • Support from classroom and workplace mentors

Let’s take a look at all of these qualities in-depth.


Alignment is all about correlating industry demands, state standards, student training, and skills-based experience.

That means students who enter work-based learning programs can’t get paired with some random company that’s looking to farm out cheap labor.

Similarly, employers have indicated that they’re willing to train and develop students’ professional skills, meaning they’re not interested in students looking to “coast” through an education program. 

Alignment also means that workplaces have to create a map of tasks and show how they relate to academic information and / or classroom instruction.

Students who enter those programs need time to reflect on their learning and experiences as well.

Finally, teachers can track a student’s progress by going through a training program that helps them match work-based learning experiences to a curriculum. 


Application brings academic, technical, and employability skills into the same area.

A full-fledged work-based learning program will have “rigorous academic and employability skill requirements,” meaning that students have to qualify to participate in such a program.

In addition, work-based learning must also include hands-on experiences with additional activities around career awareness, exploration, preparation, and readiness. 


Support means that both instructors and workplaces keep the student as their top priority.

This requires work-based learning programs must provide mentorship for students through instructors, supervisors, and coordinators.

On top of that, students must be allowed to develop relationships within a company, throughout their program, and in their local communities.

Still, every student must also be monitored to ensure that they’re truly participating in the work-based learning program to the best of their abilities.

To top it off, every company participant in work-based learning programs receives training on how to train students, foster their professional growth, and help them thrive professionally.

So this all sounds great, right?

Where does work-based learning apply in the United States?

Where Does Work-Based Learning Apply?


Technically speaking, work-based learning has opportunities for all students nationwide.

But as we established previously, different states have different systems that work independently of one another.

So if you’re wondering if work-based learning programs apply to you, the answer is yes.

You just have to figure out how your state’s program works!

You can research information on your state by using the DoE’s website and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

There, you’ll see a section of the page entitled Resources:


By using the drop-down menus, you can navigate to different kinds of information that correspond to different states.

But what if you can’t find work-based learning information about your state?

Even more jarring, what if your state doesn’t have a work-based learning program?

How Do You Start Work-Based Learning?

04-how-do-you-start-work-based-learningSo how can you start a work-based learning program?

You have three different avenues you can pursue — namely the state level, local level, and student level. 


This is a tricky question to answer for the state level.

That’s because states differ so wildly when it comes to education funding, priorities, and follow-through.

The best way to jumpstart work-based learning in your state is to get in touch with your state’s department of education.

Then, you can use the federal DOE’s work-based learning toolkit to guide your actions and discussions with other key individuals.

In general, you’ll have to look into five main areas of interest to create a program:

  • Define work-based learning for the state
  • Identify activities that fit the state’s definition
  • Develop the work-based learning framework
  • Obtain employer input for components and quality in work-based learning
  • Establish professional development for administrators and teachers

That may seem like a lot of work, but it’s possible! Many states in the US have already created successful work-based learning programs, some of which dovetail with other career readiness priorities that the state set years ago.

But that’s big-picture stuff! Besides, a lot of state governments already took care of those steps anyway.

What if you want to set up work-based learning in your school district?


When you start creating a work-based learning program in your local area, you don’t have to worry quite so much about the major parts of the system or how it works.

Instead, it’s more important that you look into the details.

Those details include:

  • Addressing employer liability concerns
  • Vouching for your students to participating employers
  • Offering different levels of participation for different companies
  • Networking with companies, managers, and employees

These finer details are concerned with getting employers on the same page as you and your administration for a work-based learning program.

It also requires you to vouch for the character of your participating students, which places you on the line for their behavior in the workplace.

That’s why it’s important for you to be clear, conscientious, and selective with your students.


This is the area where you have the most discretion as a teacher in work-based learning.

You get to decide how you present the program to your students and how to get them on board.

The sky is the limit when it comes to how you do this. If you want a few ideas, we have some ideas you can use to start some traction:

  • Appeal to a student’s desire to get out of the classroom
  • Emphasize that students can earn money and experience at the same time
  • Bring previous students into the classroom to talk about work-based learning, if available
  • Bring employers into the classroom to talk about their companies
  • Incentivize non-traditional students with grades based on their workplace performance instead of traditional classroom performance

These five ideas are just starting points, and you may have some ideas that completely differ.

And you should!

After all, you know your students best.

Using that knowledge will help drive you to the perfect way to present work-based learning to your classes — no matter their age!

How to Accomplish Work-Based Learning with a Comprehensive CTE Curriculum

With work-based learning becoming more common in CTE programs, teachers and administrators are scrambling for curriculum.

In fact, many educators have asked if AES’s CTE curriculum can help with work-based learning.

The short answer is yes! But you need more than just a one-word answer.

When teachers ask us this question, they really want to know exactly how AES helps teachers and students have success with work-based learning!

Read the article below to learn how you can support work-based learning using digital curriculum:

Discover 4 Ways AES Supports WBL for CTE Programs >