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

What’s a critical part of building an early childhood system?


Data show how children are doing. Data help early educators and policymakers see both gaps in access to high-quality programs and places where new policies and public investments are most needed.

Data’s power is also making news in the early education sector.

Recently, the Boston Opportunity Agenda (BOA) released a report card that found, among other things, that during the 2014-2015 school year, “63 percent of incoming kindergarten students were determined to have the necessary early learning skills to succeed and progress.” And “70 percent of kindergarten students met academic benchmarks by the end of last school year,” according to a press release.

BOA is “a public/private partnership among the City of Boston, the Boston Public Schools, the city’s leading public charities and many local foundations;” and its report card tracks “academic performance in traditional public, public charter, and private Catholic schools in Boston.”

“Keeping key performance measures in public view is critical to driving change,” BOA’s report card says. “Accurate and timely data is both a call to action and an accountability mechanism.”


The Data Basics

Last month, in a post called, “Standards, Assessment, and Data: A Look at the Leading States,” New America’s EdCentral blog defined the terms standards, assessment, and data, explaining that the three “are essential components to ensuring that all students have access to and mastery of grade level skills. The better coordinated and connected these three components (along with curriculum) are the more seamlessly children can move from classroom to classroom and the easier it is for teachers to build upon their academic and developmental skills.”

The blog adds:

Standards assist educators in scaffolding and sequencing children’s learning and development through the grades.”

Assessment and screenings that are developmentally-appropriate and embedded into the curriculum” can be used “Not to push down skills that should be left for later grades, but to determine if early intervention is needed to assist a child in mastering skills within the appropriate range of development for a particular age group.”

And, “Data systems are important to providing educators information about children’s development and mastery of skills. Every state has a longitudinal K-12 data system and most have early childhood data systems, but often these systems do not communicate with one another.”


Head Start’s Data Needs

In a separate blog post, “The Case for Better Data in Head Start,” EdCentral highlights a new paper — “Moneyball for Head Start: Using Data, Evidence, and Evaluation to Improve Outcomes for Children and Families” — that’s co-published by Results for America, the National Head Start Association, Bellwether Education Partners, and the Volcker Alliance.

Policymakers are often quick to judge Head Start — and other early education programs more — based on findings from one or two studies. EdCentral is trying to change that dynamic.

“The question policymakers should be asking is this: how can we make Head Start more effective so that all attendees see long-lasting benefits?”

As the blog explains, the paper “offers a host of recommendations for how to improve the program based on the ‘Moneyball’ principles that involve using data and evaluation to ensure that taxpayer money is invested in the most effective and efficient manner.” Just as baseball managers have succeeded with ‘Moneyball’ tactics — rigorously analyzing player statistics and building strong teams with fewer resources — so too can the early education sector.

Local Head Start programs would benefit from data “on everything from family demographics to child assessment to family engagement to staff qualifications” which “can help inform teachers and program directors so that they best meet children and families’ needs,” EdCentral says.

Federal officials should use better data to assess program quality, including “child outcomes, family outcomes, and program quality data in addition to the types of data already collected. Ideally, the Office of Head Start would use these data to analyze trends, identify high performers, and help programs improve.”

“But simply collecting required information is not sufficient,” the paper itself warns. “Using this information to improve quality and outcomes requires a high level of intentionality, planning, and expertise in analyzing, interpreting, and acting on data.”


Data Now 

“Why Early Childhood data now?” the Early Childhood Data Collaborative asks on its website. Because “effective use of data will help policymakers improve:”

• program quality

• workforce quality

• access to high-quality programs, and

• child outcomes

And these improvements would benefit children in particular and the nation as a whole for many decades to come.