Early Childhood Data Collaborative Survey Points to Greater Need for Data Coordination

Blog Post
Oct. 22, 2018

What is one way states could use the recent fiscal year 2019 federal funding increases for early care and education programs? Improving early childhood data systems. While states collect a lot of information about young children, data collection across early care and education programs is often uncoordinated or nonexistent, which can hinder the quality of programs available to families.

Picture a child’s path during his first five years of life. Let’s call him Michael. For his first two years, Michael is enrolled in Early Head Start and his mother participates in a home visiting program. When Michael is three years old, his family moves and enrolls him in a child care center that accepts their Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) subsidies. He then goes on to attend a state-funded pre-K program at age four, and enters kindergarten the following year. During this time his family receives public health services through Medicaid.

Each of these programs is collecting some data about Michael. On the child level, a lack of data coordination means his kindergarten teacher may have no idea what previous programs he has participated in, what previous assessments have shown about him, or what type of supports he may need to excel in her classroom. On the systems level, a lack of coordination makes it difficult to answer simple questions about enrollment or program effectiveness.

Last month, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative (ECDC) released the 2018 Early Childhood Data Systems Survey report, highlighting the progress states have made coordinating data across early care and education (ECE) programs and to other social services such as child welfare and housing supports. In short, states have a lot of work left to do.

All 50 states (Washington, D.C. declined to participate) responded to the survey between April and June of 2018. The online survey was sent to various state agencies that oversee children’s care and education during the first eight years of life. The infographic above depicts the ECE programs that would benefit from data coordination across systems.

Without comprehensive ECE data, it is impossible to know which programs are working, for whom, and why. One way to improve early learning is to collect child-level data that helps identify the needs of individual children. ECDC asked states if they linked individual child-level data with state-funded pre-K, preschool special education, early intervention, subsidized child care, and Head Start. Less than half of states (check out ECDC’s interactive map displaying their data, here) have child-level data linked across ECE programs, with home visiting (10 states) and Head Start (7 states) the least likely to be linked.

Besides collecting data about children, states gather information about the workforce and programs. States that follow their teachers over time are able to collect data about pay levels, background checks, and professional development opportunities. While 42 states collect some workforce data points, only 15 reported the capacity to link workforce data across different ECE programs. ECDC also asked states if they used some sort of database to track ECE program information. Forty-one states reported using a Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS) to collect program site data. The report showcased Pennsylvania's Enterprise to Link Information to Children Across Networks (PELICAN) as an example of a state program that used a linked database system to access valuable information about their early childhood programs.

Perhaps the most discouraging survey results involve state governance structures that establish policies and guidance around how data is used and shared. ECDC research found the number of states with a defined data governance body decreased from 32 to 22 since 2013. Technical barriers, use of common language and metrics, and ambiguous policies seemed to be the largest barriers to integrating data systems, which makes these governing bodies so important.

State leaders need the right data to have a comprehensive picture of how families engage with early care and education programming, the ECE workforce, and ECE program quality. Our Early & Elementary Education Policy team has also called out the importance of early childhood data systems, making them a priority for B-3rd alignment in the 2015, report “From Crawling to Walking: Ranking States on Birth-3rd Policies that Support Strong Readers.” On the macro level, policymakers need to data to answer important questions about how all children are doing and, how our most vulnerable children are doing, and about families’ access to high-quality ECE and other services. And on the micro level, Michael’s kindergarten teacher needs to understand his experiences before he enters her classroom. Good, coordinated data can help to meet both of these needs. While data systems may not be exciting, they are certainly an important tool for improving outcomes for children and families.

Related Topics
State Funded Pre-K Early Head Start Head Start Pre-K Birth Through Third Grade Learning