Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Data can help policymakers make better decisions. And while state governments do collect some early care and education data, a recent report — the “2013 State of States’ Early Childhood Data Systems” — calls on them to do a better job of gathering more comprehensive data and using these findings to make better-informed policy decisions.

According to the Early Childhood Data Collaborative, which released the report, states’ efforts to collect early childhood data are “uncoordinated, often incomplete,” and therefore unable to “effectively support continuous improvement efforts.” This finding is based on a survey of 50 states and the District of Columbia. The survey was completed by “state education, health and social services program staff,” according to a press release.

“Are young children (birth to age five) on track to succeed when they enter school?” the report asks. “How many children have access to high-quality early care and education (ECE) programs? Is the early childhood workforce adequately trained to meet the needs of young children? Most states cannot answer these basic questions because data on young children are housed in multiple, uncoordinated systems, managed by different state and federal agencies.”

Data Collection Across States

Among the report’s key findings:

 • “In 49 states and the District of Columbia, child-level data across different ECE programs are not all linked.” Only Pennsylvania reports being able to link data across all early childhood programs and link this to its K-12 data systems.

• Data on Head Start and subsidized child care isn’t always collected because state-controlled “ECE data systems are more likely to link data for children participating in state pre-kindergarten and preschool special education…”

 • States vary widely in their ability to connect early childhood data with human service data:

– 20 states reported linking ECE data to social services data, and

– 12 states reported linking ECE to health data

 • 36 states collect state-level child development data from early childhood programs and 29 states capture kindergarten entry assessment data.

 • 32 states have ECE data governance entities that “guide the development and use” of longitudinal data systems. And in more than half of states, these entities “assist with strategic planning” and “secure data-sharing across public agencies.” Data governance entities are also “well positioned to coordinate data across the multiple state agencies that administer a patchwork of state- and federally-funded programs.”

The underlying theme in these findings: More data would yield more knowledge that could help educators, parent and policymakers make better decisions for children.

“The ability to link early childhood data is significant because it allows policymakers to understand how children’s collective experiences contribute to their learning and development across ECE programs and over time,” explains Carlise King, the executive director of the Early Childhood Data Collaborative.

 Massachusetts’ Findings

The collaborative provides charts of each state’s responses to the data survey. Along with 24 other states, Massachusetts reported that it links data across “some” early childhood programs. So that, for example, “a program administrator could identify that a child attends both a State Pre-Kindergarten program and a Head Start program.”

Massachusetts also said that it links some early childhood programs to its K-12 data systems, as 28 other states do.

However, the commonwealth reported that it does not capture kindergarten entry assessment information in a data system, a data practice that 29 other states report doing.

 The 10 Fundamentals

The report also includes 10 fundamental features that state ECE data systems should have. They are:

 • a unique statewide child identifier

 • child-level demographics and program participation information

 • child-level data on development

 • the ability to link child level data with K-12 and other key data systems

 • a unique program site identifier that has the ability to link with children and the ECE workforce

 • program site structural and quality information

 • unique ECE workforce identifier with ability to link with program sites and children

 • individual-level data on ECE workforce demographics, education and professional development information

 • a state governance body to manage data collection and use, and

 • transparent privacy protection and security policies and practices

 Ongoing Support

In addition, the data collaborative plans to support states’ data collection efforts by:

 • convening experts and state leaders to identity innovative state policies and approaches for collecting and building comprehensive ECE data systems

 • sharing technical assistance resources and best practices to support states’ development and use of coordinated longitudinal data systems, and

 • highlighting state examples of child, program and workforce ECE data coordination and use

 The report concludes, “Quality data about young children who participate in state early care and education programs are needed to answer key policy questions and support effective decision-making to continuously improve programs.”

In other words, states need to gather and understand all the facts so they can develop innovative, effective ways to meet the educational and social needs of their youngest children.