Joan Lombardi, Ph.D.
Director, Early Opportunities LLC
It seems like just a few years ago that information about young children, families and the people who care for them was confined to writing on index cards or sporadic surveys and always had missing data elements. This hit or miss data collection, while changing, often still leaves policymakers and practitioners without adequate information to make informed decisions. In more recent years, the data revolution has met the early childhood field. Early childhood data systems are increasingly able to provide the information needed to tell a story about the development of young children, the conditions of families or the status of the workforce. Yet we still have a long way to go, cautions to consider and challenges to overcome.
The seventh chapter of the E-Book, Rising to the Challenge: Building Effective Systems for Young Children and Families, released this week, highlights some of the progress states are making to develop early childhood information systems. In their chapter, Stacking the Blocks: A Look at Integrated Data Strategies, Elizabeth Jordan and Carlise King chronicle the progress of seven of the ten states that have prioritized data system development in their Early Learning Challenge applications and completed at least one year in the grant cycle.
Jordan and King highlight five key building blocks that, “stacked” together, contribute to the development of a more integrated data system, including: assessing the landscape and creating a vision, developing interagency governance structures, filling data gaps, strengthening linkages between data systems, and planning for sustainability. They remind us that policymakers need “a clear picture of the needs of children in their communities, the available services, the accessibility of those services, the quality of the services and the capacity of the workforce.”
The issues related to the collection and use of early childhood data are complex. Data on young children is most often collected within sector silos, which makes it more difficult to paint a holistic picture of the developing child or the conditions facing families. Too often, data is collected by multiple agencies, from multiple levels, but still with missing elements. Nationally, we lack capacity to collect population-level data on young children, families and caregivers that would be an enormous help in guiding policy and data on individual children and families that could better inform practice. Furthermore, we are still in the early stages of understanding the best way to measure child development, track and support families as they use a variety of services in a community, and document the ways that the working conditions of teachers affect the quality and delivery of services.
As the early childhood field continues to be part of the data revolution, we need to bring our knowledge of child development and our values about the importance of families, culture and community to the debate. To do this, we must continue to raise the hard questions, among them:
- What story are we trying to tell? (For example, progress of an individual child or a population of children? At a point in time, or over time?)
- Why are we collecting the data and how will it be used? How can we assure it is not misused?
- How do we better integrate data across health, education and family support? At the community, state and national level?
- What needs to be in place to assure the accuracy and privacy of what we are learning about children, families and teachers?
- When does the collection of data become too burdensome? How can we make it more efficient and meaningful?
- How do we finance data collection systems without taking from the already-limited resources for critical service delivery?
For far too long we have not been able to fully document the status of young children and to make the case that they need additional services, their families need more support and their teachers (who need more education, training and pay) are the key to quality. The development of integrated and well-designed early learning and development data systems can help us build our case, share the story and make a difference.