Rugged Connections

One state’s mission to harness the power of data for student success.

GUEST COLUMN | by Judy Chappelear

CREDIT Wikipedia creative commons rmhermenLike much of the nation, Montana faces a challenging academic and economic landscape for supporting college and career readiness.  Though this is a top issue on the national agenda, it requires resources and buy-in from individual states, districts, and schools. With an unemployment rate of 5.2 percent and a high school graduation rate of 84.4 percent, Montana has seen steady improvements in its economic prospects over the past five years. There is still much work to be done, however, to close skills gaps and drive individualized student success.

Stakeholders in education – from students and parents to school administrators and state officials – need access to secure and organized student data to make informed decisions

Aligning postsecondary and high school curriculums to these job needs is imperative. 

and drive alignment between student career aspirations and statewide workforce needs.  Montana will join a growing number of states utilizing technology to forge a stronger connection between education and career success.

Fostering College and Career Readiness

We often ask sixth or seventh graders if they plan to go to college and the majority say that they do. However, by the time they are juniors in high school, that goal can be thwarted for a variety of reasons, making it tough to steer them back on course.

Research shows that academic success in high school, postsecondary retention, and career satisfaction are all related to a learner’s understanding of how his or her interests, skills, and values relate to academic and career pathways. When a student identifies the right pathway and makes good decisions about their postsecondary and career goals, it leads to higher high school graduation rates and postsecondary retention, which leads to completion and job placement.

But whose responsibility is it to guide students through this process? We too often rely on school counselors to provide information and guidance. With student-to-counselor ratios of 450+:1, it is not possible to provide personalized attention to every student.  An ongoing process is needed to support career aspirations and drive college accessibility and affordability.  Moreover, students need to understand their options and strive for success early, since 71% of projected jobs in 2020 will require some form of a postsecondary education.

Building a Skilled Workforce

The nation faces a growing need to develop a skilled workforce in order to meet the demands of our current industries and fill job openings. Montana is not exempt from this.  Although the labor market in Montana mirrors that of the national market, there are some differences. For example, in Montana, there is a greater need for skilled manufacturing workers, as well as students who pursue degrees in hospitality and healthcare.  Aligning postsecondary and high school curriculums to these job needs is imperative.  Employers and institutions must work together to equip students with the training needed to be successful, and together identify potential candidates with the skills and personalities that will be able to fill these jobs in the future.

Utilizing Technology to Overcome Challenges by Empowering Students and Administrators

In response to these challenges, Montana is taking a big step toward creating a one-stop college and career readiness environment for students and families.

Montana OPI will provide every administrator, teacher, parent and student with access to a personalized portal equipped with the tools needed to promote academic, career, and financial planning at any stage of a student’s learning.  A student will be able to combine his or her academic history with future education and career aspirations to create a personalized plan for success.  This approach helps to level the playing field by providing information and planning tools to all students and their parents, particularly benefitting the underserved populations and first-generation college students.

The portal will also allow counselors to monitor students, track cohorts, and intervene as needed. The portal further simplifies the transition from high school to college by ensuring that academic records combined with information like career aspirations, self-assessment, and extracurricular interests are readily available to postsecondary institutions for admissions consideration. Additionally, school and government stakeholders are able to monitor student outcomes, and make informed decisions regarding the improvement of education and workforce.

While Montana’s primary goal is to support student success and facilitate transitions to college, their innovative approach will ripple forward to impact the economic future of the state by providing a well-prepared workforce for employers.

Judy Chappelear is Vice President of Solutions & Strategy at ConnectEDU. The Montana Office of Public Instruction provides vision, advocacy, support, and leadership for schools communities to ensure that all students meet today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. The partnership between ConnectEDU and IBM is putting data into context, and comparing it across time, schools, and districts to ensure Montana’s students are on track to graduate and are college- and career-ready.


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