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Texas Unveils a New Data Tool for Understanding School Readiness

Texas has work to do. That’s the key takeaway from the new Texas School Readiness Dashboard, introduced in November by Texans Care for Children. It’s a big deal, especially in light of the fact that one in 10 babies born in the United States is born in Texas (a data point confirmed by PolitiFact in 2017).

In order to make sure these children start kindergarten ready to learn, the Lone Star State can and should do more when it comes to four categories: sufficient household resources, positive adult-child interactions, good health and development, and enriching early learning experiences.

The dashboard has attracted bipartisan praise and media attention while providing the advocacy community and legislators with a common frame of reference. David Feigen, Director of Early Learning for Texans Care for Children,says it took close to three years to assemble the data in partnership with the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center and to design the tool in a way that makes it easy to use.  As the lead manager of the project, Feigen kept it focused on measurable indices scientifically proven to influence development.

The Dallas-based Meadows Foundation provided key seed funding for the data collection and the engagement of an advisory group from across the state, which made sure the stakeholders who would find the tool useful had a say about what went into it. Advocates, researchers, legislators, staff members of state agencies all participated in focus groups. The business community took part as well, through chambers of commerce from across Texas.      

“Geographic diversity is important in Texas,” confirms Feigen. “Urban, suburban, rural, we’ve got it all.”

Critically, the dashboard is more than just a tool for gathering and communicating the expected data about the state’s young children. It represents an expansive new way of thinking about school readiness. “It’s not just having a vocabulary of a certain size,” says Feigen. “It’s not identifying what sounds a farm animal makes.”

Informed by evidence, the dashboard incorporates social determinants to help policymakers understand the myriad of factors that impact school readiness.

Take, for example, the matter of hunger. Whether a child is enrolled in a preschool, a child care center or informal care, an empty stomach makes it difficult to focus and learn. The dashboard reveals that 7.5 percent of households in Texas with at least one child under age 6 reported moderate to severe child hunger, and yet Texas ranked 46th in the nation in the percentage of eligible children who are enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Similarly, the dashboard shows that Texas lags behind the rest of the country in access to health insurance (for women and children), health services, and early interventions for addressing developmental challenges. Historically, these may not be the factors that come to a legislator’s mind when the subject of school readiness arises, but connecting the dots between health care and education can spark a productive dialogue and, hopefully, more robust investments in all the supports children need.

Making enrollment easier is the key to expanding access to both nutritional and health supports, asserts Feigen.

In a story about the dashboard for the Austin-American Statesman, Cathy McHorse, vice president of Success by 6, a part of the United Way for Greater Austin, highlighted the way it shows the gaps among low-income students and students of color, who experience instability, hunger and health inequities at higher rates than middle-income and white children.

As the state’s legislative session got under way in January, Texans Care for Children once again ramped up its own advocacy activity. Feigen appeared on KCBD News in January, highlighting availability challenges across the state and the funding solutions needed to shore up child care infrastructure. The dashboard is a vital tool for educating and persuading legislators.

Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children, notes that the dashboard intentionally compares Texas to other southern states. “We compared Texas to Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, and other states that are close by or in the South,” she says. “The dashboard shows Texas lagging behind these states when it comes to critical school readiness factors like health coverage for women or enrolling eligible kids in Medicaid health insurance or SNAP benefits. We’re hopeful that it helps galvanize support for addressing these challenges and supporting school readiness in a more holistic way.”

“Every state has a unique policy landscape—and that means a unique path to achieving what’s best for the young children in that state,” says Jacy Montoya Price, the senior director of advocacy and issue campaigns at the Alliance for Early Success, a significant general-operations investor in Texans Care for Children. “Building the state dashboard on the foundation of school readiness is a great example of finding common values and then working together on that common ground.”


Cynthia Osborne at Vanderbilt University’s Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center agrees, and praises the dashboard for “refocusing the emphasis of school readiness on factors that range beyond a child’s cognitive or social preparation for formal schooling.” Foreseeing the impact of its compelling presentation of data, she adds, “By creating systems of support for children and their parents, states can ensure that children experience a lifetime of health and well-being. These data help policymakers to better understand where to invest in families in ways that allow children to reach their potential.” Osborne and Feigen co-presented the dashboard at the Pritzker Children’s Initiative Systems Building conference in Baltimore this past September.

Feigen reports that parents, educators, and advocates from across the state have made use of the dashboard, and he envisions new iterations of the tool to include local data as well as ways of gathering even more feedback.


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