Wanted: A comprehensive data system for education

Illustration depicting the examination of complex data. (Image: alphaspirit, via Shutterstock)

It is easy to point to recent public investments that demonstrate the state’s commitment to improving educational and economic opportunity for Californians. But attempt to assess the outcomes of those efforts, and you will come up woefully short.

Over the last decade, the state has invested at least $2.5 billion to support college and career readiness through the California Department of Education, California Community Colleges, California State University, and the University of California as well as through the Workforce Development Board.

Leaders must address the fundamental flaws in the fragmented record keeping California uses now.

The overarching goals were undeniably well-intended: improve achievement and career readiness to increase equity and meet the demand for skilled workers.

Unfortunately, California’s siloed and piecemeal approach to data prevents the accurate assessment of how these investments have impacted the trajectory of those served.

Where are these students now? Are they more prepared for college or career than they would have been otherwise? Do they earn a living wage in their region? At present, the state cannot answer these questions systematically given the lack of a preschool to workforce (or P-Workforce) statewide longitudinal data system.

Now that a data system has been proposed through both the gubernatorial administration and the Legislature, experts in the field are weighing in on how to move forward. I applaud state leaders for demonstrating their commitment to educational and economic equity for all Californians through a longitudinal data system, and I also caution them against taking shortcuts.

To ensure a new P-Workforce data system can reveal the state’s return on education investments and policies, leaders must address the fundamental flaws in the fragmented record keeping California uses now.

Our current processes are grossly inefficient. Tracking people across institutions and sectors relies on individual agreements between the more than 1,000 school districts, 250 colleges or universities, and myriad workforce training agencies. These often-duplicative efforts require significant personnel and technical capacity, creating unnecessary costs that a new data system can help alleviate.

Those inefficiencies unnecessarily threaten the privacy of student and worker information since each agency does its own matching of education and workforce data. A new system that requires agencies to share their data so that matches occur in one place would significantly reduce exposure and improve security.

Beyond that, state officials have only partial and inconsistent access to data needed to make informed decisions about 10-figure education and workforce investments. A new longitudinal data system will achieve the accuracy and transparency Californians need to know their leaders are developing effective policies and programs.

Lastly, current systems require users to navigate multiple interfaces that are neither comparable nor comprehensive. This further disadvantages marginalized communities by hampering equitable access to information. A new P-Workforce data system would provide all users with the knowledge to make sound decisions – whether they are students, institutional (in K-12 schools or colleges) or state leaders.

Based on California Competes’ research, an effective P-Workforce data system should:

  • Drive and support state-level education and economic goals.
  • Connect education and workforce data systems at the individual level.
  • Serve as the primary repository for education and workforce data and contribute to other state systems designed to support individuals and the state.
  • Overcome governance challenges that inhibit access to existing data.

Rather than expanding on what we know is inefficient, inequitable and costly, we must acknowledge both the goals of a new P-Workforce system and the problems with the status quo. We are incredibly fortunate that California can invest billions of dollars in education and economic development. Let’s make sure those dollars work for as many people as possible and are effectively used to address the equity gaps so many have committed to closing.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Valerie Lundy-Wagner is Senior Research Analyst for California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy.


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