Strengthening Connections Between Career and Technical Education and Competency-Based Pathways

The hallmarks of career and technical education (CTE) and competency-based pathways (CBP) are remarkably similar; both approaches focus on learning in context, encourage self-directed student pathways with project-based learning opportunities, and value performance assessments that are themselves meaningful and positive learning experiences. In a CBP environment, students learn a set of skills and knowledge in a subject area before advancing to the next set—rather than moving on as part of a group whether or not they have learned the material. CTE can provide academic skills, employability skills, and technical job-specific skills to prepare students for a range of high-skill, high-demand careers. The connections—and the tremendous potential for integrating the two approaches—are often overlooked.

Policymakers and education stakeholders can acknowledge the connections and promote a common vision of a CBP system that integrates diverse student pathways. It’s not hard to imagine what CTE experiences, aligned to college- and career-ready standards, might look like when fully embedded into a competency-based system. Students could attain advanced mathematics credit through a work-based learning opportunity at a local engineering firm. They could learn marine biology through an extended research project on a nearby lake with a local nonprofit or meet English language arts and literacy standards through a senior project coordinated with a community-based organization.

Yet it is difficult to imagine all the process and systems-alignment issues that arise in pursuit of such experiences, both within schools and across entire communities. With the grand aspirations for diverse learning pathways, there are valid concerns about whether the learning experiences chosen will provide consistently equitable and high expectations for all students, particularly diverse learners and low-income and minority students. In order to address those concerns, education leaders can work across a range of stakeholders to promote a focus on quality, starting by fostering a common vision grounded in commitment to core expectations for all students. Equally important, in order to identify and mitigate risks to equity, CBT requires substantial capacity-building support to ensure that pathways are of high quality and aligned to college- and career-ready standards and competencies.

Achieve and the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium (NASDCTEc) recently hosted a roundtable discussion with leaders from several states that are pursuing competency-based pathways to discuss opportunities and challenges for leveraging CBP and CTE together. The resulting brief, titled “Building a Strong Relationship Between Competency-Based Pathways and Career Technical Education,” surfaces leverage points, key areas for states and districts to consider, and questions that will help states clarify their vision. The meeting and brief emphasize that, although states have taken various approaches to implementing competency-based systems, common challenges and possible avenues for addressing those challenges exist:

  • Intentional coordination with CTE leaders: As policymakers or educators are engaging in initial visioning conversations for CBP, CTE leaders can play a critical part in those early decisions.
  • Quality control mechanisms: Quality control mechanisms can validate curriculum and assessments and monitor quality, alignment, and rigor within student pathways. Strategies such as forming cross-disciplinary teams to create high-quality aligned curricular and instructional resources, establishing common student expectations, and monitoring integration efforts are essential in a system where multiple educators play a role in educating and assessing student mastery.
  • School and district capacity: Effectively implementing CBP systems across multiple educational settings requires a set of structural changes within the school and district (e.g., school schedules, data systems, grading systems). As educators integrate CTE into CBP systems, they can benefit from ample professional learning and planning time to support codeveloped, aligned curricular and instructional materials and to foster constant communication across academic and CTE educators.
  • Data and reporting systems: Data systems in a competency-based environment can capture learning wherever it may be happening and in a timely manner that can inform instructional decisions. In implementing data and public reporting systems, states and districts can identify ways for systems to interface across multiple providers (including CTE) and how educators will be able to act on that data.

For more information on this topic, check out the brief “Building a Strong Relationship Between Competency-Based Pathways and Career Technical Education.” You also can read more about state approaches to competency-based education in a new CCRS brief, “State Approaches to Competency-Based Education to Support College and Career Readiness for All Students.

Alissa Peltzman is the vice president of State Policy and Implementation Support and Andrew Valent is a senior policy associate at Achieve. They work alongside states to implement their college and career readiness agendas through research, convening, and policy support. Follow Achieve on Twitter at @AchieveInc and Alissa at @AlissaPeltzman.

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