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It’s Time to Champion Student-Centric, Stigma-Free Education and Career Pathways for All

March 29, 2022

The following article is from Medium

Earlier this month, thousands of students, educators, policymakers and innovators gathered for the SXSW EDU conference, an annual event focused on sharing trends, best practices and innovation in the education space. Among the event’s high-profile speakers–including U.S. Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona — several themes emerged:

  • We have an unprecedented opportunity to fix, shift and rethink a “broken” education system.
  • Education needs to move toward a student-first model focused on wraparound supports and positive, measurable outcomes.
  • Short-term, high-quality programs are one of the workforce solutions that will outlast the pandemic.

In the words of Secretary Cardona during his SXSW EDU keynote, “Why are we building [the education system] back the way it was when it wasn’t working for everyone?”

As a participant and speaker myself, I, too, see the potential of this pivotal time in our education and workforce systems. But the fact remains — despite forward-thinking ideas and conversations, our systems remain largely unchanged at scale. Students following non-four-year degree paths continue to face a pervasive stigma. And while some schools are having success with short-term credentials, there isn’t a national strategy for determining quality and directing learners into these programs.

As we examine the opportunities to bring forth student-centric, stigma-free education and career pathways, we must focus on tangible, evidence-based solutions that bring about real change.

At SXSW EDU, I participated in a panel discussion hosted by Jobs for the Future (JFF) during their half-day of programming, “Innovation in Workforce Education.” In a conversation moderated by JFF’s senior innovation officer, Stephen Yadzinski, we discussed the need to create shorter, faster and cheaper education pathways that are high quality. During the discussion, I highlighted our experience as a provider of career and technical education during the pandemic, which revealed that it is possible to successfully teach hands-on competencies in a digital learning environment. In fact, our programs saw pass rates among those who were educated at a distance equal to pre-pandemic pass rates where students were learning in our labs.

My fellow panelist Kristina Ishmael, deputy director of the Office of Ed Tech at the U.S. Department of Education, echoed my sentiments about high-quality digital education, stressing the importance of incorporating postsecondary education and workforce into the Department’s refresh of the national ed tech plan. In her words, “Multi-modal education is here to stay,” illustrating that we have to think about the end user and how they can access learning in many ways. She also added that connectivity is as much a tool in today’s classrooms as a pencil.

Our work also has illuminated that learner success goes well beyond the classroom and that the non-academic strains of life lead to incomplete education journeys. As an organization with schools serving a high percentage of Pell-eligible learners, we have seen the positive impact wraparound support services — like an emergency grant of less than $500 — can have on completion rates.

Hector Mujica, another panelist and the leader of’s economic opportunity portfolio, stressed the importance of partnering with organizations that put equity and racial justice first because they understand the best way to serve and support students from those demographics.

Our panel discussion culminated with the idea that transformation only happens when everyone has skin in the game. For our part at ECMC Group, we believe policymakers, educators and employers must work together to rethink the current system for the benefit of all learners. Employers must be actively engaged and involved in the education and training of their future workers — providing perspective on what they need from graduates and getting directly involved in curriculum development.

Kristina also stressed the importance of having policymakers involved in conversations about transformational change. She spoke about the government’s role in creating definitions and guidelines around digital education and short-term programs, as well as working with organizations that impact learners directly.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: The education system can’t and won’t change based on the efforts of one organization. We must come together while making space for experimentation and learning as we identify potential solutions that will benefit all students.

By Jeremy Wheaton, president and CEO of ECMC Group

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