In summary

California needs an educational data system that follows students from preschool through college and puts the highest priority on equity of student opportunity.

By Samantha Tran, Special to CalMatters

Samantha Tran is the senior managing director of education policy at Children Now and a member of the policy & analytics advisory group for the Governor’s California Cradle-to-Career Data System, stran@ChildrenNow.org.

The stark truth of the coronavirus crisis is that it disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color, including a large population of children in California who are suffering due to family job loss, reduction in health care, food insecurity, school closures and uneven distance learning opportunities.

Just as the pandemic has demonstrated the need for better information and data in order to respond to massive challenges, this crisis also is a prime example of how urgently the state needs a longitudinal data system for education. The inequitable learning loss suffered by the state’s most high-need students drives home the importance of our education system doing things differently and better.

Building a connected educational data system that puts highest priority on equity of student opportunity can vastly improve achievement and outcomes for students – in good times, as well as bad. And not just today; we are talking 10, 15 and 20 years from now.

Imagine if educators and community partners had the ability to quickly identify what supports and services students had access to during shelter in place, knew where the gaps were, and were able to respond by rapidly providing targeted assistance as needed. Food assistance, device and internet access gaps, learning loss and social emotional needs would have been more quickly understood and used to create more effective supply lines and to target services, as well as to help make the case for necessary federal, state and local supports and investment.

Our call for data availability is not new, predating the pandemic by decades. Educators, researchers, institutions and community leaders need access to data to inform how well diverse student populations are being served. Today, California is one of only eight states lacking such a system that makes data more accessible and useful for children and families, schools, public education systems and policymakers. Plus, parents want the data; 95% want to know how school is preparing their child for the future and 92% want to know if their child needs extra help.

Essentially, a connected data infrastructure from preschool through college would enable information systems at different levels of education to talk to each other and tell us not only what is lacking, but also inform our understanding of how and why – as well as what works well, so that can be expanded. Information can be used proactively to adjust policy, programs and practices to spur continuous improvement at every level. Currently, we operate in a reactive, consequence-imposing model. Guess what? That model doesn’t work.

The state already has started moving forward with a smart, long-term strategy to build the Cradle to Career Data System, the nascent longitudinal information infrastructure that represents a huge leap forward to address our myriad problems in education. 

The work group that is designing the new system, led by the Governor’s Office with support from WestEd, meets June 30 to tackle the design process and will move toward finishing a comprehensive plan by December. It’s crucial that those involved in the process pay attention to what we are learning in real time through the prism of the pandemic, as well as what we already knew about what is needed.

There will be competing interests. There will be ideological clashes. But absolutely, there must be basic principles built into what could be one of the best investments California makes. Children Now detailed these principles in depth within its May 2020 brief:

  • Keeping equity of student opportunities and outcomes as the most important priority.
  • Ensuring trustworthiness of the system to protect and serve children and families.
  • Maintaining data access and use as an integral requirement, including improvement of the data systems that now exist.

The lessons of the public health crisis are all around us, showing where inequities are rampant and where improvement is needed most. Let’s heed those lessons and make a meaningful difference for California’s children now.

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