Like most states, Massachusetts has limited data on its birth-to-5 early education and care system, making it difficult for us to answer basic questions such as “Where are all the 4-year-olds?”
Elliot Regenstein wants to change that. He’s the plain-spoken author of “An Unofficial Guide to the Why and How of State Early Childhood Data Systems,” which was just released by The Ounce, a national nonprofit that advocates for children.
“This is not one of those policy papers that earnestly describes how the world is supposed to be—this guide is a zealous exploration of how the world actually is,” Regenstein, the director of policy and advocacy at The Ounce, writes.
The unofficial guide is one of a series of “policy conversations” that The Ounce is sharing to “rethink education.” The policy conversations cover “innovative ideas about how we can bridge the early education and K–12 systems, improving the quality and outcomes of both.”
How can data help this effort?
Regenstein says there’s a “cold reality I confronted many years ago that you need to face right now if you haven’t already: if your state doesn’t have a unified early childhood data system, the ceiling of what you’re likely to accomplish on any of those issues is far lower than you need it to be.”
He adds, “if you or your colleagues aren’t yet working on building and implementing a unified early childhood data system, it’s time to suck it up and add that to your to-do list.”
Simply put: It’s tough to improve children’s outcomes without good data.
A unified data system can:
• ensure that children and families get the right mix of services to meet their specific needs
• provide information to parents, providers, and the public, and
• shine light on “the mystery years of kindergarten through 2nd grade,” years that have “largely been left out of state accountability systems and school improvement planning”
Regenstein also says that unified early childhood data systems should link to later educational data “to facilitate continuous quality improvement for early childhood services.”
How do states build these data systems? They follow “a standard progression” of steps that each come with “opportunities and challenges:”
- engage stakeholders to figure out what they want from the data system
- develop interagency agreements to oversee the data system
- assess the data landscape, and
- build linkages among systems
Regenstein notes that “Most of the work described in the guide isn’t IT [information technology] work — it’s about identifying needs, defining priorities, and building capacity.”
One example that Regenstein points to is Illinois, home of the Illinois Early Childhood Asset Map, or IECAM. This data system shares “information on existing services, the demographics of young children and their families, and state resources that serve young children.” It’s information that is meant to:
• help policymakers and advisors
• make the allocation of public resources transparent, and
• “provide a one-stop source for early learning and demographic data”
Regenstein is the chair of the Illinois Longitudinal Data System Governing Board — and also of the Illinois Early Learning Council’s Data, Research, and Evaluation subcommittee, so he knows the state’s work well. But his ideas are broad enough to spark action across the nation.
Having excellent data systems will enable states to understand what works in early education and then take these successes and grow them.
“Really getting early childhood right from birth through five (and into early elementary school) would radically change our education system—indeed, our society. But as long as we don’t know what supports kids are receiving or what outcomes they’re achieving, we are limited in our ability to get early childhood right at scale,” Regenstein concludes.
“With the genuine potential of bipartisan support at both the federal and state levels, early childhood data systems are poised to be a critical and revolutionary element of education reform in the years and decades ahead, whether or not they end up on the nightly news. Which, let’s face it, they probably won’t.”