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How to Develop Data-Driven Systems to Support Young Children

My four–year-old daughter loves to play a game we call “I’m looking.” We usually play in the car – I’ll start with “I’m looking at something blue. Can you guess what it is?”

She guesses with the typical, and often silly, guesses of a child her age: a bird, her shoe, a lollypop. I’ll add in another clue (It’s in the front seat!) and another (It makes a ringing noise!), until she guesses right (My cell phone!). It’s fun to watch her mind work and put together the pieces of information and clues until she knows enough about the object to identify it. The more information she has, the better able she is to figure out what I’m looking at.

Something similar is happening in the early childhood education field. Policymakers and state leaders are realizing that they only have bits and pieces of information about young children to guide their policy decisions to foster children’s school readiness, develop high-quality child care programs, and support families raising children.  With the help of federal grant funds, states have begun to take the first steps towards building systems to coordinate information about young children and their families across agencies and programs. For example, the Early Childhood Data Collaborative in collaboration with the Build Initiative recently released a report that looks at how states are using federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge (ELC) money to develop comprehensive and coordinated data systems to help inform decisions about early childhood policies. The report is part of a series of chapters in an E-Book about how states are using their Early Learning Challenge funds to build stronger early childhood delivery systems.

After talking with officials in seven states that elected to focus some grant funds to integrate their early care and education information, we found that they are making significant progress to better assess the availability and quality of services for children living in poverty and those at risk for developmental delays, abuse, or neglect in their states. They have used this infusion of federal funds to address critical information gaps, develop strong oversight systems to securely manage information, and plan for long term sustainability for these efforts.

We heard from these state officials that the work is not always easy – you can read more about one challenge in a recent report from the ECDC on the opportunities for linking Head Start data with state data systems. However, these state officials are excited about the possibilities that arise when they can better understand the needs of their young children and the areas of strength in their communities. They want to have as much information, as many clues as possible, so that they can learn about and continuously improve services for young children.

This trend toward data-driven systems plays out in other areas of the federal stage as well, as national leaders grapple with how best to support states as they provide increased programming for young children and their families. Leaders at the federal Office of Head Startare taking steps to strengthen data sharing policies through the new proposed Head Start performance standards. Grant opportunities such as the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems(SLDS) Grant, which assists states in developing and implementing statewide, longitudinal data systems in education includes early learning as one of its fiscal year 2015 priority areas. The 2014 Preschool Development and Expansion Grants, created to expand access to high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities, allowed states to use funds to enhance their early care and education data systems development to support a continuum of learning from birth to third grade. Even now, Congress is working to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) –currently working to blend together the House version (the Student Success Act) and the Senate version (the Every Child Achieves Act). The final version of this bill may play an important role in both the funding and data reporting requirements for some state early care and education programs.

Pulling together all of these pieces of information can help paint a fuller, richer, more accurate picture of the young children, their families, and their needs in communities across the country. And once we can put those pieces – those clues and details – together in one place, we can develop the best supports, have them be more strategically funded, and build better futures for our youngest citizens.

Elizabeth Jordan, JD
Senior Policy Analyst, Child Trends and the Early Childhood Data Collaborative
(Cross-posted with Child Trends, Trend Lines blog, September 16, 2015)

Note: The Alliance for Early Success provides financial support to the Early Childhood Data Collaborative.

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