Last month, the Department of Labor announced a new grant opportunity, Youth CareerConnect, for career and technical education programs. The Department will use up to $100 million in revenues from the H-1B visa program to fund approximately 25 to 40 grants for individual or multi-site projects. To connect career technical education (CTE) secondary programs to real-world prospects for their students, all grantees will have to demonstrate a strong public/private partnership, and must include, at a minimum, a local education agency, a local workforce investment system entity, an employer, and an institution of higher education.

This federal investment in career and technical education is a prime chance for the administration to put its enthusiasm for competency-based education in K-12 and higher education into action.

Why does Youth CareerConnect—or career and technical education more broadly—lend itself to competency-based approaches?

According to CompetencyWorks, a high quality competency based model is one in which: (1) students advance upon mastery; (2) competencies include explicit, measurable, transferable learning objectives that empower students; (3) assessment is meaningful and a positive learning experience for students; (4) students receive timely, differentiated support based on their individual learning needs; and (5) learning outcomes emphasize competencies that include application and creation of knowledge, along with the development of important skills and dispositions. In a few of these areas, CTE models are especially well suited to competency-based approaches.

Clear competencies. Unlike traditional academic high schools, CTE programs aim to prepare students for particular jobs and trades. As such, these models can track student progress against specific, precisely stated learner outcomes established by business and industry as essential for successful employment in a given field. These trusted industry standards can guide the design of competency-based models and can be shared with students in a clear and transparent way. Knowing the precise competencies that a system requires students to master makes the concept of competency education more concrete and accessible to students and educators alike.

Multiple pathways to mastery. The Departments of Labor and Education have specified that Youth CareerConnect grantees should offer work-based learning and exposure to the world of work through strong partnerships with local businesses and workforce development agencies. These outside-the-classroom learning opportunities are a key component to competency-based models that emphasize the real-world performance tasks outside the classroom. Learning and applying skills outside of the classroom presents students with an opportunity to garner practical skills and to demonstrate mastery beyond traditional tests and quizzes.

Clear pathways to more advanced learning and credentials. The grant program emphasizes the integration of CTE programs with postsecondary education and training: students will participate in education and training, while they are still in high school, that leads to credit toward a post-secondary degree or certificate and an industry recognized credential, where appropriate. Having a clear path for more advanced students to race ahead is vital to allowing students to continue to advance once they’ve mastered more basic material. This also ensures that students will continue to learn skills and acquire credentials that are meaningful in their professional pursuits. Finally, this requirement provides an excellent means of starting to link secondary and postsecondary competency-based approaches, which are currently evolving along different trajectories.

Competency-based education and CTE can go hand-in-hand to ensure that students are mastering the skills necessary to workforce readiness. In one state, New Hampshire, which has abolished the Carnegie Unit altogether, the state’s regulations already specify that CTE should be competency-based. There, the Manchester School of Technology in Manchester provides one encouraging model of competency-based approaches in CTE programs. Moreover, the school recently became a four-year high school, which also suggests that honing competency-based CTE models could inspire new approaches in traditional high schools as well.

Federal grant competitions are one way that the government can support these models without being overly prescriptive in the still emerging field of competency-based education. As Lillian Pace pointed out, 75 percent of RTT-District grant applicants included competency-based education in their proposals. Youth CareerConnect is yet another opportunity for this administration to support competency-based approaches gaining traction across the country.