Data abound in the fields of education and human development. Grades, achievement test results, attendance rates, myriad health data, populations counted and disaggregated, financial figures, program input and output data, graduation and employment rates, and so much more. The amount of information collected as people move through school and life seems ever-growing. Many education experts and the public at large are eager to use the data to inform their decision-making and improve outcomes. But too often barriers inhibit access or use of data, especially when people need information that cuts across different systems, regions, or life stages. The relevant data systems tend to be disconnected and disorganized — in the words of a recent Ed Week article, “a bit of a hot mess.”

“Although most states have educational data systems, often no one has access to the information in those systems, including the agencies that populate the data,” says Kathy Booth, WestEd’s Project Director of Educational Data and Policy.

That all-too common situation has been changing in California. Legislation passed in 2019 began a two-year process to develop the California Cradle-to-Career System. The new statewide, longitudinal system will link education, workforce, financial aid, and social service information and aims to equip policymakers, educators, and the public to address disparities in opportunities and improve outcomes for all students. Patrick Perry, a member of the Cradle-to-Career System workgroup, describes the system as more than just “an aggregation of data” but a “broader state data policy.”

Booth adds, “The legislature required that the data be accessible and actionable, and not just to policymakers and researchers, but also to students and the people who support them, including family members, teachers, and counselors.”

Involve a Broad Constituency of Stakeholders

As Process Facilitator for developing the new statewide data system, Booth helped shepherd 8 committees, 16 state agencies, and 200 individuals through an extensive 18-month planning process. WestEd helped set up the architecture, offering expertise in intersegmental data systems, user-centered design, security, and law.

“Rather than starting with questions such as where should the data live, we first asked, ‘Who is this data system for and what does it need to do?’ We based all other decisions on the answers to those questions,” says Booth. “We also ensured it was a deeply participatory, evidence-based process with an extensive community outreach campaign to allow for early input.”

The resulting Cradle-to-Career System will provide a neutral source of high-quality information to be accompanied by tools and professional development to help different kinds of stakeholders take action on this information.

Perry, currently the Division Chief of Policy, Research, and Data for the California Student Aid Commission, is no newcomer to the world of data systems and says that California’s Cradle-to-Career System has a much broader vision and scope than previous data-sharing efforts, involving far more agencies and players and new areas of data than have traditionally been tapped. “Previous data sharing has largely been confined to one-offs — individual data agreements coordinated between two entities for specific purposes, or what we refer to as playing ‘pass the floppy.’”

The Cradle-to-Career System provides the potential for much more centralized reporting, uniform access, and certain economies of scale in acquiring external data, Perry adds. To reduce costs, the development process will be streamlined by using readily available technology tools and existing state programs, rather than building a new data infrastructure from scratch.

Address Disparities to Improve Outcomes

Liz Guillen also participated in planning the new data system as a representative for Public Advocates in the Policy and Analytics Advisory Group. “Our organization is committed to the idea that communities can be more powerful in their decision-making — both individually and collectively — when they have meaningful access to information,” Guillen says. “And so, I focused on ensuring that the data system was built for and bought into by the public — that it is user-friendly particularly for low-income and immigrant families and families of color, in addition to policymakers.”

A focus on equity was built into the legislation, says Booth, adding that participants, in developing the new system, asked questions like these to help operationalize a commitment to equity:

  • What does it mean to have equitable data?
  • Who has access?
  • Who is considered the authority to interpret the data?
  • Who helps identify whether you’re collecting the right things?
  • What constitutes equity besides disaggregation of data?

The entire process put education data into a larger context by combining those data with data from other sources, helping illuminate structural factors that can support equitable outcomes, such as access to financial aid, healthcare, or food benefits.

Serve as a Model for Other States

“California’s system likely creates the largest and most accessible data set related to student outcomes in the nation,” says Booth, describing the following three main components, which may serve as a model for other states:

  1. An analytical data set reveals trends and helps people understand those trends over time. “For example,” she says, “during the pandemic many people asked questions such as ‘What happened to the class of 2020?’ or ‘Why are fewer first-generation, low-income students of color going to college?’” The system can help answer questions like these, she says, by looking at a host of factors that could inform college-going rates, using more than 200 data points available through simple written summaries, dashboards, and query builders.
  2. A variety of tools allow students, families, and educators to directly find or track information to help with tasks such as college and career planning; to learn about financial aid, eligibility for social services, or required classes for entering college; and to help schools see how students are progressing.
  3. The system doesn’t assume policymakers and researchers have all the answers. Booth says, “It includes an extensive community engagement strategy in which data system management includes working directly with community-based organizations, educators, and social service providers. By having these partners review the data, along with students and parents, we’re more likely to get to the truth of what’s needed to improve outcomes.”

Guillen underscores the pivotal nature of this kind of on-the-ground community engagement, especially with those who have been traditionally marginalized: “Users need to be at the table. This belongs to all of us, and we need to make it work for us all.”

“Users need to be at the table. This belongs to all of us, and we need to make it work for us all.”

Perry’s advice to states seeking to emulate California’s approach: “Think big. . . . Look at all the data resources you have in the state, not just the educational data system.” At first, Perry was concerned about “too many cooks in the kitchen,” but soon came to “appreciate the grand vision, which was to consider a broad continuum — from students’ very first connection with schools to the social services they use to where they end up in the workforce.”

And for those who remain skeptical about the enormity of the undertaking? “Remember that the technological barriers to doing something like this were much greater 20 years ago,” says Perry. “Putting a large quantity of data in the cloud is far different than putting it on disks in a data center.”

Address Remaining Challenges and Maintain Commitment

“What we know from other data systems is that if the players don’t trust each other, work on the system is very difficult to sustain,” says Booth, explaining why being open and transparent is so critical, for both understanding the stakeholders’ needs and encouraging all parties to appreciate each other’s point of view. “That’s why I’ve described this process as the world’s longest trust fall.”

Perry acknowledges that a fair amount of caution still remains among data providers and data users: “I suspect it will take a few more years of trust-building for this to get where we want it to be.” Perry adds that it’s tough to have a large number of data providers — all with their own cultures and sets of federal and state laws surrounding the use and access to their data. “Because ownership of the data is legally considered to be with the data providers, they still act as a gateway for its use — frequently by law and not necessarily by choice.”

Although the development of California’s Cradle-to-Career System has included a great deal of work on legalities, indemnification, and security, outstanding questions on some of these issues may remain. Given recent breaches to other high-profile data systems, Booth acknowledges people’s concerns about privacy and security but says California’s new system will adhere to rigorous privacy practices.

“The data in the system doesn’t do anything, people do,” notes Booth, emphasizing that stakeholders will need to continually reinforce the idea that this is not just a researcher’s data system but an ecosystem of reliable, neutral data to support evidence-based decision-making in the state.

“You need commitment to see this system through,” says Guillen. “We’re fortunate that the current administration is data-friendly and has continued to support public buy-in.” Guillen also expresses hopes that the system will continue to grow and not fall prey to “naysayers” who think this kind of a large-scale publicly accessible data system can’t be done right because it hasn’t been done right in the past.

Perry says, “I’m really hoping we will move from a closed-shop data state to something that’s open,” noting excitement at the shift toward greater expectations for sharing and more effective means for using data.

Note: The Cradle-to-Career System is supported by funding from the State of California.