New federal challenge for CTE expansion open for submissions

Applications are open for the Career Z Challenge, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education to promote creative solutions to expand student access to high-quality work-based learning opportunities that will prepare youth for current workforce needs in growing sectors.

Local educational agencies and consortiums are invited to share their ideas for creating or enhancing opportunities that establish deep collaboration among local educators, employers, industries and community stakeholders, as well as engage high school students in meaningful career exploration, development and preparation by providing work-based learning opportunities that have real-world relevancy, are inclusive and accessible, scalable, sustainable and more.

The lessons learned from the Career Z Challenge will inform resources and models that will foster growth and expansion of high-quality, sustainable experiences for students nationwide, panelists said during an April 4 webinar hosted by the Education Department.

“The nine through 12 grade journey is a remarkable period of exploration and growth for our students everywhere,” said Jenny Lambert, education program specialist at the Department of Education. “So, the Career Z Challenge is a call to action. It’s about creating or expanding your work-based learning ecosystem wherever you’re at in the process.”

There are two types of entries available to LEAs, she continued, novice or expander. The novice category is for LEAs creating a new work-based learning system, while expander entries are to enhance a current work-based learning system.

If selected, LEAs will receive technical assistance to support the development, implementation and/or expansion of their work-based learning ecosystems. They will also have access to a community of practice, informational webinars, toolkits, mentorship, online collaboration space, resources and support services.

The Career Z Challenge supports the Biden-Harris Administration’s Raise the Bar: Unlocking Career Success initiative backed by the U.S. Departments of Education, Labor and Commerce.

Career technical education, once considered a remedial path for students who were not college ready, has grown significantly as the need for qualified employees in jobs that require education beyond high school but less than a bachelor’s degree continue to expand. CTE pathways offered in high schools throughout the country are often tailored to meet local industry needs, and include subjects such as advanced manufacturing, transportation, agricultural science and health care, and encompass coursework that is intensive, demanding and, in some fields, such as engineering or information technology, requires a solid background in math and science.

Research has also demonstrated long-term benefits to CTE participation. A 2016 report from University of Connecticut researcher Shaun Dougherty found that students with greater exposure to CTE are more likely to enroll in a two-year college, be employed and earn higher wages. And in the short term, CTE students are significantly more likely than their peers to say that they developed problem-solving, project completion, research, math, college application, work-related, communication, time management and critical-thinking skills during high school.

Department officials are looking to support strong programs that will lead to these types of outcomes.

“Work-based learning ecosystems vary in shapes and sizes, but they have key elements: multi-sector partners, a collective vision of supporting students’ interaction with industry or community professionals, and student engagement in work activities, in real workplace settings which can include virtual settings or simulated work environments,” Lambert said. “A comprehensive work-based learning ecosystem provides accessible, equitable and inclusive opportunities that include a continuum of deepening learning experiences, agile adaptation, long-term planning, continuous evaluation and broad communication to advance high-quality practices.”

Eligibility criteria, submission guidelines and more are available here. Challenge submissions due by May 24, 2023, at 6 p.m. ET.

CSBA CTE resources:

Blog post: “Career technical education graduation requirement update”

Governance and Policy: Career Technical Education

Governance and Policy: Regional Occupational Centers and Programs

Governance brief: “Supporting STEM Access, Equity, and Effectiveness: STEM and CTE Work for California’s Economic Future”

California Schools magazine: Silver linings for the CTE playbook: Lessons learned in the virtual environment