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Opinion: How better data can revolutionize education, careers in Montgomery County

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In 1983, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued this blistering assessment: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The report was a wakeup call for El Paso, Texas, which a few years later launched the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence (EPCAE). Bringing together families, schools, and employers, EPCAE addressed achievement gaps by raising standards, improving training, and enhancing college and career readiness. Three decades after its launch, graduation rates had risen 76% in local high schools; 476% at El Paso Community College; and 197% at the University of Texas El Paso. Thousands of additional students each year in that region now start school ready to learn and leave school prepared for meaningful careers. 

A similarly revolutionary approach is needed today in Montgomery County. In 2022, the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) received startup funding from the Montgomery County Council to seed the READY Institute. Alongside our partners including Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Montgomery College, Montgomery County Economic Development Corp. and WorkSource Montgomery, we believe the READY (“Resilient Education for All, Designed for You”) Institute represents a groundbreaking approach to data collection and analytics that will support better preparation for students to achieve college and career success. One essential ingredient is a sustained funding commitment from the County Council to fully realize its potential. 

After 30-plus years working at colleges and universities — including the past three and a half years as executive director of USG — I have seen firsthand the challenges America’s higher education system has faced to meaningfully engage with schools serving kindergarten through grade 12, collaborate with potential employers, or help students balance their work and family responsibilities. These disconnects are neither equitable nor sustainable. Students are forced to adapt to the institution; it should be the other way around. 

USG is working tirelessly to change that paradigm, and the READY Institute is a key component of our mission. We are taking a data-informed approach to not just academic achievement, but career success. Indeed, if students graduate without the connections to employers or the skills they need to thrive, how much is a diploma really worth?

In Montgomery County, 91% of adults have graduated high school, 78% have completed some post-secondary education, and our county’s unemployment rate is 2.9%. But what these data don’t tell us — and what the READY Institute can demonstrate — is how students’ education pathways ultimately affect their career pathways. 

How many jobs in key sectors are available? Which job categories are growing the fastest? What percent of those jobs are being filled by local graduates? Where are the gaps in the talent supply? How can schools serving kindergarten through grade 12 and postsecondary schools proactively address these gaps and adapt in real time to students’ and employers’ needs? Answers to these questions can make all the difference between a degree and an education, not to mention a job versus a career.

The READY Institute will support collaborative data sharing, along with publicly available information by MCPS, Montgomery College, USG and the University System of Maryland. As the work progresses, interactive dashboards will showcase specific metrics and key performance indicators to better inform and regularly update each partner. To date, we have initiated data collection efforts and utilized outside consulting expertise, and we are conducting essential gap analyses to design career and academic pathways that effectively address those gaps.

A summit later this month hosted by USG and the Montgomery County Economic Development Corp., in collaboration with Montgomery College, MCPS, WorkSource Montgomery and key employers in the region, will highlight those gaps and lay out next steps. With additional funding from the county, we will have the resources to more fully establish the READY Institute this year.

Schools at all levels are charged with putting students in the best possible position to succeed in the classroom and in life. MCPS, Montgomery College and USG all bring a lot to the table individually. But by following the El Paso approach to work together more intentionally, and with data from the READY Institute as our collective guide, the sky’s the limit for what we can accomplish together.  

Anne Khademian is executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove and associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, University System of Maryland.

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