Updating education data systems is critical to COVID

It has been two years since schools across the United States closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and though schools have reopened, we are seeing the effects of these disruptions climax. With teachers choosing to leave the classroom in record numbers, students falling behind, and opportunity gaps widening, it is time we acknowledge that education in America must change. 

To tackle the root of these issues, our ability to gather and analyze data is critical for designing interventions and systems to change course and improve outcomes for all students. 

Utilizing educational data alone, however, is not enough — we need robust health data, workforce data and countless other metrics if we want to address the most complex questions impacting our students both now and in the future. Unfortunately, the complexity, age and often siloed nature of our data systems make establishing and maintaining connected data systems a challenging task — a challenge that must be addressed if we hope to mitigate the full impact of the pandemic and be prepared for future disruptions.

Many state agencies structure and collect data independently of one another, making compiling and analyzing data across agencies and time difficult. In education, this often means that a student’s data is fragmented by education level — early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary education. This makes it difficult to explore, for example, how a student’s third grade reading level impacts postsecondary degree attainment since it requires student-level data from multiple agencies over a significant period of time.

Investing in the creation and maintenance of state longitudinal data systems (SLDS) helps solve this problem by connecting multiple data systems, allowing data to be compiled across agencies and time. These systems equip policymakers with the necessary information to develop interventions, improve existing systems, and drive equitable outcomes that can inform future policy and practice. 

The value of leveraging cross-sector data has been seen in Florida, where researchers used population-level data to examine how prenatal exposure to toxic waste sites impacts later academic achievement, finding that children living within two miles of uncleaned toxic waste sites generally demonstrated lower student achievement scores and were 23 percent more likely to have a cognitive disability, 42 percent more likely to be suspended from school, and 45 percent more likely to repeat one or more grade levels. In Kentucky, the statewide longitudinal data system has been used to align career and technical education (CTE) pathways to state and regional workforce projections. As seen in these states, SLDS give policymakers, state leaders and communities critical information they previously may not have identified, leading to data-driven policy changes that can best serve students.

A decade ago, while serving as the Virginia Deputy Secretary of Education, I helped develop and support the launch of the state’s own longitudinal data system. Since then, Virginia’s SLDS has been used to improve various student and workforce outcomes, including matching postsecondary degrees to unemployment wage records, which allows for the calculation of more accurate wage outcomes for graduates. Since my time in Virginia, the political appetite for these systems had largely fallen to the wayside — until recently.

An influx of federal relief dollars has created a historic opportunity for state leaders to modernize their data systems and ensure they are positioned to address the long-term challenges of the pandemic. Without these systems in place, our educational institutions are stuck trying to solve novel, highly complex problems without a clear understanding of who or what is being impacted. Some states are leading the charge, with Texas allocating $15 million for strategic education and workforce data infrastructure systems, and Missouri allocating $4.3 million of its ESSER funding towards developing a new longitudinal data system.

For nearly 20 years, federal dollars have been leveraged to establish and support SLDS across the country, but there is room for improvement. As our nation grappled with the ongoing impact of the recession in 2008, a $230 million investment through competitive federal grants helped anchor our recovery efforts. Since then, SLDS grant funding has been sporadic, with few states being awarded multiple grants and only 26 states receiving funding in 2019. We must move away from competitive grants and establish sustainable federal funding streams to support the modernization and maintenance of these data systems in every state.

This is why The Hunt Institute, in partnership with the North Carolina Office of the Governor and the North Carolina Government Data Analytics Center and with the support of the Gates Foundation and John M. Belk Endowment, has created space for statewide, data contributing agencies to come together to identify opportunities to strengthen the state’s longitudinal data system through the creation of the Informed Decision-Making Collaborative (IDMC). North Carolina has seen progress in its SLDS efforts — the state recently established the North Carolina Longitudinal Data System Governance Board and appointed an executive director, both of which are important steps toward establishing a statewide research agenda.

Connecting data systems will give us the ability to identify problems and linkages we did not previously see. To avoid a return to the pre-pandemic “normal,” we must take this once-in-a-lifetime event as an opportunity to reimagine, realign and expand our data systems. Only then can we systematically eliminate inequities, close gaps and recover stronger.

Javaid Siddiqi, Ph.D., is president & CEO of The Hunt Institute.